Borrowing against joy

A few weeks ago I had a mammogram. It was a six-month follow up to a mammogram that found small calcifications in the breast tissue. Nothing to worry about, the radiologist assured me. It’s just a good idea to check it out of an abundance of caution. Standard protocol and all that.

After the test, the technologist led me to a small, square, windowless room with four chairs and a round table. She told me to have a seat, and the doctor would be with me as soon as he was able.

I sat down and opened the nearest magazine. And as I did, I had a bad feeling. It came on suddenly, uninvited and unwanted, but vivid and unrelenting, knocking around in my psyche.

The feeling had a voice, and it whispered: “What if it IS breast cancer?”

Unbidden, I pictured the doctor entering the room in his white coat, taking a deep breath, looking at his hands while telling me the news. In a flash I saw my life change. I could feel my breath catch and my body flinch under the anticipated news.

“Anticipated?” my brain interrogated the voice, gently but firmly. “You have no reason to believe that. And whatever happens, even if it’s the worst case scenario, you will get through it when the time comes.” I took a deep breath and returned to reading.

I would love to say that this was the only time in my life when I have experienced this ambush of fear, this bracing against anticipated anguish, but that would be untrue. For a long time I suppressed such thoughts entirely. I felt ashamed, paranoid, labeled myself a hypochondriac. But that only meant that the thoughts manifested themselves in other ways, in unexplained anxiety or irritation that seemed to make no sense.

In fact, upon reflection, it makes more sense that a person with my history ā€” who nearly died of a catastrophic illness at age 7, who had an emergency appendectomy in Mexico at age 39 and a total hip replacement at 46 ā€” WOULD brace herself for bad news at the doctor’s office. However, I haven’t found that borrowing against joy has made it any easier to deal sorrow when it arrives. I’ve also found, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that I’ve worried about a lot of things that never happened.

Now, instead of letting anxious thoughts overwhelm me, or fighting against them, I try to identify the bad feeling, listen to what it has to say, acknowledge it and then move on. It’s only a thought, after all, fleeting through my head along with the thousands of thoughts I have every day. The trick is to not become attached to the thought as it comes, not to borrow against the joy that is possible if I simply wave at the thought and let it pass through.

So that day in the radiologist’s office, I said goodbye to my worst case scenario and enjoyed a few more pages of the magazine. The doctor came in the room and we talked for a few minutes. The news was fine; everything looked unchanged from the last time. I left the doctor’s office ready to find joy in the rest of my day.

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