Monday, April 23, 2012

Redefining "Victory"

Winning motivates. The thought of being the first to cross the finish line can push people to do the unachievable. When you're in competition for something, the desired outcome is obvious and when you achieve your goal, praise and admiration will surely follow. However, more often than not, you aren't competing in a race or a high stakes poker game. Victories aren't always obvious which seems silly to say but its true. No one is waiting to give you a gold star when you get your favorite parking spot but that doesn't mean you shouldn't celebrate it. Some times you have to create your own victories in order to motivate yourself. Depending on where you are in life, the victories may also have to adjust. For instance, for a struggling young married couple, a small victory could be as simple as paying the electric bill in full. However a recently graduated med student's victory may be getting their first residency.

One of the lowest points of my life came about 4 months into my 6 month chemo regiment. I had tried several different drugs, been in and out of the hospital, and started visits with an in-home nurse, but nothing seemed to kill the pain and nausea. The drugs for pain made me nauseated, the nausea medicine made me constipated, and constipation medicine made me nauseated. I often couldn't keep down the medicine to treat my nausea because I couldn't go more than 20 minutes or so without throwing it back up. I did thankfully get to familiarize myself with suppositories which proved to be a humiliating waste of time. Not only was this pattern frustrating but it was tiring, discouraging, and very uncomfortable.

Most weeks my chemo symptoms would land me in the hospital 3-5 days every other week. Hooking up to IV seemed to be the only way to keep my vomiting and pain level at a relatively comfortable level. Even going to to the hospital wasn't a relief. I felt chained to hospital bed watching people come and go, carrying on with their lives as usual. I felt like I was just withering away into the bed sometimes not being able to eat food for a few days at a time.

When I was able to tough it out and stay home, it was a much more depressing story. These were the times I came very familiar with what we fondly named "The Puke Chute." Thank the Lord Almighty for this little invention.

Not unlike a hospital, my house was littered with stacks and stacks of these little babies. I even considered investing in a few dispensers at one point. I had to lay flat on my back without pillows, in my bed without moving. I kept one near my bed at all times in case I chose to engage in any one of strenuous activities such as rolling over, tilting up my head on a pillow to watch TV, get up to go to the bathroom, cough or sneeze, drink, eat, or think about eating. I would also have to do this without any pain medication because the pain pills would make me to vomit causing even more pain.I would stare up at the ceiling and listen to the television, waiting for Carley to get home from work with Starbucks oatmeal; 1 of 3 not-totally-nausiating meals for me at the time. Even the slightest move would prompt another puke chute which was twisted up and placed in a trash can at my bedside, to be emptied at 1:00pm each day when Car returned home.

I very rarely had the urge for #2 but I dreaded the moment I felt the need to pee. I'd grab a chute and head to the bathroom in case I couldn't make it to my back up pile next to my toilet. I mastered the art of vomiting and peeing simultaneously in no time at all but not all at once. More often than not, the heaving from throwing up my instant breakfast would cause me to start peeing before I was ready. I sat down, a little humiliated, and finished my business, changed my urine-soaked underwear and sweatpants, and headed back to lay in bed.

Nighttime was the absolute worst. Carley was working 4:00am - 1:00pm regularly and we usually lay together in bed the rest of the day and went to bed by 9:00pm. I was always freezing. I would bundle up in several blankets, a hoodie, beanie, and sweatpants to try to keep me warm. She would wake me up in the middle of the night when she reached over and felt me soaking through my sweatshirt and the first layer of blankets. Because I was still so cold, I would have to get up, peel off my clothes and jump into a scalding hot shower. When I returned to the bedroom, she would have changed my pillow cases, sheets, and blankets, and fallen back to sleep only to wake up one more time to do it again before leaving the house at 3:30am. For 6 months, we probably slept through the entire night 4 or 5 times.

Between the small food intake and all this time in bed my legs got really weak. I usually camped in my bedroom but on some of my better days, I ventured downstairs to the living room. It took all of my strength to pull my body up the stairs using the handrail and sometimes resorting to climbing up them on my hands and knees. Walking down the stairs was a piece of cake but the fear of having to climb them again kept me from frequenting my trips downstairs.

One particular day, I woke up very early in the morning and I was feeling pretty good. To make sure that the good feeling didn't wear off, I lit up a joint and smoked it down. I had started smoking pot to curb some of nausea symptoms I was having and it was working. No matter what pain or anti-nausea pills the doctors shoved down my throat, NOTHING made me feel as much relief as when I smoked. It was just the courage I needed to head down to the kitchen to cook up some instant oats. The first 3 or 4 steps went pretty smoothly but when I put my foot down on the 5th step my knee gave out and I went hurling down the stairs, head over feet and crashed into the wall on the bottom landing. I quickly realized that I was home alone. I began to cry. I hurt on every inch on my body and the fall had instantaneously killed the buzz from my doobie. I soaked myself in tears as I lay on the landing crumpled in the fetal position for several minutes before attempting to move. I finally managed to sit myself up and lean back against the wall. I felt like the light at the end of the tunnel had just went out. I couldn't imagine that life could get any worse than this exact moment.

Needless to say, at this moment, it was a little difficult to "see the good in things."

So, I found that to stay positive I would have to find ways to celebrate my own victories. I knew that if i continued to guage my current success on my abilities before I started chemo, that I would never be able to match up and therefore would always feel like a failure. I was much weaker and unable to do some of the things that regularly would require little effort. I remembered an Albert Einstein quote I'd seen in the "Quoteable Quotes" section of a Reader's Digest in my grandparents' bathroom a few years prior.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I thought about that for a second and I even managed to find a little victory in my current situation. I mean, I did make it downstairs after all, and to be honest, I got down there much faster than if I would have hobbled down each step individually. Even further, if I hadn't been slowed down by the crash into the wall, I might have even finished microwaving my  oats and crawled back up into bed in record time. I laughed a little, spun around on my butt, slid down the last 3 steps, opened the cupboard under the stairs, and enjoyed a few hits from the pipe I had stashed down there.

It was a huge turning point for me. Instead of striving for the typical goals that one would aim for like pay increases, new cars, buying a home, or graduating college my victories were celebrated each hour I went without throwing up, days when I had regular bowel movements, successful IV stick in 3 or less attempts, or managing to stay out of the hospital for an entire chemo cycle. I started to write about my experiences and published my struggles online. The more I reported my progress and my success at handling my symptoms, the easier it was to celebrate because everyone was celebrating with me. The light in the tunnel had reilluminated a bit and things were looking up. I obviously wasn't looking at a cake walk but this made it a little easier to keep my chin up when the road got rough.

Here are some ways to ensure you celebrate a victory every day.


  • Your favorite song comes on the radio.
  • When you go to the grocery store and your total is exact change i.e. $10.00.
  • McDonald's runs their "Every size drink for $1" promotion.
  • Spice up your signature. Turn writing checks into signing autographs.
  • Score! Front row parking!
  • Being served the first cup of coffee from a freshly brewed pot.
  • Seeing a kitten or puppy, especially a fluffy one.
  • You buy one and get one free.
  • Dexter, Friends, or Gilmore Girls reruns on TV when there is nothing else to watch.
  • Brad and Angelina add another ethiopian orphan.
  • Good hair days.
  • Rainbows and/or double rainbows on an otherwise gloomy day.
  • You get a retweet from a celebrity.
  • Finding your favorite dvds in the bargin bin
  • Tad Hamilton extreme makes over another home.
  • Someone "likes" your status. Multiple likes = multiple celebrations.
  • Overhearing someone say something nice about you when they don't know you're listening.
  • Runing into an old friend.
  • Finishing all the laundry before you'd planned
  • 11:11
  • Seeing the asshole speeding through traffic getting pulled over a few miles ahead.
  • Finding an old picture that reminds you of an event you'd forgotten about.
  • Another 1st Lady outshines her husband. (You'll probably get more celebrations from this one than you'd expect.)

thanks for listening! Stay tuned.


  1. Julia, I knew you were sick but I had no idea of your suffering. I'm so sorry. I feel bad that you had to face this at such a young age!

    Thanks for being so graphic. People need to know the details of what it's like.

  2. Melanie,

    Thanks for being my #1 Fan and always commenting. People don't realize how nice it is to hear that they like my writing and it always encourages me to write more.