Pinpricks

There is a scab on my upper lip. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but one can only assume I cut my lip at some point. I am used to these random, little physical annoyances: scrapes, bruises, aches, rashes. A finicky inner ear, a penchant for brusque movements, and a fussy immune system have made these an inevitable fact of life. Shit happens.

But this past Sunday, I was to have dinner with my parents, so this shit was bothering me more than it did on previous days. I knew my mother would comment on it and take it as evidence that I’m an irresponsible monster who fails in at least three fundamental ways to take proper care of herself. She wouldn’t have anything to ask about my work or say about current events, but she would likely find a couple more things to mention about my appearance when she was done with the scab. This sense of dread clouded over the hours before I headed out to meet them, making me anxious and restless and irritable.

Scab or not, this is pretty much how I feel every time my mother and I make plans. Fortunately, I see her fewer than a dozen times a year.

I have been reading the subreddit /r/raisedbynarcissists and finding it so fascinating. Though I am loath to apply this label to my mother, I can still relate to a lot of the discussions being held there. Children of narcissists internalize a lot of damaging treatment, and don’t realize until they are (sometimes much) older that none of that garbage was normal or acceptable. I feel I had it relatively easy—hence my reluctance to brand my mother as an outright narcissist—but it’s ridiculous how something like a scab can still ruin my entire afternoon before a dinner reservation.

As a kid, whenever I fell ill, my mother would reprimand and blame me. It was my own fault for not eating enough vegetables, not taking enough vitamin supplements, not sleeping enough. When I had menstrual cramps violent enough to induce vomiting, it was my own fault for being so weak and pathetic (and I had better toughen up if I ever wanted a baby, because pregnancy would be ten times worse!). To this day, I still hate letting anyone, especially anyone’s mom, know when I am sick or suffering. When someone asks if I am feeling unwell, I get this jolt of simultaneous fear and touchiness, and a reflexive urge to deny, deny, deny in my congestion-muffled, cough-accented, dead-giveaway voice.

I call these words or events “pinpricks,” moments that dampen your day or fill you with half a second of apprehension due to negative associations. Like PTSD triggers, only not so severe.

Outlook sounds are pinpricks for me, too. Yes, as in Microsoft’s email program. I don’t use it anymore, since my current job has us all on MacBooks and G Suite. However, my husband occasionally uses his work laptop at home, and gets calendar reminders and new emails while doing so. Every time I hear those notification chimes, I freak out for a flash because I feel as though I’m about to step into a meeting with my old manager or read an infuriating message from him. My old manager was a textbook embodiment of professional insecurity, hired for a job he had no idea how to do. He took it out on me constantly. I started staying home most days to avoid him and stopped working hard; I spent my workdays watching Netflix and playing video games, instead. My life became pretty comfortable this way, yet I would cry every Sunday night because of the impending work week. It’s been a year, and those trifling noises still get to me. It’s kind of funny, but mostly weird and unsettling.

I think I would actually deal with the noises better today if I did continue to use Outlook at work. By avoiding them, I’ve kept them frozen in my mind with all their old, sinister overtones. I haven’t had opportunities to override those associations with new, positive ones from my current job. I’m not saying this is the way PTSD victims should deal with their traumas—obviously, I’m no psychologist—but in my personal case, with my pinpricks, facing the music would probably be more conducive to healing.

Which is why I still continue to see my mother whenever she is in the country, despite all the chafing and discomfort. I have been more vocal about her inappropriate behavior and she has surprisingly been getting better about it, slowly but surely. That Sunday dinner, she didn’t wind up saying a word about the scab on my upper lip. We even managed to make some real conversation. If she can get better, then perhaps there is hope for me, too.

Mortality

Last year was an especially bad time for my dust and pollen allergies. Every morning, I would wake up exhausted from a night of grabbing tissues for my alternately stuffy and runny nose. I would feel as if I hadn’t had a sip of water in days, even when I’d had a full glass right before going to bed. My throat was constantly sore, and my skin itched and peeled all over. I tried running extra laundry cycles, scrubbing and rescrubbing my floors and surfaces, installing an air filter, and adjusting my diet—all of which only marginally helped. When I finally went to the doctor, she told me it was “just allergies” and to take allergy medicine every morning. Almost immediately, my symptoms stopped.

The most bewildering part of all this, and the reason I didn’t try taking allergy medicine sooner, was that this was happening in March. Allergies were nothing new to me, but typically they weren’t triggered when greenery was still struggling to reemerge from the last grey clutches of frost. This is my life now, I thought dully as I continued to pop my daily Zyrtec well into October. As with the onset of puberty, something in my body had changed forever and I simply had to deal with it.

Two days ago, I went to the doctor again for an annual checkup. “There are some abnormalities in your blood work,” she said in greeting as she entered the room and took a seat before me. I was taken aback. I had in fact noticed some minor issues or changes, but dismissed them as inevitable side effects of aging. In the two seconds before her next sentence, my mind fluttered frantically from one conjecture to another. It’s cancer. I’m a mutant. It’s Zika. The lab couldn’t even identify my sample as human blood. Then she said, “You have hypothyroidism,” and the pieces clicked into place. That explained the variation in bowel movements, feeling of dryness, and struggle to lose weight despite cutting my caloric intake and going to the gym five days a week. Now I have to take medication for this every morning for the next three months, and then follow up more blood work and another doctor’s visit to see if my thyroid gland has gotten any better. If not, this will be yet another uncooperative corporeal component to deal with for the rest of my days.

This is the beginning of the end, I thought during the drive home. As human beings, we are naturally concerned about mortality and tend to say this about a lot of things that make us feel old. When we stop running around, jumping, and skinning our knees with reckless abandon, and instead start calculating odds and assessing risk before acting. When we can no longer drink all night and wake up energetic and hangover-free the following morning. When a childhood friend has a baby, gets a divorce, or passes away from a heart attack. When friends and family move away, lose touch, and move on. When kids born in the year 2000 can drive. Hypothyroidism is hardly cause for doom and despair—especially when it’s as mild as mine appears to be—but it means more pills, restrictions, and yet another speed bump on the great slowdown.

Yet these days I find myself able to reflect on beginnings of ends with a lot less bitterness and franticness, and more serene acceptance. It helps to recognize and remember all the positive changes that have transpired among the negative ones. I’m no longer perpetually depressive, anxious, angry, self-hating, or meek in the face of bullshit. I’m much more confident and focused on achieving personal goals, which I never used to have at all. Most importantly, I don’t dwell on regrets for hours a day. If this is what approaching mortality means, it’s not necessarily so bad.