This post originally appeared on Terra Elan McVoy’s blog in 2014 as part of a series of guest posts about people ending up in over their head to promote her book In Deep:
In November 2013 I felt like I was drowning.
Back in January I had said 2013 would be my year, but by November I was still underemployed and feeling the pressures that come with an unsuccessful job search and the responsibilities of being head of household. Then my aunt died and, like dominoes, the bad news started to pile up.
The non-cancerous brain tumor my mother’s doctors had all ignored was suddenly a very big problem pushing on her optic nerves, destroying her sense of smell and impacting her memory. Worse the tumor had been causing non-convulsive seizures of varying degrees for the past year. But it was only that fall, when we finally got my mom to a specialist, that anyone seemed to care about the seizures or even believe me when I explained what happened.
What was supposed to be a gradual thing we could slowly prepare for became a whirlwind. An appointment with a neurologist revealed the tumor had to come out and, in fact, should have come out years ago. A neurosurgeon confirmed that and offered a referral to a skull-base specialist. After a seizure in the office of the skull-base surgeon my mom was admitted to the hospital. I spent every appointment feeling like I was going to throw up.
Her tumor removal surgery lasted twelve hours. I spent most of that day in the hospital waiting area wondering who would come out to tell me if something went wrong. I anxiously watched every doctor passing through, certain they were going to tell me something horrible. It hurt to walk out of the hospital to get food. It was even worse sitting there, stagnant, waiting for some snippet of news.
I didn’t hear anything about how it went until 11pm that night. Just when I was wondering if the surgeon was going to tell me anything, I got the call. The surgery had gone well but my mom was being kept under sedation, in a medically induced coma, to avoid the risk of a stroke. (My aunt had died of a stroke months before.) I cried for twenty minutes after I hung up.
The next day when I could see my mom, she was still sedated with a breathing tube and a drainage tube in her head. I had to leave when I first saw her, fleeing to the Intensive Care Waiting Room. I burst into tears there surrounded by other people too wrapped up in their own unhappiness to take much notice of mine.
When my mom woke up she was agitated and just barely recognized me. She kept asking to go home which I knew was impossible for the moment. Even now I get a little upset and a little teary thinking about it. (My mom doesn’t remember any of this or the week leading to the surgery, something for which I am grateful as it was all a panic-fueled haze of misery.) It’s a horrible feeling seeing someone you love in such a vulnerable and painful position. Every day I am impressed with my mom and so incredibly humbled by everything she has survived and continues to endure. I am so glad she is okay.
But that November I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it through surgery much less how normal she would be after. My mom was convinced she was going to die and, for a little while, especially those twelve hours of the surgery, I thought maybe she was right. I never thought the tumor would kill her but so many other things can go wrong in surgery. You just never know.
I knew I would be physically okay. My mom had raised me well and I was smart; I would survive because that’s what she taught me to do. But that doesn’t make it an easier thing to contemplate a parent’s mortality. I’ve never lived with anyone but my mom and I often think of myself as part of a “we,” so it was very hard those weeks alone while she was in the hospital to admit that even if this surgery went perfectly, things would change eventually. It was so much more than I wanted to deal with. So much more than I could handle.
But sometimes, through your own choices or others’, that’s what happens. You do get in over your head. Things do start falling apart. It’s only recently–after the surgery going well, after I started a full-time job that I love, after I realized I didn’t have to scramble to afford groceries–that the drowning feeling passed. It’s only recently that I found myself realizing I’m happy and okay.
Here’s the thing about being in over your head: You can get through it. I learned that a support system can go far and there is no shame ever in admitting that you are scared or that you need help. I didn’t always see my friends and family, but I texted and talked on the phone constantly. I had friends sending positive vibes through twitter and blog comments. It didn’t make the panic and the fear go away because nothing could do that. But it made it bearable.
I also learned that even when you think it’s all too much, even when you think you can’t possibly handle everything that needs to be dealt with, you will. People are amazingly resilient and shockingly strong. I hope most people don’t have to get in deep before things start to go right but I have learned that, even when it feels like nothing will ever be okay, eventually things will improve.
Obviously 2013 was decidedly not my year. I won’t say I’m a better person because of everything that happened that year. But I know I am stronger. I’m older and wiser and I know now that I am tougher and more capable than I would have thought possible even a year earlier.