I had surgery last week and it involved an anaesthetic, which these things often do, and I'm terrified of anaesthesia. I learned a long time ago that fears spoken aloud are much more controllable than fears kept secret, so I told my surgeon beforehand that while I was fine with the surgery -- which, though unpleasant, was necessary -- I was panicking about the anaesthetic. To help ease my fear, he sent me to a preadmission clinic where I got to meet with the anaesthetist and talk about why I was afraid and learn more about the procedure, in a way that was meant to make me feel better.
The anaesthetist that I met with refused to comprehend how someone could possibly be afraid of anaesthesia. It's safer than a bus! he said. It's safer than a plane! You are more likely to be killed in a car accident on your way to the hospital!
But I'm scared, I said. I am. I don't like handing over the reins to someone else. I don't like suspending my disbelief. I don't believe that I'll come back from it.
That's ridiculous! he said. You're more likely to be struck by lightning! Stabbed in your sleep by a stranger! Have a stroke in the shower!
But I'm not phobic about those things, I said. I'm phobic about anaesthesia.
He didn't understand. It seemed stubborn to me. He REFUSED to even try to understand. Was I REALLY the first person who had come to him with these issues?
Look, he said. Think of it as chicken soup. Like your grandmother used to make.
My grandmother never made chicken soup, I said.
It's a soup of medication, he said. Thirty-five different drugs. A chicken soup. You LIKE chicken soup, right?
THIRTY FIVE? I said. Which increases the odds dramatically that I -- a person who is allergic to every other thing -- will have an anaphylactic reaction and die. And I rarely eat chicken soup, by the way. It's too likely to be hiding something I am allergic to.
You aren't going to die, he said. He sighed. He looked at his watch.
I left in tears.
I took a cab to the hospital on the morning of my surgery. I had to be there at 6:30. In the cab, I looked out the window and I wondered if this was the last time I'd see my house, my kids. I was so scared, my hands were shaking.
The cab driver was quiet. He seemed to understand that I didn't want to talk, so he turned on the news and listened.
But when we got to the hospital, he turned around.
Look, he said. I don't know why you're here or what you're about to go through, but I do know that you have a very negative attitude. You can't go in there with that attitude. You must be positive. You think this matters, but it will pass and if you aren't positive about it, you'll affect the outcome.
I understood that he was trying to be kind.
I'm not negative, I said. I'm just afraid.
You have to be positive, he said. You do.
I survived the anaesthetic, but when I woke up, my hair had turned grey. Not all of it, but a good portion of the front. Like the fear had pulled the colour out of a few dozen individual strands.
Afterwards, I found out something interesting: patients who classify themselves as "afraid" or "scared" before a procedure have statistically much higher odds of doing well and recovering faster than those who were more "positive" about the experience.
The whole experience got me to thinking about how our society has become a place where we really, truly BELIEVE that in order to survive, we have to embrace situations that scare us, diseases that may kill us, and be plucky and upbeat about the experience. How often do we say, "Well, she's got such a good attitude, she'll be fine."? How much do we assume that someone who says, out loud, "I'm scared and sad," is not going to "fight"?
And how is that fair?
Imagine how it would feel if it were you. If you were handed down a diagnosis and then, scared and sad, you were expected to be a good soldier, put on your fighting boots, slap a smile on your face, and WIN. Because we seem to believe, for some misguided reason, that fear is wrong and bad, and that a smile can cure cancer.
Well, it can't. And guess what? It's OK to be afraid.
Maybe it's even better, after all.