Social media promotion, which all authors have to do these days, means we spend a lot of time sharing about our lives as well as our books . But this is something I haven’t talked about in years.
When I was twenty-five, I had a cramp that refused to go away. I thought it was a bladder infection. It turned out to be a tumor so large it was actually pressing on my bladder. I found this out on a Friday. By Monday I was in the hospital being prepped for surgery.
You need to know where my life was at the time. I was not in a good place at all. I was sleeping on people’s couches in Manhattan when I wasn’t retreating to my parents’ house in Westchester County. I had no social life and crappy part-time jobs, one of which was handing out cigarette samples on Second Avenue while wearing a Styrofoam straw hat. Technically I was pursuing an acting career, but in reality I was paralyzed and hiding.
My tumor was what’s classified as a hemangiopericytoma. These are so rare that every time I tell gynecologist I had one, their eyes light up as if my tumor was the carcinogenic equivalent of meeting a Beatle. As one doctor said a bit enviously, “You can go your entire career without ever seeing one of those.” My gynecologist at the time suspected the tumor was attached to my uterus. He told me they might have to do a hysterectomy, but wouldn’t know for sure until he “got in there.” Secretly, he told my parents there was a 95% chance they’d have to do the procedure. Was the tumor benign? Malignant? No one knew.
My parents felt totally helpless. I, on the other hand, had never felt more in control of my life. I planned all the things I’d do if faced with infertility or worse, a death sentence. I’d travel through Europe. Study acting in London. Have fascinating affairs. I’d be Mimi in La Bohème, except a suburban half-Jewish, half-Italian version.
After my operation, I came to in a hospital room on the Obstetrics floor, a terrible place to be if you’ve had a non-elective hysterectomy. Luckily, I hadn’t. It turned out my tumor was attached to other tissue and just parked on top of my uterus, so I was moved to the general surgery floor. The verdict on the potential of my tumor was incomplete, and specimens were sent all over the country to determine its status. But for whatever reason, I knew I’d be okay. It was just a weird freak of my genetic nature. You’d think that would have made me euphoric. Instead, I became deeply depressed.
In trying to figure out why I was so depressed, I had to face an unpleasant realization: I was so stuck in my life that I was looking to a potential health disaster for motivation. Once the crisis was over and everything returned to normal – or in my case, stasis – I crashed emotionally. It was a painful insight into my worst self. And yet…
My old apartment on Columbus Avenue between 83rd and 84th streets, courtesy of my cousin Felicia Telsey, who still lives there.
A year later, I had my own apartment. I wrote a play that got produced and published, putting me on the path to a writing career. I barely ever went to Mom and Dad’s because I had an active social life in the city. It took months to get the final verdict on the tumor –it was benign – but that was old news by then. Although as anyone who’s been through a similar health crisis knows, you’re not really out of the woods until you hit the five-year mark. Until then, every pain or illness is “Oh s–t, it’s back.”
I know now that I also had a bad case of PTSD. But what really stays with me is the moment I hit bottom and realized I was looking for a death sentence to grant me a life. That’s when I crawled to a phone at my aunt’s apartment where I was crashing at the time, called a therapist, and sobbed, “Help me.”
Recently I was complaining to a friend about how other people’s Facebook posts often make me feel less-than. I’ve never been to Paris, so I get a pang whenever people post snapshots from the Eiffel Tower. If either my husband or I even remember our anniversary, we consider it a win, so I think “what’s wrong with us?” whenever I see people gushing about their soul mate spouses. Everyone’s lives just look so perfect and happy. My friend finally said, “El, remember that Facebook is where people post their best selves.”
I’ve thought about the concept of “best self” a lot lately. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my life since that tumor. Plen-tee. But I have a family and friends that I love. A career as a writer in the entertainment industry. And tomorrow marks the release of A Cajun Christmas Killing, the third book in my Cajun Country Mystery series.
None of this would have happened if at twenty-five I hadn’t faced a very hard truth about myself.
That moment when I lay on the floor of my aunt’s apartment in a fetal position, overwhelmed with depression and self-judgment, taught me a lesson that changed my life – sometimes it takes acknowledging and confronting your worst self to help you find your best self.
Readers, have you had a life-changing moment?