Thursday, 8 March 2012

Fun with medicine?

I love Citizen Kane. I've been round the houses in formulating my view, seen its bombastic flaws and stupid overindulgence and returned to loving the audacity of the hero and, furthermore, the way this chimes with the audacity of the film-maker behind it. It is hard to watch this canonical film, though it is utterly watchable, and not be rendered slightly breathless (and jealous) by the brash, stylish, competent, overconfident, zeal of the youth on display. It is like a glorious impertinence both from the lead character, Kane, and the director behind the lens (also playing Kane, obviously) Orson Welles. The whole picture (front, back and centre) is oozing and itching with reckless talent.

Most people sum it up with a quote from Welles himself which runs along the lines of a film set being the biggest and most brilliant train set a lad ever had. It captures the playfulness and excitement of the whole movie. I prefer a line from the film, in which the fresh faced upstart (who will become the destroyed and destructive newspaper magnate the film is lampooning) remarks: 'I thought it might be fun to run a newspaper'.

Understatement and overstatement, wisdom and ignorance, intuition, initiative, self-belief, self-deception. There they are, all in one line, which I have possibly misquoted. Awesome. I don't bring this up to show off that I (genuinely, no really) love a film often cited as one of the best ever made in high faluting critical circles. But because the idea of fun has been playing on my mind. More specifically this idea of thinking something might be fun, and getting an kick in the tits for your hubris in doing so.

During one of my hospital appointments this week, I was told I was run down. This isn't the first time this year, or this month. Getting un-run-down is now very close to the top of my To Do List. I'm starting to listen because I don't much like passing out, unnecessary complications or cancer scares. When I was told this, though, the consultant surgeon also asked: 'have you been under much stress lately?'

Of course I have, though I think most people are. We live in a crazed world. For many of us our responsibilities (work, dependents, partners, financial commitments, social life) are stuck together with the slightly flawed entanglement of half-chewed Stickle Bricks. All entwined, slightly wobbly and holding fast only but for the grace of God. But I duly listed some highlights.

She asked, 'And Mr Thatwoman? How's he?'

'Pretty tired and sad about it all too' I acknowledged.

'Hmmm,' she said, drifting off into space: 'I bet there was a time a few years ago when the two of you thought it might be fun to start a family'.

Fuck, I thought, yes we did. That is it. We did see it as an adventure. We were excited. How did it get so scary and downbeat? Is it our fault for looking for fun, hoping for it, wanting our family gang to be exciting? Shit. I cried, once in the toilets, though that was also about the humiliation of kindness from the mammogram lady, a second time at lunch with my wise best friend just before faint-gate, and a third, later this week, again in the hospital toilets, because I returned for a physiotherapy appointment coincidentally in the same building and felt entirely sorry for myself.

The doctor wasn't being quite as tactless as it first seemed though. And having, after a relatively uneventful 20s, spent my 30s so excessively in medical company, I am interested in how much value I place in what doctors say, their possible judgement and the strange truth that sometimes their lack of certainty or answers is the most refreshing thing of all.

I almost think to quote directly as above misrepresents her. The comment was imbued with empathy, and a sort of softly sad, wry knowingness about the toughness of the best of times - it came, after all, from someone who presumably spends half her days looking at knockers and the rest talking about cutting them up and off and telling people the shittiest news imaginable.

I think it was a form of empathy not just about expectation and reality but about strings of events and the weary wariness they give us about hoping for joy, the perils of thinking too much on outcomes and the endless hurdling of life itself. We all know how one slightly unlucky thing (in my case a shit birth) can lead to another (complications) can lead to another (depression) can lead to another (a shit pregnancy) and so on. But when that happens to you, you feel boring and stupid and like your life is a sitcom, or saga (well, I did). And though we know that once you've had a run of rum luck you get less and less able to handle more unpredictable developments like sudden illness or injury, we carry on and enable ourselves to do that with increasingly vain hope that no more shit will come our way and things will 'be okay'. This will be our year, we think. We deserve a bloody break. Come on life, give me my lemonade ready-made today, no more sour fruit for Christ's sake.

I mean really we know she's a cruel and vicious creature, Fate. Her that throws poor health down (and misfortune) with such ardent arbitrary force. And it is easy to forget that we often have little agency in dodging her thunderstrikes. But we also know the sun shines, nice stuff happens and so we are almost immune to seeing karma as the insidious bitch she is. And so we hope. And we carry on.

Being a doctor must be very hard. People look to you for reassurance which, presumably, you often just can't give. And answers which are complicated or incomplete. But they sit there, on plastic chairs, in their best bra and knickers, clutching a test result, and ask why, and how and when and what for and what if? I suspect most of the time there's little you can say, however much you'd like to offer something. There are crass doctors - who dehumanise you. And others who are ultimately almost friends - my own GP screamed with laughter in all the right places when I told her about fainting in the noodle bar after a cancer scare last week, though she also checked my BP and made ooh and ahh noises too (and once, a few years ago, sang me a song when I hit rock bottom).

Though more often I think doctors are merely immersed in their world of answers and procedures, to protect themselves from the chaos of your world, that world filled with illness and ignorance and panic. I guess they do it so they are better able to help, even if it distances their world of the curers from ours, the world of the afflicted.

Like the very nice one I met last December when my son was v sick, who remarked (sense a theme?) on how wrung out I looked. 'It has been a busy week,' I said. 'My son has been at the GPs most days and to A&E twice. Yesterday in an ambulance. It was pretty awful'

'Why?' he asked. 'What happened in the ambulance?'

'There was a panda with fucking a machete!' I reply (in my head when I think about it now). At the time I just faltered a bit and made a cracking sound.

'Oh God' he muttered, snapped out by my cracking. 'Sorry. Yes. Must have been awful'.

And such a child am I that this affirmation almost made my day. Because apart from a definitive - your examination is clear (WHOOP) - maybe the best you can be offered is the truth, inconclusive though it is.

A few weeks ago we got a letter about Newborn from a boss man consultant we saw about the whole sorry sack of shit of his health-life. He, the Professor, had been personable, kind, relatively reassuring (if realistic) about possible future problems. He had the confidence of grey hairs and experience and wrangled us as well as he wrangled our son. His letter outlined our visit and his assessment of our child. His conclusion? The only thing second to a clear bill of health: 'I think he has had bad luck...' followed by the statement that underneath this annoying veneer of calamity he is a perfectly normal, well-developed lovely little boy. When we read it my husband and I were standing on the landing and laughing. We reminisced about the day of the appointment when our son had charged around wheezing and flirting and throwing stuff, precociously drinking water from a glass, stealing pens, shouting 'HIYA' and roaring with laughter. We remarked that regardless of his 'no medical answers' state, Newborn has found his own. His favourite toy of late is a Calpol box and an empty syringe.

'He's a lot of fun too,' Mr Thatwoman said.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Blurred signposts: pink ribbons, white rabbits, orange bras

I had an important hospital appointment yesterday at the Breast Clinic. Tests, examinations, a scan for which I thankfully got a resounding all clear. But it wasn't a day to be sniffed at. Not least because the relief of good news can force us to forge forwards without really taking care to collect and protect ourselves from the wit-ending worry we've been straining under. I, for example, felt so pumped after my good news I decided to head for a speedy lunch before back to work and a meeting. The result? I promptly fainted onto a male stranger's lap as he was quietly eating some noodles making a terrific crunch as I smashed into his bench and my head hit his knees.

I wish there was a wittier end to the story, rather than a bruised back and a long-lasting sense of humiliation and discombobulation on my part, but the humour is only there if I tell it like it was an adventure not a black out: in a brash way, preferably with actions. In reality I'm wondering if my head was teaching me a lesson, my brain saying: there's only so much stressful preoccupation I can endure these days on no sleep Mrs, and this one could do with more than 30 minutes to collect yourself, so if you are going to charge around as if super-powered underwear will protect you from everything in the world I am going to stop you in your tracks by turning off the lights!

My poor head though, I can't blame it for having a tantrum. It turns out, worrying about dying young and everything in your life falling apart finally and forever is, actually, just too much for any tiny mind (well, my tiny mind at least).

Especially a twisty dark tiny mind which tiptoes round the tipping point. For example, I caught my brain seeing this as a perfectly logical analysis last week as I waited for my referral letter: because the last few months have been stressful, my son has been sick and things have been feeling so tough it is both unthinkable, being seriously/terminally ill, but also an inevitable conclusion to my life. What depressive conditioning!

It felt for a while there that my capacity for making, or even seeing, choices open to me and recognising where I may have an agency for changing anything myself was fused shut and rotten, like a broken root-canal. And yet, though in a response to powerlessness we assert our desire for choices, when chips are down and dirty enough, choices themselves are the worst thing of all. They become fascinatingly frightening and elusive: banal refuges and untameable monsters for us to pick a careful route between.

Before the appointment my mind had been a blur. Blurred like a Gerhard Richter painting. My thoughts razor clear slices of life exquisitely rubbed out round the edges, or outrageously down the middle, normal scenes obscured by tilted glass, reality and clarity placed near enough to smell it but shown only viewed from askance.

Worse, though I am normally pretty clear that I don't (or can't) believe in symbolism (divine or otherwise) from the universe, my mind's eye was wearing very wonky glasses. I couldn't sleep without a montage of critical illness cover documents I may or may not have signed zipping past my eyes, I couldn't dream without wisps of pink ribbon everywhere around me, and ghosts of past To Do Lists turning up to berate me for plans unfinished and all my failures: social, economic, health wise, intellectual, creative - white rabbits all in their crushing fury at my endless waste of time. Christ, I couldn't even walk into the kitchen or turn on the TV without hearing or seeing tales of tits, orphans, coffins or dead mothers.

I am told this is a variant on a phenomenon called the 'Baader-Meinhof syndrome' although that is more clearly a cognitive function in which a novel or obscure and previously undiscovered idea is presented, and then you realise it is not new at all because everywhere you look it is glaring out at you. And it can be linked with ideas of the Zeitgeist, whereby a similar idea or way of thinking becomes prevalent as if we all share an unconscious.

It is also, the seeing such phenomena as signs of how life might turn out given mercifully by some deus ex machina, raging bullshit, which we should really avoid. For me I think my perceptions of reality and my imagination were bleeding into each other and doing an intensely provocative dance which was certainly gliding in the direction of madness.

My field of vision became a sponge for 'signs' but my sense of self had just enough 'sense' to move on and instead I immersed myself in the sort of silly illusion of choice which is just as distressing as making massive life changes. Lucky (over) thinking and tempting fates. I became focussed and obsessed by which bra I should wear and properly upset and wired about it. A sorry sight I was, standing in front of my smalls drawer, rendered speechless and immobile in the face of my underwear.

Choices, monstrous choices all ears of corn and strands of straw breaking my back. Should I go sensible, strappy, attractive? Should my bangers be nondescript, fashionable, functional? Would it be better to wear a breastfeeding bra or under-wired balcony? And what about colour: black, white, orange, nude?

Should I display my d├ęcolletage defiantly and gloriously, hold them up on a mango coloured lacy platter hoping that this last minute cherishing would protect them from harm? Or would that be a rather sordid, and impertinent response... a challenge to ye Gods who may think such frivolity worthy of punishment? Would the doctor think I was a sexual menace if I wore scarlet? And spinning further out of orbit, I began to wonder, Gods aside, which bra would make the consultant surgeon be nicest to me, even if it couldn't guarantee good news?

In the end, after some wise words from a midwife and sonographer I wore an orange bra which made me feel fleetingly good about myself. This, I decided, as I made my way on wobbly legs, was probably as good a way of making a choice (in a situation where I was ultimately powerless) as I was going to get.

As a CODA, and perhaps I should do a full post on this but it goes without saying, firstly the NHS were absolutely marvellous and kind and nothing was embarrassing or awful at all at the bangers clinic. And secondly, ladies and gents reading, always check your knockers - this is the only thatwoman - her who went early and her who got checked, even if the news isn't so marvellous, that you ever want to be x