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We widows know irrational fear. Our lives are inundated with daily fears like the fear of moving forward, fear of being alone, fear of managing money, fear of social situations, fear of making decisions. Ugh. The fucking fear. Of all the ugly fears I face every day, the fear I hate the most is my irrational fear of dying. It’s intense.
Like, teetering on the edge of insanity over a black hole of hysteria for days on end.
The Irrational Fear of My Mammogram From Hell
Of course, I assumed death was rapping its bony knuckles on my door. What else does it mean when the nurse navigator from the mammography office calls you back within two hours of your appointment and leaves a message to, “please call back at your earliest convenience?” It means I’ve finally succumbed to cancer. It got me. I’m the one in eight.
If I’d left a shoe behind at the office visit surely the nice nurse navigator would have calmed my nerves with a message like, “Silly Ms. Murray, you left your shoe in the changing room. Please come back to pick up your shoe at your earliest convenience.” But, I didn’t leave my shoe in the changing room. It was on my foot.
So, clearly, I thought I had cancer.
I returned the call and left a message. I wiped the sweat beads from my forehead as I waited for a response. When the clock struck 5:00 and no one returned my call, my panic escalated. Everyone in the mammography office went home for the night while I planned my funeral.
Let me explain. I wasn’t always so melodramatic or anxious about my health. But after my husband died, I developed an irrational fear of dying. I mean, if it could happen to my husband, it could happen to me. We were happily married, immensely enjoying life with our two kids and then BAM! A brain tumor. My husband died within a year of his diagnosis. Now, I’m hyper-aware of every headache (brain cancer), coughing spell (lung cancer) and abdominal spasm (liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, pancreatic cancer).
As if worrying about headaches, coughs and abdominal spasms weren’t enough, I played phone tag with the nurse navigator and breast cancer entered the equation. I waited 16 very long and disturbing hours until morning when I called the office to learn my fate. During that time I hugged my kids 187 times, evaluated the best breast cancer treatment centers in our area, pored over my advanced directives and finally fell into a fitful sleep.
After I put my kids on the bus at 8:45 am the next morning, I returned home to a blinking answering machine. Oh God, the news must be bad if the nurse navigator called me back before their office even opened. WTF? I dialed the number and got another recording. Seriously? Can I get my cancer diagnosis over with already?
I tapped my finger on the dining room table in concert with the clock’s minute hand and waited. And waited. And waited. I lunged at the phone when it rang.
“Hi Ms. Murray, we saw a suspicious area on your mammogram yesterday and would like you to come in for a second image.”
And So it Begins
I slogged through four more long and disturbing hours until I could get my second mammogram. During that time I sobbed, made several deals with God (please don’t make my children orphans), and rallied my support system via text (“umm…suspicious area on mammogram…going in for second image…can’t breathe).
I also flipped the universe my middle finger.
When I arrived for my appointment, the nurse tried to make small talk as she escorted me to the imaging room, but my brain couldn’t form words and process my final dying wishes at the same time. I scanned her face for pity signs as she took two more images of my right breast. Was that a cancer frown or a non-cancer twitch?
“Just to be sure, we’d like to get an ultrasound,” she said.
Wait…what? The second image wasn’t enough? What’s next? A biopsy? I quickly calculated how much time I had left before calling in reinforcements to get the kids off the bus and pick me up from my puddle of hot mess.
While scanning the nurse’s face for more pity signs during the ultrasound, I wrestled with all the nagging questions in my head. What am I going to tell the kids? How will I get to and from my chemo treatments? How will I do my job? The nurse slipped out to show the doctor the ultrasound results and slipped back in just as fast.
“Everything checked out okay Ms. Murray. You’re free to go,” she said.
Just like that. BAM! I started to breathe again. My children won’t be orphans because I’m not dying. I walked out elated but cried for hours. The absurdity of the past 24 hours crashed down on me. I realized I have a serious problem.
How to Cope with Your Irrational Fear of Dying
The first step in any recovery program is to admit you have a problem.
“Hi, my name is Kim Murray and I have an irrational fear of dying.”
I know I can’t continue down this fear path. A little fear is healthy, yes. It keeps us alert and aware. But a lot of fear is distressing. It compromises our immune system, which, ironically, is what’s needed to stay healthy. In my quest to manage my fear I’ve discovered ways to help me lessen the overwhelming anxiety of health-related issues.
I call these sneaky ways to cope because they aren’t the typical self-care ideas (Do Yoga! Meditate! Journal!) touted in every lifestyle magazine. They are bit under-the-radar but help to quell the fear demons nonetheless.
1. Retrain Your Brain
If you tell yourself something often enough you start to believe it.
I know I need to retrain my brain to tell a different story that doesn’t include my fear of dying. When something triggers me to instantly begin my own countdown to death I literally say out loud, “this is just a story I’m telling myself” or to use Brene Brown’s version, “the story I’m making up is…” and then insert my details.
When I have a headache and I’m convinced I have brain cancer I say to myself, “this is just a story I’m telling myself. I don’t have brain cancer and I’m not dying. My husband had brain cancer, but I don’t.” When you say it out loud it actually starts to sink in.
It works especially well if you use your first name, too, like you’re talking to a friend. If I say to myself, “Kim, this is just a story you are telling yourself. The story you’re making up is that you have brain cancer. But you don’t have brain cancer so you have nothing to worry about” it sounds like a conversation with a friend.
I’m more likely to listen to a friend than to my irrational self.
2. Use Essential Oils
I’ve been sniffing the shit out of my Lavender essential oil. I dab it on my wrists, temples and behind my ears and inhale the lovely scent. It’s magical. And it works. Other calming oils include Chamomile, Ylang Yylang, and Rose Absolute. Or, go the easy route and find roll-on sets that already combine these awesome, calming essential oils.
The great thing about inhaling essential oils is that you’re basically doing a deep breathing exercise at the same time without even realizing it.
You can also use a diffuser to spread the fragrance throughout your bedroom at night to help with sleep.
Serenity now, motherfuckers.
3. Listen to Reiki music or Crystal Bowl (Tibetan Bowl) Healing Sounds
I listen to Reiki music on YouTube when I’m working at my desk. The music doesn’t have any high-pitched notes or sharp sounds so it encourages relaxation and peace. I love it.
Another super-calming technique is to listen to Crystal Bowl or Tibetan Singing bowls which produce sounds that invoke a deep state of relaxation. The type of sounds emanating from Tibetan Singing Bowls promote healing because the sounds are considered a balancing and clearing energy. Your brainwaves are synchronizing wth the bowls to promote healing from stress, pain, and other diseases.
Read more about the healing power of sound here.
It works. It calms me. I’m telling you.
4. Consider Supplements
I take a Vitamin D supplement because I live in Michigan so our sun availability is limited, especially in the winter months. When I’ve been precariously low on Vitamin D I can feel it in my bones. Literally. My bones ache, I’m lethargic and suffer from a fuzzy brain. When I’m consistent with my Vitamin D supplements I don’t experience the same symptoms. My irrational fear of dying recedes when my Vitamin D levels are in the normal range because I feel better. When I feel better I don’t worry. It’s a win-win. I also try to spend at least 15 minutes outside in the sun whenever I can.
I also take Magnesium (stress reduction) and Vitamin B-6 (help calm and maintain a healthy nervous system) supplements.
Now listen, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the Internet. Do not take anything from any website, including this one, and try it without proper research and medical supervision. For realz.
Widow Wrap Up
I am by no means “cured” of my fear. I have a feeling fear and I will be friends for awhile, and just like I learned how to embrace pain, I must embrace and manage my fear, too. I’ve come a long way since my mammogram from hell, but I’m still a work in progress.
I’m responsible for taking care of me and I take my responsibility seriously. I can’t continue to live with debilitating fear. I just can’t. I’ve found, for me at least, that inhaling essential oils and listening to Reiki music helps promote relaxation and calm. Vitamin D is one vitamin I can’t live without. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a start. And, I’m always open to learning new ways to manage my fears.
How are you managing your fears?
Please share in the comments. We need all the reinforcements we can get!