Friday, April 22, 2011


I've been offline for weeks; since my last post, I was diagnosed (quite suddenly and unexpectedly) with thyroid cancer, and had an urgent thyroidectomy this week. I got out of the hospital yesterday. I find I have almost nothing to say or write about the experience right now. The feelings seem so obvious - shock, terror, denial, anger, hope, acceptance, sadness, fear. It's a stark situation without nuance. I am managing the best I can, waiting for the post-surgery report/treatment plan and adjusting to replacement meds, which will be a long process.

This blog isn't about me, exactly. Really, it's about T and it's about parenting. I've decided to keep it so, which is not to say that the two things aren't connected, but just that I will protect this forum as a place for reflection on that aspect of my life. I am already keenly aware that I need a few opportunities to escape from the drama and strain of grappling with a cancer diagnosis. At the moment, most people in my life see me and think "cancer!", and it's already tiresome, even in these early days.

Our decisions about how to communicate with T about this and his reactions might be useful information to someone out there, so I'll try to describe them here.

As soon as I got my diagnosis, my very first thought was that T should not hear the "c" word. Some of my friends questioned that decision, but I just knew in my gut that the right thing to do was to tell him what was going to happen (my thyroid would be removed in a few weeks) with as little interpretation or drama as possible. He's had too much loss in his life, and his capacity to manage stress is not well developed. What's more, his adoption has just been approved - he deserves this moment, of secure attachment, without compromise. So I decided not to tell him more.

When I explained to him, he just nodded and went away. Later that evening, I was reading in bed when he came in with his giant box of Cheetos. He sat down on the bed and wordlessly offered me some Cheetos. We ate Cheetos together for about ten minutes and then he curled up like a little cat at the foot of our bed and fell asleep for a little nap. It was the best possible medicine - watching him sleep made me calm in a way that otherwise totally eludes me these days. When he woke up I was still reading. He came and stood next to the bed. "Is your thyroid what gives you a metabolism?" he asked. I said yes, impressed that he knew that much. "Is it a woman thing?" he asked. I told him that everyone has a thyroid, but that women tend to have more thyroid problems than men. He nodded knowingly and compassionately. "How long will you be in the hospital?" he said. I told him only one night, and that this surgery generally goes very well and people recover very quickly. "Oh good!" he said with a big puff. "Then it's no big deal. Toodles!" and he spun around and danced out of the room.

For the next few weeks we kept things low key and we didn't talk about the surgery at home. Like all teens, T is very involved in his own social world, and that works in our favor right now. We made sure to keep the routine at home. It went very well for the first few weeks - I'd even venture to say that this, plus some of our other recent challenges lately, stemming from T's misbehavior at school, have brought us all closer. We are each other's family and so we draw closer at times like these. Nevertheless, by the night before my surgery, things were off track. Inevitably, he picks up on any stress whatsoever - he can just smell it in the air. He also just tends to cycle through periods of calm and periods of disorder, and he was having one of his whomped up weeks, brought on by spring break, teen social drama, and his general struggles with addiction.

He refused to come home at curfew the night before my surgery. I asked him nicely please to come home so that I could get a good night's sleep. He freaked out and said he felt like a bad person, but he just couldn't. He disconnected his phone and slept at a friend's house without telling us. I went into surgery not knowing where he was or whether he was safe. Fortunately, the past two years have taught us to under react to such things. We knew that he was very likely sleeping at a friend's house and that we needed to get to the hospital. By the time I woke up from surgery, he had gotten back in touch and he was fine.

T and I didn't talk while I was in the hospital for the next two days, but when we returned home, he was waiting in his pajamas, cleaning the kitchen. He was bright and happy. He started out with "I guess you heard I've been a little wild lately?" (He does crack me up.) He made me some soup - spiced it up for me special with a kick of Red Rooster that nearly choked me. He told me how he'd been "pushing the limits" but planned to get back on track. I suggested that he try to just observe himself without judgement, to see if he can learn anything about why he pushes the limits. He thought that was interesting. He thought it was funny, too. I could see he was relieved. I was still his adoptive mom. I had a big bandage on my throat and I was sleepy-eyed from pain medicine, but I was still bossy and my advice still interested him. He asked me to help him pick out his outfit for a party that night and enjoyed my advice. He kept in touch and came home on time from the party.

I'm reading a wonderful book about addiction called "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts", recommended by one of the readers of this blog. I will write about it later. One of the passages I enjoyed so much was the description of the brain circuitry that develops in an infant as a result of being nurtured by its mother. The author describes the physical behaviors and responses that take place between mother and child - the way the mother and child look at each other, the way the mother's attention causes the infant's brain to produce dopamine, and the way nature compensates the mother for the strain of caring for an infant by sending a rush of endorphins to accompany nurturing behavior.

I can feel this science at work right now. It's good juice. I'm sure that inadequate supplies of the love juice in infancy have everything to do with the addictions that plague T. I'm humbled and touched by his ability to seek out appropriate ways to create some part of the bonding experience now. At the moment, I am more aware of my physical sensations than usual, and so I'm conscious of the physical rewards of bonding in a way I haven't been before. The day I came home from the hospital, just having him sit next to me and tell me about his teen capers made me relax more than any pain medicine. And it was very obvious that he needed whatever hit of happiness contact with me produces for him. The bio chemistry of older child adoption is a topic of enduring fascination for me, and I'm sure it will continue to be a welcome comfort and distraction in the coming weeks.

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