I have been on medical leave from POLITICO since my 33rd birthday on March 27th.
My job will be protected under federal law until June 5th. I would rather not be taking leave right now because it is mostly unpaid and because I feel a moral obligation, as a health reporter, to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m taking the leave anyway. Why? Because I am having a mental health crisis.
I first noticed my unraveling last fall when a higher up at the company quietly but firmly suggested I take a break, which I hadn’t done yet, aside from two weeks to recover from surgery. I will be a year out from my final cancer treatment in June.
(If you need to catch up, here is my first essay on getting cancer at 31 and my second on how even I, a health care reporter, was ill-equipped to navigate the disease and the system. Here’s my first blog post on living life indoors as a patient).
I hadn't taken a break because, frankly, I didn't know when to take it. The first year of treatment was 10 straight months, not to mention the aftermath. Where, exactly, does three months of job protection work into that equation? I honestly couldn't tell you.
And that's not to mention the fact that I work in an insanely competitive industry with meager salaries and benefits. (I am a Florida health correspondent for POLITICO and cover the statehouse).
I used sick days to recover for two weeks from surgery, more sick days to take a two-week medical leave last fall, and a few to cover the beginning of my current 2.5 month medical leave. I’m also supposedly getting a portion of my paycheck through a short-term disability insurance claim.
A boss first noticed I was unwell several months after my last treatment ended in June. My mom quickly picked up on it during the holidays. I gradually got a clue, too.
It was Thanksgiving and we were sitting in my aunt’s living room in Dayton, Ohio, where my mom’s whole family settled after emigrating from an Austrian village before the first World War.
My mom was telling me a story about how a different aunt’s partner finally died, a man who had been on his way out for a long time. My aunt, who fiercely loved and cared for this man, couldn’t be at his side in the end. She was starting chemotherapy for breast cancer in Arizona. Her partner was dying in California.
And then my mom went into an almost clinical description of the gangrene that had infected my aunt’s partner’s feet, and I felt suddenly nauseous. I stopped her mid-sentence. (I explained to her later that I am inundated with these stories about the dying, in gruesome detail, all the time. I have developed a physical reaction to it).
My mom followed up in the car, after we left my aunt’s to go visit my brother in a nursing home, somewhere else in Ohio, which is another sad story for a different day.
“It’s all just really horrifying,” I said, referring to what happens to people between getting sick and dying.
I’ve never been able to fully relate to my mom or my therapist exactly what my mental breakdown has been about. It is about the obvious toll of the physical trauma I endured during treatment, the stress I felt in having to work during it, the emotional angst from contemplating my own mortality.
But my breakdown is about something far more basic: I saw the beyond too early and it scared the living shit out of me. I have never since recovered.
The beyond is a shorthand I have invented for the life of a seriously but not terminally ill patient. Some but not all of those patients are older and have developed several complicated health problems. The space they occupy is beyond living but it is not death, and those who occupy it have constant hope the cure for their disease is just around the corner. We would all behave like that if we had to spend the rest of our time on this planet in the beyond.
A patient living in the beyond bounces from hospital to hospital, always searching for a cure, sometimes finding one, often times not. I know many of these patients now — through Twitter, through my work as a reporter, through my friends and family.
I fear becoming a patient in the beyond. I fear it immensely.
I escaped the health care system relatively unscathed. I had a garden variety cancer that hadn’t traveled very far. An experimental drug and chemotherapy cut the size of my largest tumor in half. My surgery was easy as my tumors were on the far left side of my left breast, practically in my armpit. My skin took exceptionally well to radiation for unexplainable reasons and it barely left a mark.
But I could always get cancer again. And next time it will likely not be as easy. And then I could get trapped in the beyond; an American purgatory that used to be God’s waiting room.
Your cure could be out there, so it’s worth it to stay up all night looking for it in scientific literature, on social media, and then going to work the next day completely sleep-deprived — Right?! Who the fuck knows. The constant uncertainty, the cost of traveling always to new hospitals in different states only to receive conflicting information and new physical maims, wears a person down so much so, that I think we don’t hear about the beyond as often as people we know and love are existing in it.
People in the beyond aren’t living but they are desperately trying to.
During the summer of 2019, just after I finished treatment, I threw myself into work, trying to figure out how to report on the beyond. I believe the best way in is through health care fraud, a conspiracy against patients by hospitals and often physicians to earn profits to which they aren’t legally entitled.
I did my daily and beyond reporting. I stopped taking weekends off. I became obsessed.
And then, several months later, I crashed.
All of the working and the physical beatings I took from machines and knives and drugs; the time I spent finding and buying and moving into a house as part of a primal urge to physically protect my family — Lawrence Mower, a fantastic reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and my husband, and our puppy, Lily — had finally caught up with me.
My doctor said it’s normal.
It was around that time, in October 2019, that a higher up strongly suggested I go on medical leave for a couple weeks.
By the time my mom was going on about gangrene at Thanksgiving, I was in physical pain from the bleakness that had become my life.
“That’s depression,” my mom said in the car. I tried to tell her that I felt like I just knew about something that was coming for us all, eventually, and she didn’t. If only she knew, she too would be depressed.
“Maybe you should be writing about this,” my mom said. I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how to start.
In December, I went to India to celebrate the marriage of my now sister-in-law and her husband. It was a 10-day trip and I had saved the rest of my vacation days for it, hoping for some downtime. That was naive of me.
It was an Indian wedding and celebrations extended far beyond the actual designated days for the ceremonies. Lawrence and I almost ended our relationship on our final night there. He was expected at the last dinner; I was unwell and wanted him to stay behind with me. I dreaded going back to work even more drained than I had left; he didn’t understand.
We survived the fight. I can be too hard on myself and the people who love me.
The Florida legislative session came in January and I filed my stories while desperately looking forward to my wedding scheduled a week after it ended, in March.
The wedding was to be our coming out to our families and friends post-cancer. It was to be a fresh start. We were supposed to vacation in Spain for two weeks afterward. I was going to leave my phone at home.
Then the coronavirus hit and we continued to work nonstop, as if the legislative session, our busiest time of year, never even ended. I canceled my wedding through tears less than a week out.
I had an unpleasant conversation the following Wednesday that left me feeling physically immobile and too broken to keep going. I hung up on the person so I wouldn’t start crying and called in sick for the rest of the day. I was already scheduled to be off on that Thursday and Friday so that Lawrence and I could do something for my birthday.
But when I woke up on Friday, my birthday, I was in a full-blown crisis. I filed for medical leave and then face planted into our living room rug and sobbed. Lawrence petted my back and said, “this too will pass,” which has become something calming we say to each other when something awful happens. I continued to cry for several days in a row, which eventually turned into weeks in a row.
My doctor prescribed me an additional anti-anxiety medication when I told him I felt like I was at the bottom of a glass jar with no ladder.
I had forgotten about one of my superpowers: I can write my way out of anything.