I understand the human desire to speak out loud to some greater power in moments of vulnerability and impotence. I didn't judge my mom for doing that as my surgery approached. I prefer to consult, and later to thank, my very human benefactors.
The first sign something was wrong was during lunch with friends in my senior year of high school. I was eating French fries one moment, and the next I heard my friend Mindi saying, “Liz! Liz! Why did you say that?” She looked befuddled and concerned. I had no clue what she was talking about.
I was told I had suddenly looked at Mindi oddly and asked, “How tall is your mom’s coat?”
I was as perplexed as they were. I had no memory of asking the nonsensical question.
I soon shoved that bizarre moment into the Whatever File in my memory, as I did many others to come. I’m not sure what fueled my denial. Maybe it was the lifetime weight of accumulated drama and instability at home that required me to ignore the symptoms that something was wrong so I could feel normal.
But like a car that sputters and fails when you ignore the check engine light for too long, the Whatever File eventually became too engorged with incidents I wanted to pretend weren’t happening.
The spells increased in frequency and severity over the next few months. They went from asking strange questions to episodes where I’d start humming and rocking.
Each spell had a few things in common. I was never aware of my actions. I can talk about them only because whoever I was with described them to me. Whatever was triggering the weird behavior was also shutting off my consciousness. Each spell lasted around 20-30 seconds, maybe a bit longer when they worsened.
I began to notice a pattern: an internal warning signaled that another spell was about to happen. I’d simultaneously feel déjà vu and the sensation of excitement or anxiety would rip through my chest, the same feeling you’d experience if you’d just been startled by a crazed man jumping out from the bushes. Eventually, my younger sister told me that when I stopped dead in my tracks and announced “I feel déjà vu” she knew to prepare herself for what was about to happen.
My closest friends had also grown hyper-aware of me, paying attention to signals that a spell was occurring. One day in my government class, I came to, standing in the middle of the room as two of my friends, Lisa and Tan, were holding my arms. The entire class was staring in shock. Apparently I’d started humming loudly and they both sprang into action, trying to carry me out of the classroom to avoid embarrassment. Except they couldn’t get me out fast enough because my muscles had stiffened, making it excruciatingly tough for me to move. I was oblivious. Coincidentally, the teacher happened to step out of the room beforehand, so he never witnessed the incident. By this point, you’d think I would’ve snapped out of my denial that something was seriously wrong with me, but it’s easy to be in denial and put something on a shelf for later when you’re totally unaware of your behavior. I wasn’t actually experiencing these spells, everyone around me was.
You might be asking, ‘Where on Earth were this girl’s parents?’ Understandable. Long divorced, my father was in Africa at the time doing who-knows-what for the Navy. My mother was often at my older sister’s house, watching my niece and nephew for her while my sister worked and got through her own divorce. My mother didn’t hear about my symptoms until my school notified her after a particularly scary spell. “She can’t return to school until her symptoms have been assessed and are under control,” the principal said. Imagine how terrified and mortified you would be as a parent, hearing about this all at once from a stranger when you had no idea it was even happening.
The incident that finally got the principal’s attention happened while my sociology class was visiting a courtroom to see our state’s justice system in action. I remember sitting in the courtroom with my friends Heather and Mindi. There was a hushed silence as the judge addressed the plaintiff.
Then suddenly I was standing in the hallway outside of the courtroom, Mindi and Heather by my side, our teacher on the payphone.
My friends explained that while the judge was speaking, I had suddenly turned to Heather and asked, “What’s your name?”
“It was so eerie. You were looking through me like I was a ghost,” Heather said. Then I did something that brought the entire courtroom to a screeching halt: I started yelping in a high-pitched bark. Startled and flabbergasted, our teacher had spun around to snap “Liz!” My friends got me outside into the lobby while the rest of the class sat frozen in astonishment. I stopped barking at some point while our teacher asked my friends what the hell was going on.
“Is Liz on drugs?” she asked, desperate to understand what would make a kid who was never known to be a troublemaker suddenly act crazy, and in a courtroom of all places. Both my friends were quick to assure her I wasn’t on drugs. “Liz would never touch that stuff. She doesn’t even smoke! No way.” I was grateful that two close friends were there to vouch for my goody-two-shoes status.
I wasn’t on drugs.
A week later, I sat stoically in a neurosurgeon’s office as he pointed to a shadowy mass on an MRI scan. I had a brain tumor.
After getting the tumor biopsied, I could either have it surgically removed if it was benign or begin aggressive treatment if it was cancer. There would be no point in removing the tumor if it was malignant, he explained, because the cancer would have metastasized. If it’s benign and I opt for surgery, the risks were severe: infection, the left side of my body becoming paralyzed or a “lazy” left eye (since the tumor resided in the right temporal lobe of my brain), and death, to name a few.
“But there’s a less than 1% chance of these risks occurring, so it’s not common”, he assured me.
It felt good to finally know what had been plaguing me for months. I left the office that day grateful to be living in 1993 America and not medieval England.
Two very different approaches
Once the MRIs revealed the cause of my woes, I was able to take medications that controlled the spells until the date of my biopsy.
My very Christian mother, in what I imagine was her attempt to quell feeling powerless to help me, planned to have me baptized. My father was often at sea when I was a baby, she explained, so every time she tried to get me baptized back then it had to be postponed. At some point, life got in the way and, well, maybe she believed this tumor was God reminding her to seal the deal for my soul in case the surgery goes wrong.
I was already a nonbeliever in the closet at this point, but I went along with the baptism because I knew it was what my mom needed. There was no point in telling her what I really thought, that baptisms are just a superstitious rite of passage, because what was more important was for her to feel like she was doing everything in her power to save me. While experiencing this hardship I never thought “Why me?” Because, why not me? There’s no reason I should be exempt from life’s tendency to be the bully in gym class who intentionally throws the dodge ball at your head when you’re not looking. I don’t deserve special treatment just like scores of young children don’t deserve cancer.
After several frustrating phone calls with our health insurance provider, my mom was finally able to schedule the date of my surgery. I remember finding her curled up in a ball under a blanket on our sofa the night before, anguish disguising her beautiful features. She was trying to distract herself by watching a sitcom. I told her not to worry because even if the worst happens to me, “At least I’m going to a ‘better place’, right?” The temporary smile that she flashed me seemed to communicate that my attempt to speak the language of her religion didn’t work to soothe her. I went to bed early with an empty stomach, doctor’s orders, to rise at 6 am and get prepped for brain surgery. I’m not sure why, but I felt serenely confident all would go well.
The biopsy revealed that the tumor was benign. After six hours in surgery, I was wheeled into the PACU where I awoke hours later. I remember coming to in a dark room and a nurse frantically running in to check on me. So much air was loudly and abruptly escaping from my lungs, almost like a series of brutal burps, causing me to sit upright. Gauze covered my head and the intense swelling made my skin feel tight.
My mother and siblings were with me the first day. After that, my mother remained by my side. Other family and friends stopped by and sent cards and flowers to wish me well. To this day, the smell of sunflowers reminds me of my hospital stay.
After 5 days, my surgeon approved my release. He said he’d never had a patient do so well after brain surgery that they could return home so quickly. I went home with a medley of medications to fight infection and relieve pain, some of which I couldn’t keep down. My stomach wasn’t having it. Have you ever thrown up after having people saw out a portion of your skull to dig out a foreign enemy? The pressure on my wound was excruciating. While lying in bed one day in a stupor of agony, I spoke these ridiculous words out loud:
“God, if you really exist, prove it now by killing me. Put me out of my misery.”
God chose to prove that he’s not real.
I understand the human desire to speak out loud to some greater power in moments of vulnerability and impotence. When other people aren’t available or are unable to help, gods are often the substitute.
When I finally had the gauze and sutures removed, my head was still slightly swollen. Since they had to shave the right side of my head for the surgery, I had to find a creative way to wear my hair. I was already a self-conscious teenager, so add a freakishly swollen head oddly shaved on one side before it was a trendy hairstyle and I pretty much wanted to die. Again. Until my hair grew back, I wore it parted with strands from the left covering the bald side.
As I healed, I thought about how grateful I was for all the humans who dedicated their lives to advancing medicine. Had I been born in ancient times, people probably would’ve assumed I was possessed by evil spirits, and trepanation surely would’ve been the only cure. In the Middle Ages, or even now in some parts of the world, I would’ve been labeled a witch and then killed, or an exorcist would’ve paid me a visit.
If not for the countless people in history who looked past religious quackery and superstition to search for the real answers, I wouldn’t be alive today.
Since 1993, I’ve been horrified to learn there are people who believe in “faith-healing.” I watched in astonishment as the number of people against vaccinations grew. To mock and oppose vaccines and other medical advancements is stupefyingly ignorant, and depraved when forced onto children. A few states in the US still protect faith-healing parents from being prosecuted for abuse, neglect, and felony murder when they refuse to get their sick or injured children proper medical attention, resulting in lifelong ailments or death. Many religions also frown on mental healthcare, discouraging or outright banning their followers from seeking and receiving help from professionals trained in diagnosing and treating anything from depression to bipolar disorder. I’m thankful my mother didn’t belong to one of these sects.
I never experienced the sensation of déjà vu again. Months after my surgery, a childhood best friend reminded me, “You often said you felt déjà vu when we were kids. That’s super weird, right?” Maybe I’d been carrying that brain tumor around far longer than anyone thought, and something had triggered its growth when I hit my teens. I became convinced déjà vu is nothing more than some sort of hiccup in the mind, not the supernatural phenomenon some people believe it to be.
I didn’t pray to a deity in the hopes the tumor wasn’t cancerous, nor did I thank a god for surviving the surgery, but I understand why people do. When we feel powerless, superstitions help us feel less so. It never sat well with me to credit a god for someone’s achievement. As a secular humanist, I’m forever grateful to the scientists and doctors who saved my life, not to the god whom believers would credit for giving me the tumor in the first place.