Sunday, July 14, 2013

To Hell And (Hopefully) Back Is Now A Book

At some point during my recovery from the multiple life crises that initially prompted me to start this blog, I decided that eventually, when the dust settled, I'd write and publish a memoir. And here it is:

Here's the book's brief description:

In early 2010 I learned I had a "suspicious" mass in my right breast. Two days later my husband of 18+ years announced he was leaving me. This meant I'd also soon be unemployed since my job at the time was as Office Manager for a business my then-husband and I ran together, and that lengthy period of unemployment also led to the eventual loss of my home. To Hell And (Hopefully) Back is my memoir of learning first to survive, and then to thrive.

In first section of this memoir I reprint every post from my To Hell & (Hopefully) Back blog, where I chronicled my experiences during the first year after being hit with all of these major life traumas simultaneously. In the second section I share what I've learned along the road to recovery, and how I've found my way through to a 'new normal'. In the last section, The Crash Cart, I provide the survival tips I used to tie a knot and hang on at those times when I was sure I'd reached the end of her rope.

This is a book for anyone who's trying to cope with a loss or tragedy that seems too big to endure. What I share in this book is my experience in living the old proverb from Lao Tzu: "Sometimes new beginnings are disguised as painful endings."

To Hell And (Hopefully) Back is now available exclusively in Kindle format, for the Kindle, Kindle Fire, or any of the free Kindle reader apps for PCs, Macs, and Android and Apple mobile devices.

I've left the first several entries from the original blog here, as a free preview. Thanks for reading!



About two weeks ago, a doctor told me she suspects I have breast cancer.

Two days later, my husband of over 18 years, the father of our two young children, announced he's leaving me.

Go ahead, take your time; let it sink in. Let your jaw hang slack and your eyes go glassy a while, that's the normal reaction. I'm not even sure I've fully processed it yet. There's ugly and a whole lot of it here, so let's just tackle these two mind-boggling, life-altering traumas one at a time, shall we?

Like Sarah Palin, My Right Breast Has Gone Rogue

A mammogram, ultrasound and core needle biopsy have all shown a mass with some characteristics of Phylloides Cystosarcoma (PC). It also shows some characteristics of Fibroadenoma, a benign type of mass, but since the usual treatment prescribed for Fibroadenomas is take two wait-and-watch-for-changes and call when it's time for your next mammogram, I'm interpreting the fact that they've scheduled me for surgery in ten days as a strong indicator that there's good reason for concern. I get my healthcare through an HMO, and HMOs aren't known for handing out tests, treatments or surgeries like candy on Halloween.

PC is a rare type of breast tumor that's technically classified as cancer whether its cells are benign or malignant because either way, it tends to grow quickly and large, interfere with or deform surrounding tissues, and some studies have shown the so-called benign form is actually more likely to metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body than the malignant form. In related news, there's also a "borderline" form of PC that's kinda malignant, and kinda benign, and totally unpredictable. Fun!

PC isn't quite like any other kind of breast mass, but since it only comprises about 1% of all diagnosed breast tumors PC has not been widely studied and is not well-understood. The cherry on top of this particular sundae is that PC tumors have not been shown to respond to chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapies; the only treatment for them is removal.

My Husband Is No Longer My Husband

Apparently he's had his mind made up about this for quite a while, but on reflection (or a total lack thereof), decided that two days after learning about my health crisis was the right time to share the happy news about the new life he intends to have without me.

There are plenty of sordid details and shocking incidents surrounding this that I'd absolutely love to share with you, but I won't, because it would ultimately hurt my children more than him. He is still their father and always will be, and I realize this is a very public forum. Protecting my children from further trauma is uppermost in my mind, and indulging my baser impulses, however justified they may be, isn't the way to accomplish that goal.

Why Blog It?

So, that's the 'To Hell' part of this blog. The '& Hopefully Back' part is what I hope will be happening over the rest of this year. This blog won't be a repository for my anger at the former Mr. April L. Hamilton. Instead, I want it to be about the process of surviving, and then, one day, if I've earned any positive karma in this life at all, thriving again.

I need someplace to document the surreal-ness of it all, to validate the experiences of others who are facing the same challenges (though hopefully, not both at the same time like me), offer a window of insight to those who have friends or family facing these crises, and share whatever little life preservers I find along the road to recovery.

Well, all of that, and it's cathartic. Writing is my home, and my safe haven. It's something that's always been totally mine, the one area of my life where I'm not anyone's wife or patient, or even mother. I'm just me. It's both a tool and a gift I've been given, and it's the only thing that can pull me back from the void sometimes.

Right now, I'm still in shock. I feel like someone who's just managed to crawl onto a lifeboat leaving the Titanic, only to have the lifeboat crash into another iceberg. But I've got a life jacket, in the form of my children. A flare, in the form of my writing. A warm and protective wetsuit, in the form of the love and support of friends and family. And a large piece of driftwood to cling to, in the form of my sense of humor.

Now, since I intend to make it back to shore, I'd better start swimming.

OMG, It's Totally Like That! OMG, It's Totally Not!


You know how in the movies, sometimes people react to a shock by throwing up? And you're sitting there watching the movie, thinking, "Now come on, that's some major dramatic license! Bad news can't make people throw up!" As it turns out, yes, it can. If the news is bad enough---"sickening" enough would be the literal term, I suppose.

And you know how in the movies, when the spunky heroine gets screwed over, she spends a few hours having a photogenic cry in a lyrical montage, walking on a windblown beach, through a fall-dappled park (the falling leaves symbolize change), or sniffling into a tissue as she sits before a roaring fire, surrounded by gorgeous home furnishings, taking occasional sips of tea from an antique cup, often with a breathtaking view of the city or the bay through the windows in the background? And how the next morning she pulls herself together and Gets Back Out There To Take On The World, perhaps beginning with a shopping spree for clothes that broadcast her newfound self-confidence? That one is a big, fat, honking lie.

What really happens is, you have a huge, noisy, messy, window-rattling cry at first, surrounded by the piles of laundry, dishes and mail you're too exhausted to even contemplate. That lasts maybe twenty or thirty minutes. Then it happens again. And again. And just when you're starting to think you'll be okay and are finally ready to rejoin the world of the rational and self-controlled, it happens again. There's nothing photogenic about it, or about you. Thanks to a number of huge, noisy, messy, window-rattling cries over the past two weeks, my face now resembles that of a sunburned mole. With the mumps.

Then you calm down, wash your face, try to make yourself look presentable and finally leave whatever little cave of anguish you've been wailing in. And you're still very, very upset, but you're holding it together. Until suddenly, you're not. This usually happens in public, and without any particular precipitating event. Unwanted thoughts assault you and hold you hostage on a mental merry-go-round of fixations, recriminations, rage and despair.

When you pick up a bottle of window cleaner at the supermarket you're reminded that very soon you will be using it to clean different windows because you'll be selling your house. But it's not just selling a house, it's losing your home. You turn on the TV for some distraction and wonder why you never realized how many happy couples there are on your favorite shows. You realize many of the favorite songs on your iPod are favorites because they're associated with memorable times you've shared with your ex, and it occurs to you they will never, ever sound the same to you again. You hear, see, or read something that strikes you as funny, fascinating or provocative, and you're halfway there with the impulse to share it with your partner before you realize he's not your partner anymore. Then you realize how much of your former enjoyment of such things came from sharing them with him.

You also find that the customary greeting of, "How are you?" has suddenly become a loaded question buried in an emotional mine field. You have to muster every ounce of self-control to reply with the anticipated rejoinder of, "Fine, thanks. And you?" instead of collapsing into the other person's arms in a sniveling heap. Amazingly, that's the impulse you have even if the person who asked how you are is a bank teller or retail sales clerk. Those church ladies I turn away from my door every month may be in for a surprise next time they show up.

(If any of you church ladies are reading this, my advice is to open with, "How are you?" and as soon as you detect my jaw tightening, follow it up quickly with, "You seem upset, is anything wrong?" You'll be so in there.)

Then you call or email your friends, and sympathetic family members, and they spackle over the cracks in your self-image and self-control with their love and support. They tell you you're not crazy, you're strong, you're capable, that you'll get through this and one day, you'll wonder why you didn't leave him a whole lot sooner.

And then, if you're me, you write.

Nights Are Hard


I'm not sleeping much, and what little sleep I am getting is mostly during the day. When you've been used to sleeping next to a certain warm body for over 18 years, drowsily reaching out to squeeze a hand or stroke an arm when one of you stirs enough to wake the other, the absence of that body is felt more keenly than the presence of it ever was.

In the indifferent dark and quiet of the wee hours, when everyone else is peacefully snoozing---even the cats---, I'm lying wide awake and exhausted. Every time I start to get within range of a doze, some new and unwanted question or realization inserts itself into my psyche. Here's a sampling from around 2am this morning.

What's going to happen with the trip we've always taken every summer with his side of the extended family, for which the condo has already been reserved? Is he going to go with the kids, or am I? Will we just send the kids with his parents? If he goes, will I resent it? If I go, will I be able to enjoy the trip at all or will it be awkward? And if we just send the kids, will they spend the whole time wishing we were both there?

If I end up having more surgery, how long will I be laid up and dependent on him to take care of the kids? How will I look when it's over, and how will it feel?

My car's 11 years old and we'd been talking about getting me something new. What happens now? Is this something I can have written into the divorce settlement?

What questions do I need to ask our tax preparer when we see him in a couple of days? What are the tax ramifications of divorce?

I'm a 45 year old woman with two children and the body of a 45 year old woman who's had two children. Soon to be divorced. Is any man ever going to be interested in this package deal, or am I doomed to be alone for the rest of my life? Could I be happy alone, like Kate Hepburn?

Should I go back to dyeing my gray hair? Do I have to start wearing Spanx now?

In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury writes that 3am is the "midnight of the soul" for men. It's no picnic for women either, Ray.

What Trumps Fear of Cancer?


A number of people have marveled at my cool head with respect to my upcoming surgery, on the 8th. They've asked how I manage to keep so calm, and remark that if our roles were reversed, they'd be nervous wrecks.

The answer is that my separation and impending divorce are weighing much more heavily on me than the health issue. I do tend to be the obsessive type, and I myself have wondered why and how I could possibly back-burner the threat of cancer. After thinking it over I've concluded the reason why I'm not living in fear for my life is that I feel as if I've lost it already.

I've lost virtually everything that matters most to me; so many things I thought I had and always would. A marriage, a life partner, a best friend, an intact nuclear family, a shared future, a home I designed and loved, a certain kind of relationship with my children, the security in believing I'd never have to worry about being someone's ex-wife, someone else's second wife, or any child's stepmother. The security in believing I'd never have to get back on the dating merry-go-round, or endure any awkward blended-family holidays.

All of those things, the things that formed most of the fabric of my life, self-image and identity, are gone now. I have to build a whole new life, a new self-image and identity, and I have to do it at the age of 45. Cancer can't be any scarier than that.

Monkey Slippers, Ladykillers & Chocolate


My surgery was performed this past Thursday, the 8th. The surgeon said the mass turned out to be a little larger than she anticipated, but she's confident she got all of it out. I won't know for certain if she's right, or what was found in the mass, until I go back this Tuesday. That's the date of my follow-up visit, when the surgeon will check the condition of the incision and go over the pathology results with me.

Until then, I'm living in limbo on two different fronts. The obvious one is not knowing what's in the pathology report. The second is that I can't really get off the starting blocks on my new, single life until this matter is settled since I don't know if more treatments or surgeries are in my future. For now, I'm stuck living in the ruins of my old, married life. And it's very, very hard.

But none of that is what this blog post is supposed to be about. The night before my surgery, I collected some of my thoughts and wrote them down...


It's ten pm, and I'm due to check in for my surgery in exactly twelve hours.

I've taken my
Silkwood chemical shower. At my pre-op appointment, I was given two sealed surgical scrub sponges and told to wash myself from neck to waist with one of them in the shower tonight, and repeat with the second tomorrow morning. It seems like overkill, since I know they're going to swab my entire torso with betadine antiseptic---that awful orange stuff that irritates your skin and stains---when I get there anyway. And if this extra bit of washing is really critical to the surgery, shouldn't a nurse be doing it? I mean, it's not like bagging your own groceries.

I've been told not to eat or drink anything past midnight. That's no challenge for me at all, since I've had no appetite ever since my life imploded. Except for the frequent emotional breakdowns in public and the total lack of motivation to do anything, divorce + breast tumor = the best diet ever!

='/   [that's a rueful emoticon, in case it's unclear]

I've lost over 15 pounds in the past two weeks, thanks to living on nothing but twice-daily servings of beef jerky and the occasional Carnation Instant Breakfast drink. I figure if jerky kept the Native Americans alive through harsh winters and long journeys, it'll do for me in a pinch. It's easy, protein-packed, and unlike all other foods at this point, doesn't taste like cardboard. It tastes like jerky-flavored cardboard.

Part of me wants to chow down on every scrap of junk food I can find right up until midnight, but the rest of me thinks it's childish and isn't hungry anyway.

It's finally sinking in, at the worst possible time: I'm going under the knife tomorrow. One of the possible complications of surgery is...death. I'd better plan to leave my laptop with my very dear friend Paula, who happens to be a freelance web developer, along with instructions for how to login to my various sites as Administrator. That way, in a worst-case scenario, she can let all my online peeps know what happened and close all my accounts.

I'll also have to let my Mom know where my important papers are, where the kids' important papers are, and where to find all my financial account information. I know that in light of my recent separation, planning for the worst is very necessary. But it sure isn't helping me "hope for the best," as they say.

For some reason, my thoughts turn to what I'll be wearing on the table, and what I'll be changing back into for the ride home. In the supercharged melodrama of the moment and circumstances, it suddenly seems important not to miss this opportunity to seize on the power of symbols and talismans.

I've been trying to follow Paula's (wise) advice to me when everything first fell apart; she said if there's anything I can do, say, write, wear or think that will make me feel even the tiniest bit better or stronger, I should do it without hesitation or embarrassment. You know what always makes me feel a tiny bit better? Wearing my sock monkey slippers and Ladykillers pajama bottoms:

Comfy, warm, and sort of like having two sock monkey dolls with you wherever you go. What's not to love?

They say things like, "Look at you with all those curves and me with no brakes!" and "If you were a laser gun, you'd be set on stunning!" and "I'm new around here, can you give me directions to your apartment?" They always make people who see them laugh, and laughter makes me feel better.

So my pre- and post-op wardrobe is set.

I remember the two Ghirardelli chocolate bars my Mom bought for me earlier today, hoping to entice me to eat a little more. Maybe I should take one in my bag for tomorrow, after it's over and I'm awake again. Chocolate-flavored cardboard is better than plain cardboard.