The Art of the Meltdown

Sometimes the only sane thing to do is to totally lose it

Was I totally doomed or only slightly doomed?

It had to happen sometime, it had to happen somewhere. My cancer meltdown happened at my best friend's family home in Maine. It was four days after my diagnosis, right after a late-summer dinner washed down with too many glasses of wine and a handful of Valium.

Liz, my steadfast friend of nearly 20 years, had dutifully tucked me into her car and driven me two hours north out of Boston to get me there. Her mission was to distract me and keep an eye on me while I absorbed the news that my life was changed forever. It was a sound plan. I just wasn't all that sound.

I did OK at first. Momentary normalcy, even the manufactured kind, is a powerful thing. I faked functional and sustained pleasant conversation for nearly an entire meal, cheered to be in my home state with good people around a table full of grilled steaks and fresh sweet corn. But by dessert I'd slipped into a silent, steady twitch. There were still so many unknowns about my prognosis. Was I totally doomed, or only slightly doomed? Would this just be one chapter or my last? Should I start a bucket list? I sat there, flop sweating and quivering, trying to keep it together for the sake of the dinner party. Could I please have some more of those heirloom tomatoes?

I felt the air around me growing thinner and thinner, my chest tightening. This was going south quickly. I excused myself from the table and headed outside, desperate to take a breath and collect myself in the dark. I hit the lawn at a run, felt the grass beneath my bare feet and looked up.

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I think it was the stars that finally broke me. I started wailing.

Maine skies are clear and huge and scary beautiful. They've always mesmerized and spooked me a little. I remember crying to my mother in the night when I was still in footie pajamas because the stars through my bedroom window seemed too vast. Infinity can be terrifying.

I thought about Mom while I stood in Liz's yard, making hiccupy, strangled sounds that echoed off the side of the house. I couldn't stop wailing, even when I imagined the local police department dispatching all units to investigate what surely sounded like a murder-suicide.

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Liz found me shaking and sobbing on the edge of the driveway.

"Would it help if we went for a walk on the beach?" she asked.

"No. The ocean is too big too," I said. "It's just too FUCKING BIG, man!"

She nodded as if I'd made perfect sense and stood next to me in silence.

After almost an hour of crying, I finally lapsed into a bout of wail-fatigue. That's when Liz asked, ever so gently: "What is it that you are most scared of?"

I said: "I'm scared that I don't know what is going to happen."

"That's OK, Jess. Nobody ever does."

Her words hit me like a tranquilizer dart. I looked up again. The sky was beautiful and streaky and brilliant through my tears. I took a glorious deep breath.

And then I did what anyone in full-on existential crisis under the Maine stars would do: I threw up. An epic, slow motion up-chuck of the dinner, the drinks and the pills: all of it. Then I stumbled and fell, sitting directly on top of the whole mess.

We stared hard at each other in the dark, somewhere between laughing and crying.

"Sometimes the only sane thing to do is to totally lose it," she said.

"Well, I'm pretty sane, then," I replied.

"Yes. Yes, you are" she said, and handed me a bottle of water and a box of tissues, the most totally prepared best friend in the history of best friends.

The next morning, we toasted my breakthrough meltdown over breakfast. I had to crack sometime. I'd gotten it over with and out of the way in spectacular fashion. No harm, mostly no foul.

We clinked our coffee cups and saluted each other, and watched through the kitchen window as the neighbor's dogs sprinted across the lawn. They seemed to be enthusiastically investigating a treat of some sort.

They'd found the vomit mess I'd made the night before. And before we could react, they promptly ate it, pills and all, with overjoyed pure doggie gusto.

After a few hours of watchful waiting through the blinds, we finally determined that the dogs were not going to die of a pill overdose. We took it as a good omen. We still do.

Tags: well being