Somatic Identification, Part 2
What is somatic identification? For me, in widowhood, it describes situations when I’ve seen my body imitate his, even though he is no longer here. It’s a little like sympathetic pain. Since he's no longer in this world, maybe it's more like a phantom limb: I want to keep caring for him even though he doesn't need it?
Usually it feels more like my own reluctance to move forward -- my desire to stay back in the world of the ill, to understand where how he felt when he knew he was leaving.
First I had the typical grief symptoms that manifest in the body: fatigue and depression and needing more extra sleep, combined with insomnia. I’m going to guess that these don’t really count as a sympathetic response, even though they mirror what his body went through to some extent, because grief is, itself, very physical. It isn’t well understood, but it is typical.
The somatic identification that affects me has happened late in my grief: as most other factors in my life are fairly resolved, no longer raw, and stable, I am a peculiar hypochrondriac. This area of my body’s response to loss is part of my own complicated grief – and I am pretty sure that in order to progress I have to get past it.
Here’s the form it’s taken in my life as a widow. First, of course our life with cancer (and with several issues before that) was what I called “highly medicalized.” So after he died I avoided doctors. All appointments were made late, many were broken and rescheduled multiple times. (I was much better but not perfect with my daughter’s health.)
Second, Gavin had a heart problem when we met, lived through open heart surgery early in our relationship, and had an arrhythmia and pacemaker for the last 12 years of his life.
When I finally got to the doctor for a physical she saw an inverted “T” in my echocardiogram… an odd pattern that could indicate a heart defect or heart disease. In the overall picture of my health, and given the odds, it was unlikely to be something serious. It scared me, but not enough to do anything.
When she wrote the referral, I saw that it was to the practice that Gavin went to for his defibrillator checkups. They always liked him so much and told me so. The technician came to hospice to turn off the device on Gavin’s last day and stopped on the way in (or out?) to tell me how sorry he was and what a lovely man Gavin was.
My poor primary care doctor had to write that referral three times in three years before I actually went.
It wasn’t easy to go to the appointments there, but I had to go over and over because insurance kept not authorizing one of the tests. I suppose repetition and negative focus on Blue Cross helped the visits get easier, and I did bond with a lovely nurse who asked me, “you wrote that you’ve had exceptional stress in the past few years….?” I spilled and she revealed that she’d been widowed ten years prior with two young kids.
I suppose I turned it around by making this new connection (and I’m fixing her up with my friend’s brother, too). All the tests came out fine: no problemo.
Third, I got weird visual disturbances. The first one, I thought was just because I hated my job and it went away after 20 minutes. The second one might have been PMS. My eye doctor looked at me worried and said, you better ask your primary care about that.
The doctor hesitated, saying it was likely migraine “auras,” but those were unlikely to come on for the first time at my age. Her pen hovered over the referral as she considered the many unnecessary MRIs performed each year and how my insurance might treat it.
I told her I’d err on the side of caution because of my husband’s cancer. I might be hypervigilant but I couldn’t put aside the thought: BRAIN TUMOR. BRAIN TUMOR. Gavin had two tiny brain tumors discovered during his last week. Although they were asymptomatic, they were one of the few things that actually spoke to me of death: I had just heard of a paper showing that most patients with brain mets survive 30 days or less. It was a number to fixate on. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have told him the result of that scan that last week.
We turned down that treatment – whole brain radiation, even without knowing how late it really was. It’s famous for awful side effects and as it turned out, he was gone 4 days after they would have been able to “squeeze him in.”
With these traumas on hand you might think my vigilance would have been productive, that I would have had an impulse to preserve myself, but no. While I could ask the doctor for the referral and promise to take care of it, I couldn’t actually call or show up for at least two years (two referrals or three?).
The test, which was held at the imaging center where Gavin used to go for his scans, including the disastrous ones, and the ones that were misread, and the one where he threw up, went fine.
(I celebrated not having a brain tumor with my first-ever two-day migraine.)
Fourth was one -- thankfully -- panic attack. Gavin was plagued by dozens per day during the period of his worst/best therapy, the one which stole his breath and marked the worst paradoxes of our time in treatment.
Will my body become unstuck when I have the last tests and find out I really AM going to live?
Or is this my body's way of teaching me to have more empathy, more compassion? A way of putting myself in the way so I can be sure to forgive and heal myself? Our bodies know, in grief, and in this way, I finally hear that my body has been holding something back.