The Downside to the Non-Stop Hustle

Or, how a 55-year-old gets mono


I was going to tell you about a bunch of essays I read in the wake of turning in my MS that resonated with me, and how they all relate, but since my last dispatch I’ve gotten even sicker, and now I have mono, and possibly tonsillar cancer (whee! please wish me luck!), and my brain is frazzled. So I can only handle writing about one of them. (More about my fun with diagnoses toward the bottom.)

Rachel Syme’s New Yorker essay on deadlines, “What Deadlines do to Lifetimes: Can we find a balance between structuring our time and squandering it?” felt as if it were timed just for me because meeting my deadline had been incredibly challenging, and taken so much out of me, even though I’d humbly asked for and was kindly granted the extensions I needed. I thought I’d paced myself better than I ever had in my entire life. I didn’t procrastinate, at least not to the degree I might have in the past. I did stay up until 4am the night before I turned it in, pushing, pushing, pushing on a piece of the book I’d been struggling to reign in, and which will need more revision than others.

The last week before the deadline was especially hard. It was as if all my anxieties about the book, which I’d been living with for a year (or maybe my entire career—no, life) came to a head. I was in a delicate, fraught state, and I had to fight with myself not to look for escape routes (What a great time to look at spaces where I can restart Kingston Writers’ Studio! Or to see what new flavors of Spindrift they have a Target! Or to see if there’s an off chance Ollie’s Bargain Outlet has any factory-second carpenter pants for $7 that I can cut into jean shorts because they once had them three years ago!) or ask for yet another extension. I knew another extension would just prolong my misery, and I didn’t want to do that to myself, so I pushed through. I pushed so hard, I ran myself down.

I want to clarify that I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the writing. I very much did. Writing my book was satisfying in ways no other work in my life has been. But either I couldn’t allow myself to just revel in it, so I constantly reminded myself of why I should suffer (an oldie but goodie in my book of self-sabotaging tricks), or it’s just naturally terror-inducing to spill your guts for public consumption, even if it’s somehow your very nature to do so.

Everything in Syme’s essay about the challenge of pacing ourselves toward deadlines felt applicable to my recent experience:

As the last day to complete a task approaches, we all respond to the pressure differently. Some (well-adjusted, diligent) people jump in, figuring that the anxiety of an unpaid bill or an unfinished project is far more painful than the difficulty of sticking to a sensible schedule. But others, like me, live in blissful denial—at least until the last minute, when, fuelled by adrenaline, caffeine, and self-loathing, we bolt to the end, vowing that we’ll do it all differently next time (we won’t).

More importantly to me, threaded through the piece is a cautionary tale in the form of Esther Murphy, a writer who talked incessantly about the book she was writing, but couldn’t harness the discipline to actually write it. She died of a stroke in 1962, at 65, with scant pages completed. Syme used to keep a Post-It Sharpied with Murphy’s name above her desk:

The name on my wall wasn’t supposed to be encouraging; it was supposed to be menacing: Don’t end up dead and obscure near a riverbank with nothing to show for yourself.

I can’t tell you how many years I worried I would be one of those writers who talked and talked and talked about her book, but never finished it. Because for many years I talked and talked and talked about wanting to write it but being afraid to, then about how I was finally going to write it, then about going through the writing of it. For many reasons it’s been a long, anxious run-up to the main event. But the good news is, I finally got around to it. I did it! I finished my draft and turned it in. It needs work, but that’s how this goes. If I god forbid died tomorrow (please, god, do no let me die tomorrow, or anytime soon!), my editor could probably revise it on her own, polish it and put it out into the world. (Ptoo-ptoo.)

As I was writing this year, every time I came close to getting fully discouraged—every time I thought about the people I imagined were betting against me, or ridiculing me, or mad that I dared to write a book in their same genre, or who would hate the book and pillory me on the internet for it (this is a cutthroat field and these people exist probably not only in my head)—I thought about what a ridiculous shame it would be to let any of that dissuade me from this achievement I’d wished for and worked toward for so, so, so long. What a worse humiliation it would be to let those other at least theoretical humiliations stand in my way of getting the job done.

So, one good thing I realized this week, thanks to Syme’s essay: At least I haven’t wound up like poor old Esther Murphy!

But one bad thing is, I wound up getting really, really, fucking sick. And I don’t know that we’ve gotten to the bottom of this, for sure.

You’re not supposed to get mono at 55. It’s so unusual, my doctor didn’t even want to order labs for it. Add this to the long list of procedures and tests I’ve had to push doctors to administer to me over my lifetime, times when I was right and they were wrong, and before which I had to deal with their arrogant dismissiveness, as if I were just another hyterical woman seeking attention. I’m so tired of this.

After a few misdiagnoses, I sent my doctors (I’d seen two different ones) a note through the patient portal: “Could this be mono??? What about a mono test?” They argued I was too old for mono. I told them that after nine days, my fever had just spiked to 103, so the second antibiotic they’d prescribed obviously wasn’t working. I told them I’ve never felt sicker.

This is saying a lot, because I’ve had chronic recurring upper respiratory infections all my life; pneumonia six times, beginning when I was 18 months old; and my uterus had been bascially exploding inside my body for 25 years before I had the good fortune of getting it removed at 43.

Finally the doctor I see more often relented and gave me the test. As we waited for the results, the other doctor sent me to an ear, nose, throat specialist across the river because he thought I had a peritonsillar abscess that required lancing. I was not looking forward to that! What I got from him instead was possibly worse.

After removing my mask, the specialist had me open my mouth, and shone a flashlight on my tonsils. Then he made this freaked-out face and jumped back. “Whoa! Whoaaaaaaa!”

“What?” I asked.

“That’s a tumor!” he replied. “Are you here with anyone?” I told him my husband, Brian, was in the waiting room. “I’m going to get him because you need someone here with you for this.” He brought Brian in.

“We’ll have to get a biopsy, right away, to be sure, but I am almost postive that this is cancer,” he said once Brian was in the room. “You’re going to need surgery and radiation, and possibly other treatments. I’m sending you to an oncologist in Hudson asap.”

Do I need to tell you I burst into tears? Brian’s jaw dropped. The nurse came in and set up an appointment for me with the oncologist this coming Friday. On the ride home, Brian and I were nearly silent. But at one point he said, “Something was off about that guy.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. That just didn’t seem like a normal doctor way of handling a possible cancer diagnosis.

Then we returned home and I promptly received an email from Labcorp telling me my mono test had come back positive. I googled “mononucleosis tonsils” and I saw an awful lot of tonsils that look like my right one. I called my GP, and after apologizing for doubting me that it could be mono, he agreed with me that it’s highly unlikely that in the same 10-day period I developed both mono and tonsillar cancer. He said he is 98 percent sure I don’t have cancer.

That said, he figures it can’t be bad to test. I am all for more testing, more information. So I’m keeping the appointment with the oncologist for Friday. (Please, please, wish me luck.) But I am never, ever, ever again returning to that ear, nose, throat specialist across the river.