Emotional Shock: The First Week

Friday, September 27, 2019
Cayucos, California

Emotional Shock: The First Week

Last week, I posted about a friend’s frightening medical situation. My intention was to educate readers facing such situations in themselves or in those close to them.

Today, I share more of the unfolding story—intending again to inform, instruct, guide.

Reactions to stressful life events vary immensely depending on the person. It’s hard to imagine an irrelevant variable—age matters, as does personality style, cultural background, history of trauma, and more. Therefore, this particular tale is merely a rough prototype for what you might experience.

If you want to read the last post—studying the first two days of reaction to an emotional shock—you can find it here:


Little new information emerged about Jill’s condition for the rest of the week. The masses in her brain almost certainly began somewhere else—a surprisingly welcome finding. A CT scan of her body revealed a small, 3mm lesion near the colon, and a suspicious lymph node nearby. A gastroenterologist will biopsy both masses via colonoscopy next week.

Meanwhile, no clue revealing the specific nature of the disease exists. Some kind of malignant cancer remains most likely. The radiation treatment of the brain lesions are scheduled to begin next week—despite the absence of a specific diagnosis.

I follow the trends in the emotional reaction noted in my last post, adding a few more themes.

First, the emotional tone has morphed from sheer panic to generalized feelings of fear and sadness. Jill met with a neurosurgeon the day after the contrast MRI revealed multiple lesions in the brain. I feared the MD would advise immediate, potentially life-threatening brain surgery. When the medical team thought those lesions best treated by radiation, my sense of relief was immense.

I received that “good” news the morning after the appointment. Most of the day, my panic-like reaction to my prior worst fears subsided so quickly as to elicit almost a feeling of euphoria. The good mood lasted for hours. Images of endless treatments, painful surgical interventions, and slow death vanished. Along with them, my mood remained shifted upwards into near-elation.

By the next day, however, it had returned to the simmering, dark feelings noted earlier. My imagination shifted to visions of the remaining spectrum of diagnostic and treatment options, fueling the underlying fearful, sad feeling. Some times, like when deeply engaged with patients, the images and feelings receded. Other times, like when catching up on emails, they’d come rushing back in.

But they never go away.

They seem to have become a new, foundational emotional state.

Any readers facing an uncertain but probably scary diagnosis might have a parallel experience. Your mood might swing remarkably at hopeful signs or, equally intensely, at bad ones. Your imagery will vacillate similarly.

It is noteworthy that, in this specific situation, the uncertainty seems nearly lethal. One’s mind runs back and forth, from the benign to the malignant, from complete relief to visions of horror. I expect the ultimate diagnosis to effect this kind of emotional lability, evening it out.

Second, the fiction I referred to in the earlier posting, the fiction we call “our lives” or “our inner worlds,” has not changed that much in the last week. Perhaps because that initial concern about immediate brain surgery has passed, the fiction has now taken a different, and more stable, turn. Now, when I think about Jill and her husband, I imagine them fighting a longer, perhaps life-time, struggle. The way I think about our future plans together has become different. It still remains unstable, but less dire and not as unstable as before. Sometimes I imagine a complete and positive resolution.

Third, and venturing into new territory, I see mortality fears elicited in the entire social circle, including me. Another dear friend, Linda, also a psychologist, taught me the idea of considering illnesses as “life-limiting.”

In other words, any illness or disease only limits life.

We’re all going to die someday.

Chronic diabetes means your life will be limited, if only due to the ongoing need to check your blood sugar levels and consult doctors. If serious cancer, then your date of expiration might move up in time. What’s helpful about Linda’s concept, though, is that it acknowledges a truth with a capital T about illness or injury:

Any type of medical problem, whether from injury or disease or infection, risks limiting your life.

Doctors don’t really save lives.

They only extend them.

Humbling knowledge, yes, but helpful to all of us in the circle that now can’t help but think:

What if this were me?

Or, more accurately:

When will it be me?

Fourth, and my devout Catholic friend, David, will love this, the entire experience brings to mind the concept of God as love. I’m pretty sure the Protestants borrowed the idea as well.

The love shared by this circle of friends has been nothing less than amazing. The scary news spreads through concentric social circles like fire in a dry field. Unlike the destructiveness of fire, though, the love brings comfort and connection. This particular group of friends is coming together like never before. Relatives are joining in the fray. Even the more removed acquaintances and colleagues want news updates.

People are making plans to travel to be present during treatment regimens. Offers of food and other kinds of support are coming in, as are checks to cover extra medical expenses, loss of time from work, food, and more.

The love helps more than words can describe. The immediate circle of friends share updates on the unfolding medical mis-adventure daily; they make the offers to help just noted, and; discussions are being held to ensure travel plans to allow for enough support for Jill over time.

This separate and distinct phenomenon—love—offers the most hope of all.

Regardless of what these lesions turn out to be, Jill has the support of an ever-growing village of loving people. The small group of friends have personal connections with at least three oncologists—and that’s just so far. We all know MDs who know other MDs etc, ensuring that, whatever the diagnosis, Jill and her husband will have access to the best possible information.

In summary, the painful thoughts and feelings are omnipresent one week into this awful experience.

They are exhausting.

And, yet, the love, oh yes the love, invites all involved parties into an intimacy that embraces. It envelops fear, hope, and the entire range of images and feelings like a warm blanket in an arctic storm.

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