A lump or thickening

The other night I dreamed I had cancer. My leg swelled at the calf muscle as though someone had taken out a chunk and repositioned it to the front of my leg. I hobbled about like a person with a broken leg. 

It was one of those dreams where I woke to a wash of relief when I realised it was not true. 

And yet it could be true and this morning I find myself wondering whether a dream like this might be a way of preparing myself for the worst that is to come.

Not necessarily that I have cancer but the idea that my body will one day fail me, and I will look death in the face. 

Maybe dreams like this give us an opportunity to prepare even though in this dream I was distressed, I was also surviving. I could survive the knowledge that one day soon I would be no more. 

A thought far worse than the one I once struggled with when I was a child, trying to imagine what the world was like before I was in it. 

I suspect many of us think like this. The world that existed before we were here feels different from the world that existed without us in it. 

I’m often dogged by occasional bursts of hypochondria, the hideous preoccupation that there might be something seriously wrong with something in my body and if I don’t get it rectified it’ll kill me. 

I was a student at university the day I noticed a lump on top of my foot near my big toe. A lump of something under my flesh between the bone and my skin that rolled around under my finger when I massaged it. 

The fact it was not painful worried me.

There was an advertisement doing the rounds of my childhood: 

‘A lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere,’ the stern BBC voice over said, ‘could be a sign of cancer. And then series of lumps on the screen.

‘A lump or thickening anywhere, needs a doctor’s attention.’ 

And cancer was one of those horrid things that tricked you into thinking all was well even when faced with a lump because in the beginning and without any other symptoms, cancer was not necessarily painful. 

In those days I did not visit a regular GP but took myself to which ever practice was nearby to home or work. 

On the bus down Warrigal Road I looked at my foot snug in its summer sandals and contemplated my fate.

I was convinced I had cancer and even though I was only twenty-two, it was only a matter of time before I would be dead. 

My state of mind on going into the doctor’s surgery was one of terror but after I saw the doctor and left the surgery, my mind did a summersault. Similar to somersaults I’ve since completed when some aberration in my body causes me to imagine death is around the corner, after which I’m given a reprieve.

‘You have a ganglion’ the doctor in the Murrumbeena practice told me as a train rattled by and almost swallowed up his words.’

‘A what?’

‘A ganglion. Nothing to worry about. Most likely it’ll go away of its own accord. Just a cluster of cells bunched together for reasons we don’t fully understand.’ 

‘Not cancer then?’ 

‘Not at all,’ the doctor said. ‘In the old days people treated their ganglions by dropping a bible on top. That way you disperse the lump.’

He rubbed at my foot as if to smooth away his ganglion. ‘You can rub at it this way that if you want, or leave it till it disappears of its own accord. Or it might just stay.’

I did not drop a bible onto my foot. I settled for its presence for several weeks more. And then one day I looked down and it was gone. 

Never to reappear, at least not there. 

Other lumps have erupted since but I’m more sanguine about them now, knowing that beyond a certain age, the process of ageing offers us all manner of skin deformities and although it’s imperative to keep an eye out for the scary ones that signal a melanoma, most of them are just signs of ageing.

My maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer when she was 67. To me as a four-year-old she seemed ancient. Now when I’m fast approaching that age, I reckon she was a youngster.

Too young by half to die. But my mother told me long before she herself died that her mother had ignored all the signs.

Her mother had been too frightened to take herself off the doctor to check out what was causing her bloated belly and the large lump that rested below her waist. 

My grandmother might have dreamed of having cancer but if she did, she ignored it.

I, on the other hand, in my hypochondriacal state, maybe pay too much attention. 

The thought police

The clash between the notion that anything goes and the desire of those who seek to honour the reality principle and limit the unbounded desires of other people was never louder than at present throughout the western world. The psychotherapy world follows suit.

At least in my small corner of the world where some of my colleagues express their concern that in putting my writing out there in the public domain, writing that contains references to my childhood within an incestuous and unbounded family, I could be damaging those with whom I work.

And desecrating the good name of our association.

In this sense, I find myself falling into my father’s camp. He, the man who when drunk took off all his clothes in order to provoke a response from his wife and children. In order to discomfort us somehow, while my mother buttoned up her thick winter coat and traipsed off to Sunday Mass. 

This clash of parental cultures from my childhood finds a way of repeating itself in adulthood in the tension between my life as a writer and my life as a therapist.

Anyone who writes knows about the struggle to rid your mind of all pressures to limit what you write for fear of how others might judge it and you. 

You need to write into these fears.

Push the thought police and the naysayers of your own editor self and others out of your mind. But when the ethics committee of my professional association called me up to have a meeting to discuss my writing, and the dangers it might hold over those with whom I work, the thought police were activated big time in my brain. 

Not that there’s been any complaint, they tell me, only the potential perhaps.

Not that they say this, but it is implied. If you don’t pull yourself up, rein in those impulses to write, particularly writing of a personal nature and particularly writing that includes ‘sexually and violently explicit material’ then you might damage others. 

How? I ask myself.

Are the people with whom we work so fragile they cannot tolerate the notion that there is violence and sexual brutality out there in the world? In my world? 

I have similar trouble understanding the mind that says it’s wrong to kill a foetus because said foetus might grow into an unwanted child, and at the same time it is okay to humiliate the would-be-mother of said foetus and tell her she is bad for believing she cannot manage this as yet unborn child and wants to be free of it, before it comes into the world and has an actual identity and life of its own and requires love and nurturing such that this would-be-parent, or maybe if you’re lucky would-be-parents, cannot contemplate managing. 

These constrictions tend to come from those privileged enough to find themselves spared of any need to make such agonising decisions.

It is a hard thing to have an abortion. It is a hard thing to write, to write meaningfully such that anyone in a position of power within the publishing industry might want to set it into print or put it up online for others to read. 

Sometimes the thought police give the impression that it’s easy. That it’s simply a matter of picking up your pen or clicking over the letters on a key board and there you have it, all this wicked material that should not materialise in the world and scald the eyes and hearts of innocent others because it is too much to bear.

I recognise my own self-righteousness at times. My own moral superiority that tells me I’m right and you are so horribly wrong, so wrong as to be bad. You need reining in. You need to be stopped in your tracks and humiliated and held to account for all the dreadful things you say and do.

I call them and these thoughts the thought police. They exist everywhere. And they’re the ones that need reining in. 

I first met the thought police when I was nine years old and sat outside the confessional waiting for my turn in front of the priest. The seats were hard on my nine-year-old bum and they pressed against my bones as a reminder there was nothing safe and comfortable here.

Here in the dark confessional within inches of the priest, his profile broken into pixels by the metal grille that separated our heads from one another. He side on, his head slightly bent as he looked down towards the floor, evoked a state of listening and of reverence. Me, directly facing him through the grille ready to rattle off my sins, the usual sins, the sins I had rehearsed earlier as I sat outside waiting my turn. 

The sitting outside waiting my turn was worst of all. I could not tell the priest the full nature of my sins. Not the ones that went on in my head. It was okay to pinch my sister’s lollies from her secret stash. It was okay to lie to my mother about brushing my teeth when I had only pretended and left the tap running to drown out my inactivity, but it was not okay to think about my body the way I sometimes did; the way I played games with my body under the blankets at night imagining myself to be the possessor of breasts like my mother; imagining myself as Maid Marion waiting for rescue from the Sheriff of Nottingham, waiting for Robin Hood, the two men a contrast in attitudes. 

The Sheriff might pull me to the ground and do unspeakable things to me that made me sick and hot with a wicked energy I could not understand, while Robin Hood caressed and held me close in his arms. But he too, in time dug down and fondled my breasts. He too got hot and excited and these feelings, this rush of blood to my face and in the hidden parts of my body below I knew to be wrong. 

I did not know why they were wrong or how they were wrong only they were wrong. And as much as the idea was to wash my soul clean of such thoughts by telling them to the priest who could then absolve me of them, the very thought of telling the priest was unthinkable. 

How could I tell him? I knew the words, the short hand version, Bless me father… I accuse myself of impure thoughts. Impure thoughts, thoughts of a sinful nature that you would blush to hear. If it meant only that I needed to admit to my impure thoughts in that same way as I admitted to stealing and telling lies, it would be simple.

But from the time I told the priest about my encounter with a man in the park, a man who once offered me a silver coin if I held his pink penis and watched the cream come out. From the time of this experience and the day after the event when I told my mother about it because it left an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, one I could not work out, from that time when she then told me to take this to the priest in the confessional and I reasoned I must have done something wrong in accepting the offer of a silver coin in return for holding his pink penis and watching the cream come out, then I knew it was dangerous to tell the priest. 

When I finally told the priest about the man in the park, he did not glide over my words as though they required nothing but a quick absolution and a Hail Mary prayer for penance.

No, this time he became interested, his curiosity piqued. 

‘What thing are you talking about, my child?’

This after I had told him I had held onto a man’s thing and watched the cream come out.

‘The thing down there,’ I said, pointing to the ground in front of me, but the priest pushed further. He wanted to know full details. 

I did not want to tell the details, but the priest pressed on until I had described even the yellow paint tin into which the man’s cream fell like milk from a bottle, only slower.

I did not want to spell out the nature of my impure thoughts to the priest. I did not want him to know about such wickedness in me, a wickedness I could not then fathom.

And cannot fathom today.

To write about sexually or violently explicit material.

Does this story constitute such a story? Is this a story of sex and violence? Or just a short take on a child’s coming of age under the weight of patriarchy or the proclivity of some men to abuse small children for their own pleasures?

Is this writing unacceptable?

Must it remain hidden in the vaults of that locked drawer where writers leave their unpublished material, or can it see the light of day?

Not if the thought police have their say. Not if the thought police get inside my mind and try to wash it clean even before I have visited the priest in the confessional.

And so, it seems to me a trip to the ethics committee is like a trip to confession. Tell the priest your sins and your soul will be washed clean, that is until the next time. 

For this business of sinning and then seeking forgiveness is never ending.