Self-Destruction: Food?

Diabetes and heart disease roll through my family history. A past generation stopped farming, but kept eating three squares plus in-between all with a strong coffee. They dropped eating pie at ten and two, but substituted snack foods. Then there were the midnight suppers on card club nights. Three bowls stood on the table in our family room: nuts, pretzels, and chocolate kisses. Somehow I was a skinny kid and stayed that way into my mid-twenties.

One grandfather was tall and thin, one short and wiry. They ate substantial food and drank a fair amount of alcohol. Then there is the picture of my mother’s mother with two of her sisters. They were all in their late forties and belts in the middle of their dark dresses suggested they once had had waists.

Pregnancy brought gestational diabetes my way. For seven months I managed my nutrition with extreme care. The rewards were simple: a healthy baby and no need for insulin. The years since have not been worth noting. I stay physically active. I stay away from excessive eating, alcohol, and eat a relatively balanced diet. But I eat too much, have just recently scaled back carbohydrates and sodium and given up French fries. My doctor wouldn’t call me stout, but said I had muscle structure that meant I’d never be thin again.

Having lost sixty pounds in his forties, my father watched everything he ate to manage diabetes and congestive heart failure. If the scale was up two pounds he reviewed the prior day and made adjustments. That was his daily discipline for decades.

I watched his diligence with admiration and an increasing sense of doom. But I have to admit that as he began hospice and food restrictions were lifted the message was odd: Now that you’re too frail to make it to the dining room, too tired to sit with your family or friends, too confused to enjoy an old favorite meal, eat whatever you want. All those gooey caramel rolls, omelettes, steaks, grapefruits, glasses of orange juice he had given up over the years; all the notebooks he filled with blood sugar levels, calorie counts and sodium amounts; helped prolong his life. Food could have killed him.

The only living member of my birth family, I wish the lessons learned as my brother and parents passed were enough. On a daily basis, treat food as fuel, don’t confuse eating with comfort. Now. It’s a statement about self-worth and the larger hunger for more good years.

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Reduced Focus

For the past four years my eye prescription remained relatively unchanged. Unfortunately, my glasses haven’t remained unscarred through an infant’s grabbing hands, a puppy’s curiosity, and life in general.

I took advantage of a coupon to buy an emergency pair of bifocals for $250. During a recent week of travel I wore that pair. My eyes never adjusted to the left lens, the one the optical tech said was stronger than my old prescription. Each afternoon I found it difficult to zip through messages on my phone, enjoy a book, or read small print on a menu. Headaches started early in the day. I panicked about fulfilling writing obligations and tried to not think that maybe my eyes were in trouble.

This is the kind of bad decision I made because of a high deductible health insurance policy. The $175 eye exam would be out of pocket so spending $400 for the security of back up glasses felt prohibitive. I shopped around and spent less. Fortunately, my discomfort ended when I returned home and put on the old glasses. Scratches and all, my vision cleared, and the headaches stopped.

Others are making more difficult decisions—taking the gamble of not purchasing an asthma inhaler for themselves to make it possible to pay for a partner’s insulin, cancelling necessary lab work or tests to pay for their child’s asthma inhaler, not following a physician’s directions in using an expensive medication to stretch its use, staying in a hated job to hold on to health insurance, not replacing bald tires on the family car because of a health emergency.

Most of my adult experience was in a health maintenance organization. We groused about wait times for appointments, lack of choice in the optical area, going to a hospital across town, but we never faced decisions like today. If we hesitated about taking a child to clinic for a possible ear infection, it was about traffic or workload and not about the $125 bill.

These decisions are made in all zip codes throughout our wide metropolitan area. Only the very wealthy or very fortunate are exempt. We don’t comment on a good friend’s darkened tooth, push a neighbor to join in a night out, or question why a kid’s wheezy cough doesn’t improve. We’re all too polite to talk about the healthcare monkey choking America’s sense of comfort and scared about what’s coming next.

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Mammo Whammy

I hate going to the Breast Center. I steel myself and try to be as matter-of-fact as if I’m getting my teeth cleaned or doing some other unpleasant medical chore.

Everyone there is nice. The décor features soft colors and flowery prints hang on the wall. I’m shown to a dressing room and instructed to put on a gown with the opening in the front.

But the presence of too many women, who are scared out of their wits, wondering what will become of themselves and their families, weighs on me.

I change into the raspberry gown and stash my clothes in the locker.

As I wait to be called, I wonder about the other women. Who will be lucky today? Who is waiting for a second mammogram because the radiologist found something suspicious? I avoid looking my companions in the eye. I have no wisdom and very little comfort to offer.

Inside the mammo room, the technician is pleasant and professional. But the whole process—baring myself, pushing my breast on the metal and plastic plate, allowing her to pull and stretch it into place as if it isn’t one of the most intimate parts of me—is dehumanizing.

I hold my breath, wait for the eye-watering mechanical squeeze. Then we repeat the process and I’m done. She says they’ll call if there’s a problem.

I nod and smile and pretend that I’m OK. I try not to let my mind form the sentence, “What if my luck has run out? What if this time is IT?”

The spirits of the women I’ve known with breast cancer travel with me as I get dressed, walk to the parking ramp and try hard not to think about the three biopsies I’ve already had.

I teeter on the brink of fear, but push that feeling as far back in my mind as possible. I know from experience that worrying won’t help.

I hate going to the Breast Center. But I think of Kim, Jane, Lisa and especially Kathy, and so I go. I’ve got a life to live and people to love. I can’t afford not to.