After That, You’re Happy

Guest post by Jennifer Levin

If you’re reading this, you already know we won’t be seeing each other again.

Thus begins the letter my therapist, Dr. A, wrote to her patients before she died in early May. I picked up my copy about ten days after her death, from the hallway outside her office in an old adobe in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The place was adorned with vases of flowers and sympathy cards addressed to Dr. A’s husband of more than forty years, the man who’d had to call each of her patients twice, first to tell us of her death and then to arrange private pick-up times, so we could get our letters without running into each other. I felt guilty at the sight of all the offers of condolence. I hadn’t thought to bring anything. I have no idea how to handle death, what you’re supposed to do.

I took the letter to my friend Jess’s house. She’d suggested I come over since my husband was at work, so I wouldn’t have to wait or read the letter alone—just in case. Neither one of us knew what “just in case” meant, but I was indeed frightened of what might be in there. I sat on the couch with a glass of lemonade. The letter wasn’t quite a full page in length, and there was nothing to be afraid of. As I read, my shoulders relaxed and I was finally relieved of the sensation of fingers digging into my solar plexus, which is the defining physical sensation of my existence. I handed the letter to Jess.

“That’s so Jewish,” she said after she read the opening line. “So final. No ‘we’ll see each other in the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

I said “I think she was Buddhist, actually, but she had no idea what was going to happen. Blah, blah, blah—we die and it’s over. I’m pretty sure she’s haunting me.”

If there’s one thing I love about living in Santa Fe is that I can say I’m being haunted and no one bats an eye. “What’s that like?” Jess asked.

***

In late August 2001, I was working in PR at the College of Santa Fe when my boss accused me of ruining Staff & Faculty Convocation, the annual end-of-summer ritual of academia designed to set tone and priorities for the coming year. At a panel discussion about the topic, I made some comments about student drug use and harm reduction with which my boss either disagreed or misinterpreted. She called me into her office to tell me that my negativity had brought everyone down and she was mortified by my lack of judgment.

“You ruined the whole day,” she said.

That she was unhinged and I knew it was irrelevant. In the days before Dr. A, an accusation such as this was way more than my mind and body could handle and remain connected to reality. I shut myself in my office and rocked furiously in my desk chair, unsure of how I could ever come back to work. I wasn’t sure how I could get through the last hour of the day and then drive home. How could I possibly drive home? How would I make it through the night? I was terrified to wake up in the morning. I was going to get fired and then I would lose everything: my boyfriend, the love of my family, my sanity. I would become instantly incapable of clothing and feeding myself. And then I had one clear thought, though it was closely followed by many more dangerous ones: I can’t do this anymore. How will I handle it if something real happens? What if my boyfriend leaves me? What if he dies in a car accident? What if my dad dies? What if I get into a car accident? What if I get cancer? What if the college goes bankrupt?

From my desk drawer I fished a torn-off corner of paper on which, several months earlier, I’d scrawled the names of three therapists dictated to me by my primary care physician, Dr. G, who’d insisted that if I didn’t see someone about my stress level, she was sure I was going to have a heart attack by forty-five. I was twenty-seven. It seemed a long time to wait when I already felt so sick all the time. I stared at the scrap of paper until Dr. A’s name appeared to lift itself into the air and shimmer. I left her a tearful message about ruining Convocation and resumed rocking in my chair and panting.

She called back in minutes and offered me an appointment for the next day.

***

I have chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m hyper-vigilant with a high startle-response. I somaticize trauma, which means I’m always in pain or sick; when I was a kid I got strep throat and sinus infections several times a year. The things that have happened to me are the stuff of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, without the presence of law enforcement. The details are personal, but the subject-headings include Prolonged Sexual Abuse, Mental Cruelty, Neglect, Medical Abuse, and Rape. Before therapy, my entire day was routinely plunged into fear and chaos because my awful boss scowled at me in the mornings instead of saying hello. I’d never in my life slept more than three consecutive hours, and what little sleep I got was disturbed by vicious nightmares. I usually woke between fifteen and forty times each night, frozen to my bed, sure someone was watching me from the doorway. Before therapy, I believed that everyone in my life—co-workers, friends, my boyfriend (who is now my husband), my family, even my twin brother—secretly hated me and was hoping I’d eventually take the hint and leave them alone. Before therapy, I thought if I disappeared forever I’d be doing the world a favor. Anyone who said they loved me was a liar, and I craved the lie.

Dr. A changed everything, and after nine and a half years, we were coming to the end of therapy. Lately, we’d been talking about whether or not I deserve the life I’m currently living—as in, Do I Deserve to Be Happy—with Dr. A falling firmly into the “yes” camp.

“All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I never had any other plan,” I would say every couple of months. “And now I actually make a living this way, and it seems ridiculous. Who gets to do that? Surely something very bad is about to happen.”

“You worked hard for this,” she would say. “You’ve come so far.”

On April 20, when Dr. A called to tell me she was back in the hospital, I was at a party at Jess’s house. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of a car accident that put her in a coma and left her with a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, epilepsy, and a variety of other chronic medical conditions. Usually, as the anniversary of the accident approaches, Jess goes into a funk and doesn’t want to get out of bed. She hates the smell of spring and spends a lot of time perseverating on what might have been. This year, she decided to have a dance party, complete with a DJ, so all her friends could celebrate her being alive. It was raucous. I took my cell to the corner of the backyard so I could hear Dr. A. She said the doctors had found the source of the infection and she’d be “back on the horse” the following week. She wanted to know how I was doing. We hadn’t been having regular sessions because she’d been in an out of the hospital, dealing with whatever was making her sick, for several weeks. And I’d been fine, really fine the whole time, until that very week, when the nurse practitioner at my doctor’s office told me I needed some invasive testing.

“I’m having a little trouble existing in the place between perfect health…and death. It’s like there’s no in-between, which is ridiculous. People live sick. I live sick. But this is different.”

“Well, we certainly need to talk about that,” she said. “I’m telling you from my hospital bed that there’s a lot of space there. I’ll see you next week. Have a wonderful time at your party!”

She never left the hospital. I never saw her again. And then she died.

***

When I was a kid, nothing bad ever happened to anyone. (Set aside what was happening to me—I did.) In the world in which I was raised, child abuse and incest happened only on TV, in movies like Something About Amelia, or possibly in other parts of the country they talked about on the news. No one I knew died; none of my friend’s parents were sick. My parents weren’t religious, though I’m Jewish by birth. My mother had strong opinions about other people’s belief systems—Christians who believed in God were stupid; Jews who sent their children to Hebrew school and gave them bar mitzvahs were rich and showing off. When my brother and I were nine, they came to the sudden realization that we had no idea who Adam and Eve were. We’d seen some sort of children’s show about the first man and women on earth, and though we very excitedly told our parents about this engrossing tale, we kept forgetting Adam’s name, so they enrolled us in Sunday school to fix our ignorance. We attended for the better part of a year but then my dad decided my teacher had spent far too much time on the story of Abraham and Isaac, and yanked us. To this day it’s the only bible story with which I have any familiarity. A couple of years later my parents started hauling us to a Wiccan sanctuary in northern Wisconsin, which lasted through the other side of their divorce. When I was eleven, my mother came out as a lesbian and my dad moved across the country.

When I was in high school, a couple of people I knew committed suicide. My mother forbade me from attending the wakes and funerals, or from talking about it. She told me I didn’t feel sad, that I just thought it was cool to feel sad because I loved the drama. I had no idea what to think. In college, my roommate, Leigh, was deeply troubled, a bulimic who developed a cocaine addiction while I knew her. She was a good friend until my limited capacity for understanding that other people’s problems were real and her limited capacity for functioning outside of her eating disorder canceled each other out and we stopped talking. She left college after one semester and died of a heroin overdose a year later, in October 1995. I was inconsolable and guilty, convinced that her death was my fault, because had I really been a friend to her, I could have saved her from herself. I spent the next seven years actively blaming myself, unable to let go, until Dr. A helped me see things differently.

A couple of days after Dr. A’s husband called, I went to Chicago. I’d been planning a trip home for several months, and, before Dr. A died, I’d been looking forward to it without fear. I don’t like to travel. Flying makes me nervous; getting to the airport on time makes me nervous; sleeping in a strange place makes me nervous. But I hadn’t been home in years and I wanted to see my brother. And I want to be the kind of person who can stay in a hotel in the city she grew up in without having panic attacks. On my first evening in town, I walked through a downpour to get to a sushi restaurant. My brother and sister-in-law were sick of rain—Chicago had been getting soaked all spring—but I’m a desert dweller and hadn’t walked in rain like that in over fifteen years. I turned my face up as the wind forced my umbrella to blow back; across the street was a turquoise awning, its white lettering announcing the name of a day spa—my therapist’s first name: REINA.

“Are you kidding me?” I shouted into the water and the noise of the city.

“What’s wrong?” asked my sister-in-law.

“My therapist’s name! Writ large…on an awning!”

She smiled, possibly puzzled about my exuberance, and then the moment passed because we were hungry and getting drenched. That night, alone in my hotel room, after I got off the phone with my husband, the panic came. I took a pill and got in bed, tried like hell to let my thoughts dissolve as I waited for it to kick in.

“What am I afraid of?” I asked myself.

“Everything,” I thought.

I’m Reina now.

Not a specter but an aural presence, not inside my head and not outside, either. “What do you mean?” I thought, and then I giggled aloud. This was very weird, yet it was happening.

You always called me Dr. A but I’m Reina now, and I can visit whenever I want. I have all these people I can still help, and now I can do it from the inside. It’s not over.

I saw her sitting on a rock in a field, laughing with her friend Dr. G, my old primary care physician, who died last year from cancer.

Your dog is here. She meant Lola, my Chihuahua-Jack Russell Terrier mix that died last year, too. They were in Lola’s field, the place I always picture her frolicking, free and off-leash, now that she’s not here. Oh, Jennifer, Dr. A said just before I fell to sleep, we’re going to get to know each other so well.

The next night, I stayed out late with some friends from high school. That day, one of them had had to put down the family dog, who was sixteen, and she was sad. I offered her Dr. A’s theory on doggy afterlife. “She said there’s a dog king who’s in charge, and when your dog dies, he goes to the dog king and tells him about his life, and what kind of owner you were, and the dog king uses this information to send you your next dog, which is always the right dog for you. There’s more to it than that, and she was more eloquent about it, but those are the basics.”

Later, as I was trying to fall asleep, Dr. A chimed in.

It’s the dog emperor, not the dog king, and you know those kinds of fine distinctions are important to me. She was laughing so hard she could barely get through the sentence.

“Since when? You always pushed me not to get so hung up on word choice.”

No! It’s totally important to me! Really!

“Are you being sarcastic?”

Who me? Never.

I laughed out loud. “You weren’t though. You were never sarcastic.”

That’s because we were in session. It’s different now.

***

As I write this, I am days from undergoing a biopsy on my thyroid. Despite the fact that thyroid problems are fairly common, and everyone has been telling me I’m going to be fine, I remain convinced I’m very sick, probably dying. In my darker moments, I’ve been dwelling on all the people who will hate me for getting sick, everything I will lose. I think the people trying to comfort me are lying. PTSD is the gift that keeps on giving—Dr. A compared it to shrapnel. No matter how many pieces you dig out, there are still more, hidden, waiting to erupt through the skin.

I spend so much time waiting to get to the next part, the part in which I get to be happy. And now, when there might legitimately be something to worry about, it seems like such a waste. After all, bad things happen all the time. Two weeks after I started therapy was September 11, 2001. A month after that, I was in a semi-serious car accident. The College of Santa Fe really did go bankrupt. The work of therapy has been far from painless. It got worse before it got better, but it really is so much better now.

Functionality has never been the primary agenda in the work we have done (causing, I’m sure, much occasional frustration), Dr. A wrote in her letter, but rather I have seen the task as one of igniting that spark within which can become the warming, sustaining fire of yourself, of your truth, of your victory over the unfortunate conditions that have surrounded your early years of development. There are no formulas for health, for wholeness. Instead, we have worked together to discover the individual patterns, the individual balances that your deepest self requires for an optimal life, externally and internally.

“You know,” my husband said when I told him I waste time waiting to be happy, “you could just mark it on the calendar.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pick a day. After that, you’re happy.”

Dr. A often referred to my husband as a saint.

A few days ago, I had a session with a therapist-friend of Dr. A’s, after several people advised me that now was not the time to try to handle things on my own, because biopsies freak out even the well-adjusted. We talked about the space between perfect health and death, and whether or not I get to enjoy my life without feeling guilty. When I dug into my bottomless pit of a purse for my checkbook, I came up with a smooth chunk of amethyst. It was from Dr. A, who sometimes gave out pretty rocks after a particularly good session. It must have been floating around in my purse for months, since the first time I realized all I ever wanted to be was a writer and had become one.

In my better moments, I really do know that my husband, my friends, and my family love me, and that their love is contiguous. Jess tells me I should do what she does—write it down, big, and put it on the wall, so that when I forget, I can remember.

Jennifer in her Chicago hotel room.

P.S. – On June 21, I received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. I will undergo surgery and radiation this summer and am hoping to be healthy again after that. All prayers (of all faiths) and good thoughts welcome, because it all counts, it all matters.
______________________________________________

Jennifer Levin lives in Santa Fe, NM, where she writes for Pasatiempo, the arts and culture magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. She is working on a collection of short stories.  Read some of Jennifer’s work here and here.

12 responses to “After That, You’re Happy

  1. Jennifer, lots of love and thoughts to you as you digest the diagnosis and prepare for the surgery and radiation. Thank you for sharing your story here, and giving me a glimpse of your very beautiful essential self, and the learning you have gone through to uncover her. It all resonates.

  2. This was so much fun to read! You’re a really good writer, Jennifer. I wish you the very best during all the measures you’ll be taking against thyroid cancer, and I will read your other work as soon as I can. xo

  3. Good Luck! I will be thinking of you with every newspaper article I read — whether you wrote it or not!

  4. Beautiful. Praying for you.

  5. Christine Bowen

    Reading essays like this remind me that all the noise and worry I carry are not unusual. And they remind me to never assume people are what they seem on the surface–what makes us “us,” both healthy and not, is layered within. I learned something today. Thank you for writing something honest; it couldn’t have been easy.

  6. Linda Sperling

    Dear Jennifer:
    You are a wonderful, honest, marvelous writer. I was so moved by your tale and the pure way in which you have told it. I pray that you emerge from this latest blow with all your brilliance unimpaired and I will keep saying TAYATA OM BEKANZDZE BEKANZDZE MAHA BEKANZDZE RADZA SAMUDGATE SOHA (the Medicine Buddha Mantra) on your behalf.

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Jennifer. All my best wishes for your health and well-being.

  8. anatomyofadress

    Thank you for this, J. Especially for teaching me about the Dog King. I love you.

  9. Dear Jennifer, thank you for your honest, beautiful post. You have prevailed over your early childhood experiences which have been transformed for you through the love of those closest to you now, your courage and willingness to give voice to your truth through your writing, and the work that you have done to deal with these difficult issues. My prayers and thoughts are with you for strength and healing as you face the next medical challenge. Many prayers are going out for you because you have taken the risk to tell your story. Blessings, Jennifer, and kindest regards. Susan Gorman

  10. thanks so much, y’all. what a week it’s been…

  11. dear jennifer,

    all the best to you and your recovery. i loved reading this essay especially because it touches on childhood sexual abuse and somatic manifestation of trauma-which both strike close to home for me.

    i believe in the body-mind relationship, and it makes me wonder if your thyroid cancer has anything to do with your emotional state at all… despite having a dose of skepticism toward this interpretation of diseases myself… and it makes me want to say that this is not fair. have you not suffered enough?

    but perhaps this is not really the true way to look at it. i don’t know what the true way is- maybe you will learn as you go on this journey and find out, and hopefully share with us.

    thank you for telling your story. my thoughts are with you.

  12. P.S. Jennifer, there is an excellent book that we have given to dozens of friends who have been diagnosed with cancer and all have found it helpful. It is called Head First, the Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, by Norman Cousins. May it bring you hope and strength and laughter as you fight this disease. May you be victorious!! Kindest regards

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