A Cancer Scare Killed My Inner Perfectionist. Hopefully for Good.
by Ilona Fried
At the end of May 2017 I had a routine mammogram. The radiologist spotted an area she wanted to watch. She told me to return in six months. In October, I considered making a long overdue trip to Budapest . I called the hospital and asked if I could wait seven months instead of six. They said yes. While abroad, I tried not to think about the second screening, but it also made me consider: What if I had cancer and needed treatment? That thought helped me savor my time overseas.
That I returned to the US because of the screening, not because I felt ready to come back, crumpled my spirits. When the radiologist looked at my images and said she wanted me to get a biopsy, my heart sank. That was December 29. I scheduled the procedure for the next available date, January 4. Mother Nature had other plans. A fierce blizzard threatened to roll into town the morning of my appointment. I considered braving the high winds and poor visibility, but the hospital offered another slot the following week. While waiting, I saw a Facebook ad for a co-working retreat in Marrakesh, geared towards people who want to work remotely, experience another culture, or who are looking to reimagine their lives. Two spots remained.
All of my cells lit up at the prospect of being in a new place with kindred spirits from around the world. The balance of structure and freedom, companionship and independence, work and exploration seemed ideal. It’s extremely rare for my cells, and my inner selves, to sing the same note. I’ve learned to listen when they do.
Morocco had been on my radar for decades. I almost went there 20 years ago with a serious boyfriend. Except I ended the relationship before the trip. Contrary to my prudent habits, I threw away my non-refundable ticket. I had been too afraid to go by myself. Years later, I became friends with a Moroccan man whose import shop was in the same building as my former jewelry studio. He offered tours of his home country. Every so often I considered participating in one of his trips, yet I hesitated. Being an introvert who requires alone time, I find group excursions and shared accommodations draining.
With a biopsy looming, I didn’t want to make plans. Meanwhile, the procedure was pushed back another day. The results wouldn’t be available for five more days. My bean counter of a brain tallied up the delays and put them on a scale. Each weighed heavily. When my doctor phoned on a Wednesday, she told me that the biopsy had detected cancer and that she’d put in a request for me to meet with a team: an oncologist and a surgeon. She said that the hospital would phone me to set up that meeting, but when I asked her for a diagnosis, she didn’t say.
Almost a month would pass between the screening and the meeting. I called the scheduler to confirm that an oncologist would be present. She said no, even though that’s what I’d heard. I phoned my doctor for clarification. She did not return my call. Without concrete information to keep it occupied, my mind traveled down some sobering and painful pathways. What if this were the beginning of the end? Had I done most of the things I’d wanted to do? I couldn’t say that I had. I began baking to keep myself from drowning in sorrow.
My younger brother came with me to meet the surgeon. He offered comic relief as we waited. The surgeon, when he arrived, delivered surprising news: I do not have cancer, now, although I’m at a higher risk of developing it. After my shock morphed into bewilderment about the miscommunication, we discussed what to do. As one option, he suggested surgery to remove tissue around the biopsied area. I asked him if the excision was urgent. He said no.
That evening I checked to see if the retreat, which began eight days later, still had room. It did. I applied. The company interviews all prospective adventurers to make sure they’re a good fit. I hoped I’d be contacted over the weekend. I wasn’t. On Monday afternoon, I Skyped with one of the founders. I passed the test. All I had to do was commit. That’s when the perfectionist exploded onto the scene and tried to shut down what had made me feel so alive just weeks earlier.
“It’s too short notice!” it screamed, even though I’d made last-minute plans before.
“You’ll never find an affordable flight!” it warned, as if I might have to file for bankruptcy.
“You need more time to prepare!” it said, as if I needed to do research to confirm what my body was telling me.
My entire nervous system froze and my level of anxiety skyrocketed as if I’d just been taken hostage, my hands tied behind my back. That is exactly what unchallenged perfectionism does. It can hold us to such high standards that we become paralyzed. Nothing we do will satisfy its relentless and insatiable demands. Because I love to explore other cultures, the perfectionist finds me an easy target around travel. It wants to squelch the joy and freedom I’m longing to experience.
Some might dismiss my situation as a “first world problem”. Yet such a dismissal ignores that perfectionism, in its many guises and disguises, is an enormous problem in the first world, even if it’s less visible than other maladies. Because many of us can meet our basic survival needs, our minds are free to manufacture illusions and battles that feel real. Advertisers and marketers often prey on these illusions, feeding a perpetual sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction because it’s hard to keep up and get everything “right”. Perfectionism can wreak emotional and mental havoc even it if doesn’t cause physical pain. It can diminish the pleasure of being alive, even if it is not immediately fatal.
I looked into flights. I couldn’t use my frequent flyer miles on short notice. Many bargain fares involved exhausting itineraries. As I toggled between sites and experimented with return dates, I caught on that the perfectionist was keeping me from booking a ticket. It wanted me to leap over many hurdles in the frugal Olympics so I’d win the applause, praise and smiles of others for having prioritized saving money over my own needs.
“You’re allowed to enjoy yourself if you can do it cheaply,” the perfectionist says.
Becoming aware of this dynamic felt akin to stealthily wriggling free from a kidnapper’s ropes rather than straining against them. I purchased a plane ticket. That decision sent the perfectionist scurrying away, temporarily. The next day it harassed me about clothing. It didn’t matter that the packing list had been fairly generic and advised us to be comfortable. My perfectionist wouldn’t have any of it.
“You don’t have the right items,” it said, “and you don’t have time to find them!”
My breath tightened again. It took me some moments to identify that this strain of perfectionism stemmed from a fear of not fitting in and the belief that the “right” attire and gear would bring social acceptance (and, today, looking good on social media). I thought of the times I scrambled to find outfits or shoes for special occasions and trips, often more for the sake of others’ opinions than my own comfort, only to exhaust myself getting things I barely used.
With the clock ticking, I knew I had to kill the perfectionist before it killed my sanity and my spirit. I did need quick drying travel pants and waterproof walking shoes. Other items I could do without or purchase there. I drove to an outdoor gear shop. I found two pants that fit, a minor miracle. They were not on sale. I bought them anyway. Then I popped into a shoe store to see if they still carried a pair which the perfectionist had previously deemed too expensive and not cool enough. Luckily, they had the shoes. They fit like a dream.
Now that I am in Morocco, it’s obvious the perfectionist is a saboteur. Much of what I would have brought if I’d had more time to do it “right” wouldn’t have served me here. My fellow adventurers, most of whom made their plans in advance, also confronted the inadequacy of their clothing. There is a reason many locals wear shapeless long robes with pointy hoods. This practical garment protects them from the cold, the wind, the rain and the sun. At the market, after a protracted and flirtation-filled bargaining session, I bought a short hooded blue cape that serves the same purpose. My companions say it suits me. Wearing it also suits my soul. While not as powerful as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, it allows me to blend in a bit more and assume a different persona. Perhaps I will wear it in the United States, too, as a reminder to kill the perfectionist and be present to life.
January 18, 2018
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