Chancing with the Stars

We’ve got something for everyone!” – P.T. Barnum

coldplay

One of my best-friends will speak about things happening in her life – something fantastic, like landing a new network gig, or something not-so-great, like a bunion – and will tack on an epilogue that includes, “…I should have known, my horoscope was so right this month.”

Before you start thinking that this friend is a Nag Champa huffing woo-peddler, allow for me to tell you that she sat next to me at college graduation, talked me out of staying with my ex after things got violent, and has gotten into bar fights for me. She’s as down-to-earth on the surface as they come, with a streak of angry-crazy that every female friend should have, with the ability to cite great literature and pop culture in the same sentence. She’s been my companion at hospitals, funerals, and first dates, and I trust her implicitly. She also believes in astrology.

I like the idea of horoscopes. A paragraph-long cheat sheet for the day or the month, based on something fundamentally out of our control, with professionals able to gaze into the sky and predict whether it’s the right time to embark on a journey, sign a contract, stop using birth control…what’s not to love about a little interstellar guidance? I’ve always been intrigued by the occult, which is probably why I’m a tried-and-true skeptic. The universe is huge, and galaxies frighten me; my father can attest to the fact that he had to carry me, fireman-style, over his shoulder out of the theater when we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the movies when I was a child.

I’ve never done well when reminded of my insignificance and space, with all of its dark blackness and pinpricks of gaseous light. The night sky is the most regular reminder that my little cellular mistake of a life means less than nothing. It seems almost sensible to believe that there are some predictive qualities to be gleaned from the great above. After all, horoscopes are published in newspapers, and have a rich history attached to ‘em, even if they’re just as closely linked to swindling as they are to space.

In 450 BC the twelve-sign zodiac was concocted by the Babylonians, and by the time the Greeks did battle with the Romans what we consider astrology today was already pretty solidified. Of course, leave it to a Pope to condemn it and make it taboo, by the 1600s it was considered verboten to partake in stellar divination as a Christian. That said, its efficacy was never really proven. I’m not even going to attempt to address the Chinese zodiac, or other pseudoscientific attributions of the heavens to destiny.

The zodiac of Western “sun sign” astrology is based on is a map of twelve zones, with each zone named after the constellation that originally fell within based on the time of one’s birth. Because of equinoxes and solstices, the precise points of the signs have moved roughly 30 degrees in the past 2,000 years, meaning that the traditional constellations of the zodiac don’t exactly correspond to the original star signs, and that there should probably be 13 signs, not 12. But who cares! Run the forecast in the papers! Mars opposes Jupiter during the Aries moon, all decisions are fortuitous according to Uranus!

Subjective validation, the Forer effect, and confirmation bias can all be considered the foundations of astrology, scientific reasoning isn’t even in the same area code. Philosophers including Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have remarked on the idea as being a simple manifestation of cognitive bias, lukewarm generalizations, with a smattering of wishful thinking. Kuhn postulated that non-empirical beliefs of pseudoscience are what can strip astrology down to its glittery unicorn of falsehood, while Popper stated that, “it appeals to observation and experiment, nevertheless does not come up to scientific standards.” Meaning that its even devoid of the experimentation that most of these hogwash woo ideas disregard as biased means of poisoning the public. Astrology, as it is, hasn’t even really been able to be tested as bunk, mainly because of the selective thinking that can force nearly any occurrence into the cubbyhole of being caused by your sign and the position of the stars.

I’m not going to go through each sign (sorry, but if you’re interested, this seems like a decent resource, maybe you can pick up some snake oil to lube up for the Tooth Fairy through one of their click-through links…) but I will show you mine.

I was born August 7th, in a year that shall remain undisclosed. I share the same birthday as Mata Hari and David Duchovny, and the date of my birth is the approximate midpoint of the summer. This means I am a Leo, the fifth sign in astrology, measured from the 120-150th degree of the Tropical zodiac, celestial longitude between 125.25 and 152.75, respectively. The lion was chosen for the Nemean lion of Greek mythology, whose hide, like my sense of sarcasm, is impervious.

aries

Let’s start with the most obvious. Some characteristics of Leos include “great judgement,” “strong leadership,” “knowledge of self-worth”…c’mon, keep the sweet talk coming! After all, who doesn’t want to be lauded with compliments from strangers?

Sadly, these are not true. I’m a recovering alcoholic massage therapist with an inbred chihuahua who is single at an age where everyone is having their second kids: good judgement is not the leading skill that I would put on my resume.

“Strong leader.” No. I am shy, incapable of confrontation, and did you see the part about my judgment? I will find the highest bridge to ask you to jump off of with me.

“Knows self-worth.” Sure. The way that fat kids know vegetables.

How about some other defining marks for those who share my sign? “Very generous and loving,” “intuitive,” “dynamic, with an inherent sense of right and wrong.”

Again, who doesn’t want to be called these things? Let’s look a little closer at a particular systematic deviation from rational thought: cognitive bias.

The cognitive bias of personal validation and inductive reasoning are the sort of thing nobody really wants to pick apart…that’s kind of their definition. Every human being wants to feel both that they are good and that they are right. Keeping things general allows for astrologers to say loads of stuff that a lot of easily duped people will read as, “Oh, wow, that’s really me!” mainly because they want to believe that they really possess whatever glowing and general character traits are described.

In 1948 a psychologist named Bertrand Forer performed an experiment on some of his psych students that demonstrated cognitive bias in a mock personality test that later became known as The Forer Effect. This is another example of what’s been labeled the Barnum Effect. (Yes, named after the circus Barnum, whose chicanery and bamboozlement is the stuff of well-documented legend.)

Forer administered a personality test to his pupils, but intentionally ignored their answers. He privately gave each student the same personality profile as a “result” of their tests, it read as follows:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Forer then asked each student to evaluate their phony ‘profile’ on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being “excellent” and 4 being “good.” The average evaluation of the profile from the students was 4.26. This experiment has been replicated endlessly since the first run in 1948, and seems to conclude that most of us will accept ambiguous and broad descriptions of ourselves as unique to our individual character.

Using this as the basis of reasoning, one can assume that most descriptions of most astrology signs could be applied to just about anyone.

409576b59bca6e461f3bd0ca38d40080

I’m having sex with someone whose sign is labeled as “penetrating,” which is quite possibly the only accurate assessment a star sign has ever given me. But other than universally applicable traits, what about the actual predictions? Can a horoscope’s efficacy be proven or disproven? To take a look, I searched Susan Miller, one of the more prominent astrologer’s out there, and the one that my best-friend leans so heavily on for unsolicited advice.

“The full moon lunar eclipse of April 4 brings some sort of shocking truth to the surface. Watch court actions, legal maneuvers, matters happening on foreign shores and at a distance, or news emanating from the media reporting on you.”

That was, what? The Friday-into-Saturday before Easter? The Islanders played the Sabres, but I don’t really remember anything else happening. I certainly didn’t go to court, or talk to anyone in a different country (even New Jersey) and “news emanating from the media reporting on you” sounds waaay too tinfoil hat for me to even concern myself with. “Breaking news! Girl pets her chihuahua! Tune in for our follow-up story, girl eats a yogurt in five minutes!”

Most horoscope devotees would dismiss this sort of whiff as the part of the prediction that doesn’t relate to them, while glomming onto the parts that can be applied. In my case, “The new moon April 18 will bring in lots of exciting opportunities” is about the closest thing that I can hope to being truth, as I can only assume it means the Islanders will win at home and maybe I’ll score a seat at that Playoff game.

Other than that, all of the noun defining articles probably apply to me, right? I’m no graduate of space camp.

Look, if you believe that the power to tell the future can be found simply by looking up at the same sky we share, more power to you. But with six billion people on this magnetic spinning orb, with three people arriving each and every second, don’t you think that there would be a large, large number of folks sharing the very same destiny based on their birth date and time?

And, if you think about it, gross generalizations about people’s characteristics based on arbitrary information sounds an awful lot like prejudice to me…

spok

Panic! At the Ovaries

And, as somebody who holds left-brained knowledge and a solid poker face as the two most attractive traits next to ambidexterity, I especially try to keep my cool when it comes to science and medicine. I aim to embody the opposite of those alarmist Facebook posts about GMO modified strawberries making our children albino or Autistic or firearms-wielding malcontents. I try to remain unbiased, rooted more in constructive empiricism than wishy-washy metaphysical opinions of things. Facts might not be what I want them to be, but that shouldn’t matter. I accept. I’ll bitch and grumble, but I won’t deny something without proof. The flu shot may work, I just choose not to get it, as I view it as a virulent form of roulette. (Full-disclosure, I totally got the flu this year…for the first time in almost a decade.)

ovaries

Roughly three weeks ago, I woke up with a slight twinge under my ribs, on my right side. Nothing all that notable, I just thought that either I had pulled something or maybe had gas. No great shakes. Over the age of 27, you’ll find that you almost always have some ache, itch, or physical quease as a blip on the radar, I take note of these things only because I find my body a fascinating shell to be stored in. By the end of the day, the twinge had settled to the right side, a nagging little glitch almost like a cramp. Knowing what I know, I kept tabs on it as my appendix was never removed and, as with most things in my junk drawer, I figure that it’s only a matter of time until I have to get rid of it.

By the next day the pain was annoyingly persistent, not enough to really be concerning, but present enough to be something to gripe about. I had no fever, no rash, no blood in my pee, nothing to indicate that it was anything other than a minor nuisance. I took Aleve and continued about my business, rubbing myself and stretching when I remembered, waiting for the pang to pass much in the same way that I wait for car alarms on my block to be shut off when I have my window open. Irritating, yes. A crisis of any kind, not so much.

After a week experiencing the sensation, I was getting pissed off. I was almost hoping for something else to happen – distention, blood in my urine, an epic fart – just so I could do some sort of differential and work to deal with whatever was going on. I made a note to go to my GP on Monday. This was late Friday. I had work on Saturday and Sunday, and not much else on my radar. My period had arrived, but the pain seemed compartmentalized from the blood sport. It wasn’t cramps, because I had those. Shark week was seemingly separate.

By Friday night my appetite was bizarrely absent. I’m always hungry and sleepy, those are basically my constant states of existence ever since going sober. I vacillate the two and view them like two regulars on my corporeal bus, like the crazy lady with two wrinkled paper shopping bags who mumbles to herself, and the guy who eats Cheez Doodles in the center seat. I’m never not hungry. But that evening, as I sat down to my usual early dinner, I didn’t want to eat, nothing appealed to me. The pain poked at my side like a six year old punching me, deep within my guts.

While the magnitude of discomfort hadn’t increased, the indisposition was exhausting me. I went to bed with a maxi pad in my underwear and two Benadryl in my system, assured at very least that I’d dream diphenhydramine dreams, sure to sleep.

I didn’t.

Woozy, weary, and wondering what the hell was going on in my right quadrant, I went to work and tried my best, leaning in different directions to try to alleviate the symptoms as I treated with my focus firmly fixed on the relentless needling cramp.

That night my friend Sarah suggested that I accompany her and her husband to see a super fantastic Canadian band play at the Paramount. It was sure to be a good time, a raucous and boppy neo-punk show with pals where I could be sober and a bad dancer and still feel absolutely giddy and young. I laid down to nap before the show and couldn’t. By this point I couldn’t even find a position that even was remotely comforting. At about 8PM, I was so tired and weak from not being able to stomach anything that I was panicking. I bailed on the show and holed up to watch NHL Center Ice on the couch instead.

By 7 the next morning, I was officially afraid. Calling my sponsor, who has been in healthcare for roughly the same amount of time I’ve been on the planet Earth, I asked her what I should do. A day of work felt impossible after two nights without sleep, let alone in the state I was in. She recommended going to an urgent care center to get checked out. Pulling into the parking lot, I broadsided a parking pole.

While my driving skills are subpar on sunny days with a clean bill of health, I will say that being doubled over in pain, bleary from Benadryl, sleeplessness, and a deeply unrecognized hunger, I wasn’t in my right mind.

Once inside of urgent care, they ushered me in, checked my pee for ectopic pregnancy and did an internal examination where I bled all over everything except the ceiling. No cervical trauma or fetuses present, I was told to call in sick to work and head to the ER for imaging, the suspected diagnosis being either a gallstone or something called ‘torsion’ where one of your ovaries gets twisted around on itself, often occluding blood flow to the egg sac. This pathology is sometimes the result of aggressive sex. I’ll leave the reasons why the doctor came to this conclusion up to your imagination.

cat ovaries

By this point I was grateful for a day off. Alone, resigned, and wanting to crawl out of my skin, I drove my now scraped car to Syosset hospital. Once there, I was hooked up to an IV with a painkiller push, and then wheeled into radiological imaging, where I was given a towel to sit on and a transvaginal doppler wand to insert into my vagina.

“There’s some warmed lubricant on it,” the ultrasound tech said. “Whenever you’re ready.” A jovial older guy who talked incessantly about the home repairs he’d been doing and rattling off one-liner jokes, I felt comfortable with the company, even if I was in a hospital gown putting an obstetrical probe in my pussy.

“Let me see?” I asked him. He obliged, turned the screen of the ultrasound machine and we went on a Magic School Bus adventure inside of my right ovary. I’ve been familiarized with my internal landscape before, having had internal sonograms and imaging galore given my family history and my mother’s premature passing from pancreatic cancer. To both me and the tech, the black blobs on the screen and white fuzzy periphery seemed fine. We continued along our merry way to the left side of my reproductive tract. That was when he got quiet.

After I pulled out the imaging probe and he killed the machine, I asked if I could go. Clearly nobody was going to be able to fix whatever was going on in my body, and, more importantly, it didn’t appear to actually be emergent. My IV was empty, the day was done, and the Islanders were hosting the Red Wings at the Coliseum.

“Will you discharge me now?” I asked him.

“Um, we’ll see,” the tech said, clicking away on the images of my insides. “The ER doc will know more and be able to make that decision. I’m going to rush these to radiology now.”

“What’s the deal? Everything looked fine. It’s obviously nothing,” I said, the hope making my voice raise up an octave.

“The right side does look good,” he said, “But it’s the left one that’s concerning.” He wasn’t looking at me. The sound of his voice was suddenly different, no longer filled with the bubbly enthusiasm of hammering side panels or ‘a horse walks into a bar.’

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The doctor will know more,” he repeated. “But there’s a mass on your left side.”

“A mass?” I asked. Church and cancer were the two masses I know about, and both filled me with different varieties of anxiety.

After the ER doc debriefed me with a ream of papers explaining what was known (cystic mass) and what wasn’t (what that meant exactly) I was discharged from the hospital and sent to follow up with my doctor and OBGYN. The cystic mass on my left ovary could be a teratoma, ideally that seemed to be the best case scenario according to the ER staff. I went home and tried my best to fight off the fears that, like my mother, I’d be facing a one-way march into oncology, radiation, and planning for inevitables that seemed far worse than hockey off-season.

The Isles won that night. It was cold comfort.

The following days were spent troubleshooting the worst case outcome. I was sent for scans of my organs to rule out malignancy, my GP tapped my kidneys, my blood was drawn. After drinking a bathtub’s worth of Crystal Light ice tea flavored water and a thick barium shake not on the menu at Friendly’s, I went through the CAT scan to find out the best possible news: compared to my aesthetic, my internal organs were all normal and healthy. Cancer free. I could buy all of the cigarettes I wanted! Not really. The last stop on the diagnostic train was at my gynecologist’s.

A gruff woman with no-nonsense chunky heels and the bedside manner of a college basketball coach, she was not the person I would have drafted to tell me if my life was going to be cut short. However, she was perfectly cast as the character to disclose, with a dismissive eye-roll, that male ER staff are notoriously bad at diagnosing women’s health issues. It wasn’t cancer, in fact, it wasn’t even operable in size and scope. It was just a cyst, a “functional cyst,” as she put it, quite possibly the only thing having to do with me that could be labeled as functional. The following month would require a repeat of the internal sonogram adventure but, in the meantime, I was to try to relax and maybe try a more comfortable position in the bedroom. Sent home with a great big sigh of relief, I resumed normal life.

glitter ovaries

The lesson I learned here was a big one. For all the trust I put in Western medicine, in empirical evidence, data, studies, and the authority I invest in the swirling stakes of the caduceus, sometimes doctors get it wrong. I scoff at placebo and sardonically hiss at the idea of chakras, of energy work, of the unseen forces that people ascribe healing powers to, but why? I’m just as guilty of placing stock in opinions from medical professionals, and just as guilty of falling into the abyss of falsehoods, misrepresentations, and histrionic beliefs. Sure, now I can sheepishly cower with embarrassment as I recall how quickly I located my last will and testament and drew up a short list of people to take care of my dog and delete my browser history in the event of my death from cancer at the age of 33. But the real issue lies in confronting and accepting the fact that – science or woo, health or emotion – the unknown is the only fact. The only certainty is simply the lack of certainty. The diagnosis is ignorance until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, and the most reasonable, sanity-providing thing to have sometimes is just that. Doubt.

 

Fine

I tried to explain having a mental illness to someone without one the other day, and it was like trying to tell Crayola executives about a color I invented, only in Swedish, while trying to make Jell-O.

Other than haphazard comparisons – “It’s like an allergy attack, only you want to kill yourself instead of sneeze…” “It’s like being on the Gravitron at a carnival while trying to tie your shoes…” “Have you ever been really high but also recovering from food poisoning…” – there really isn’t a way for me to put into words what it’s like. Fighting off an episode is exhausting. There really isn’t much more to say.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 3.41.02 PM

A lot has been written about depression and anxiety over the past few decades. The advent of pop psychology, and self-help books that became all the rage in the 1980s and ‘90s, allowed for many of us to grow up on Dr. Phil, or perusing the pages of books left on our mothers’ nightstands:

Women Who Love Too Much
Women Who Run With The Wolves
Feel The Fear Within
Awaken the Woman Within
The Anxiety Cure All
Depression Kills, Hope Cures
I Love You, Please Leave
25 Shades of Taupe

I hid in my closet, thumbing through these tomes, as my parents shouted insults at one another in the kitchen. I came away from those chapters with the knowledge that a) my parents were inevitably heading towards divorce and b) I had some seriously serious psychological problems. I thought that making someone well-adjusted was something that chiropractors did. I cried at Garfield cartoons and remained stone faced at family funerals. My favorite childhood fantasy was that Cher was actually my birth mother, and she would be coming back for me, sequined unitard and all.

As a creative kid growing up in a broken home in the suburbs, I was typical. I made the same shitty decisions as almost every teenager of my generation born into the same circumstances did. Because my behavior and moods were largely unmanageable for my mother, who also grappled with similar afflictions, I was sent to a therapist at a young age. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, a mild dissociative disorder and NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury) and it was recommended that I get on pills. My father refused to pay for the Prozac/Wellbutrin/Xanax cocktail, which, looking back on, I commend him for. My therapist, unable to write a prescription, meekly suggested I started journaling about my feelings. Those journals turned into poems, those poems multiplied, became stories, became scripts, became narrative. Writing kept me almost close enough to stable, and I survived my parents divorce and high-school without too many vicious scrape-ups.

monsters

In high-school, my poetry got me into college. After graduation, my college degree got me my first job in Los Angeles, at the story department at a major movie studio. I was able to toil away in a field of flawed artists filled with the same Pandora’s box I’d been accustomed to: addiction, anorexia, depression, anxiety. The link between the intellectualism, creativity, and mental illness is fairly well-known, scientists have even isolated a single gene, DARPP-32, as being the likely culprit. But, previous history, studies, and even a community of similarly plagued degenerates hasn’t kept me from my own personal MMA battle with my brain chemistry. Just because I’m suffering from the flu like 200,000 other people doesn’t make it any more bearable for my body. Mental illness is a personal albatross, no matter how many flashlight beams of science, fact! are shone on its dark crevices. Those dark crevices are my pied-a-terre, along with countless others. It’s our hostile hostel; we live there sometimes, and it sucks.

The problem with being a semi-aware, introspective adult is that I know when my neurochemistry starts backfiring…yet there’s nothing I can do about it. One day I’m fine, reacting admirably to life on life’s terms and interacting with the world in a nuanced, logically guided manner…the next day I think that my closest friends actually loathe me and I’m the most repugnant oozing pustule it’s no wonder I’m single, I should slice myself to ribbons with the nearest sharp object.

“Why don’t you call me when you feel like that?”

“You know you can always talk to me.”

“You know I’m here for you, right?”

After I emerge from the netherworld of sleeping too much, crying until my eyes feel like they’re wearing tiny cilices, and listening to the entire catalog of Joy Division on repeat, my friends, who didn’t actually hate me and aren’t intentionally neglecting me when they’re at work or dealing with chores, seem stunned. They chime in with well-meaning advice and verbal insistence that, no, really, they’re there for me, all I need to do is reach out.

But that’s the very nature of the problem with crossover diagnoses and being self-reliant: those suffering are often too neurotic to feel comfortable asking for help until they’re too depressed to ask for help because, welp, they’re hoping to be dead by morning.

It’s not that I don’t want help, it’s just that I don’t want to bother you with the fact that I want help.

sad clown
If there was a way for me to ring a silent bell that was only a pitch that my closest friends and family could hear, I would.

“Does anything help?” that friend asked.

That’s tricky. As an adult, I opted to try a low-dose SSRI so that I wouldn’t kill myself. Lexapro gave a valiant effort, but came with curious and annoying side-effects, like cold symptoms and tasting fried chicken the entire time I was on it. Sure, I wasn’t depressed, mainly because I felt too sick to be sad. I didn’t like having to call upon a pharmacological solution when, underneath it all, I felt smart enough, strong enough, human enough to help myself.

Other than drugs, it’s a crapshoot. Televised hockey, walks outdoors, writing, working a recovery program, any sort of mindless game, cleaning, brain-numbing sex…these things keep some of the wolves at bay. It’s hard to be planning on offing yourself during playoff season. But, really, by the time the synapses start misfiring and the weird haze starts clouding my thoughts, it’s a little too late for mental Band-Aids and troubleshooting.

I’ve noticed certain things over the years that act as a wind-shifting alert that shit’s about to go sideways. I’ll suffer from a particular sort of fever dreams, I’ll stop responding to texts, I’ll cancel plans I had previously been looking forward to, or I’ll forgo scheduling them completely. Of course, it’s during those times that I hope the people I’m closest to notice and reach out, but I’m simultaneously mortified and afraid of having to respond to their inquiries to begin with. “I’m fine,” I always answer. I’ve learned to remember critical life details that can be handily tossed out in question form to change the subject back to them. Depression and anxiety are opposite sides of the same magnet. All of your needs and desires are at war with one another, lined up like the players on a foosball table, skewing in directions where they’ll match, but never touch.

hand

And maybe that’s the silver lining to being an adult who suffers from embarrassing emotional disturbances better associated with teen dramas and Tumblr blogs: I’m finally old enough to know that these episodes will pass, even as I’m affected by them. That doesn’t make it easier, but allows for me to babysit myself as best as I can. For anybody else who is beset by this, I salute you. For the family and friends of the sufferers, I send you my sympathies, and deepest respect. May we all go through tomorrow’s neurotransmitter roulette spin without our number coming up.

[If you, or someone you know, feels at the brink of danger, call 1 (800) 273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7, and will connect you with a trained counselor who can help. Hang in there. You’re not alone.]