Zebras In My Head


zebra card2“My head is full of fucking zebras!” is what I wailed to my mom over Thanksgiving, as she sagely tried to remind me of the adage, “When you hear hoofbeats, don’t think of zebras.”

“Zebras, and zebras, and MORE zebras. A whole herd of them. And they’re all coming for me!”

Or that was the sentiment, anyway, as we discussed my most recent anxiety, specifically that I was dying of a new disease of some kind {at this moment I can’t remember exactly what it was, although it was probably lung cancer or heart disease. Yes! I had a horrible upper respiratory infection, and somehow in my mind, I became convinced that it was really the first symptoms of incurable lung cancer.}

My sister Maria was listening, too.  “I have zebras in my head, too,” she commented.

“I think zebras run in the family,” I theorized, and then I added darkly.  “I should probably just paint black and white stripes on my forehead to let everyone know.”  I used my index finger to paint stripes on my forehead, then started to do a Travolta-ish move to make them cooler, now using both hands.

And soon the conversation turned to Miley Cyrus and her Wrecking Ball, and lots of other fun things that gave us lots of laughter, and the zebras were temporarily forgotten (although they lurked, of course, in the inner recesses of my mind, just waiting to pop out and yell SURPRISE! IT’S US!)

I like to joke about my chronic hypochondria, because it’s a way of trying to get the upper hand over it.  I always hope that by laughing at it, I can beat it into submission, at least temporarily.  It’s a bit ironic to have a “disease” that consists of believing I constantly have other diseases, and feeling intense stress and anxiety over that belief.  It’s something I’ve lived with since I was 6 years old, or at least that’s the earliest I remember feeling hypochondria; I’d lie away in bed at night crying because I thought I was dying of cancer.

And as I grew up, that fear was always with me like a second shadow, sometimes further, sometimes closer, but always present.  I know that everyone worries about death and illness, at least some of the time, but for me, those worries seemed to be much more prevalent and intense, even when I wasn’t sick.   I remember reading a passage in the book Catch 22 by Joseph Heller when I was about 11, and feeling a pang of intense recognition, and then thinking, “YES! Exactly! That’s EXACTLY how I feel, all the time!”

The quote was a thought from the main character, Yossarian:  “He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.”  (Catch 22, Joseph Heller.)

And over the years, I panicked at the various chills, twinges, twitches and pains that turned out to be part of normal life yet made my life anything but normal by my extreme reactions to them.

I’ve had well-meaning people tell me earnestly, “Think about all of the time you’ve wasted worrying. If you just LIVED your life instead of worrying about all these things, you’d have a lot more fun,”  or, “Haven’t you heard that chronic stress and anxiety will make you sicker? You should stop worrying so much!,”  or, “Do you LIKE feeling this way? I guess you must; otherwise, you wouldn’t be this way.”

And my answers are ruefully: Yes, I know it; Yes, I’ve heard it; No, I don’t like it, but thanks for playing!  And also, you forgot the best one: “Don’t you know that eventually, one of your symptoms WILL turn out to be something serious? Why don’t you enjoy life while you can?”

I guess it’s like looking at someone with depression and saying, “Snap out of it!” and then assuming they like being depressed when they can’t just snap.  It’s fundamentally human to judge someone based on our OWN responses and our OWN abilities. Because it’s impossible to get into someone else’s brain and feel how they feel, it’s simpler to reduce the equation to something like “She just isn’t trying hard enough,” or “she wants attention,” or “she must just like feeling that way.”   This also gives us reprieve from the uneasy possibility that some things are not easily controllable, and that life sometimes hands us things that can’t be fully conquered.  It’s more comfortable to dismiss someone’s struggles by minimizing them to self-control issues; that way, we assure ourselves, that person’s problem could never happen to US because WE have the self-control to beat it.

Of course there are things that help chronic anxiety. Exercise helps; clean eating helps; talking helps; friendship helps; therapy helps; medicine helps.  I’ve engaged in various combinations of these for years, and found that for me, laughter is really one of the very best helpers. And, for the record, I DO enjoy life – heartily, fully, with open arms, with joy. It’s just that I also have these intense moments of…un-enjoyment.

Laughter is awesome. When I laugh at a joke, I forget all of my troubles for a split second; I earn a blink of respite from worry; my soul unwinds and relaxes for an instant.  And all of these instants add up, I believe, into something necessary for my psyche -  just like the rests between each beat of my heart allow it to keep beating for a lifetime.  I need the laughter breaks to keep myself sane and focused and able to keep going on with life despite the various aches and strains that turn my brain into a special kind of funhouse of panic.

This may be why I like puns and dirty jokes and clean jokes, why I enjoy finding ugly things in thrift shops with my sisters, why meeting weird people is AWESOME for me, why I love sarcasm and old SNL skits and Augusten Burroughs, and why laughter is just a big part of my life.

“Laughter is the best medicine” has been an adage for a century, and scientists have been researching the chemical effects of laughter on the brain and on the body’s ability to fight disease and reduce recovery time.  Researchers William F. Fry, M.D.  and Michael Miller, M.D., found that mirthful laughter can temporarily improve vascular health (they believe it temporarily reduces blood pressure due to the release of nitric oxide during laughter; internally released nitric oxide is believed to function in the vascular system as a vasodilator, relaxing blood vessels and consequently reducing blood pressure).

Other research found that mirthful laughter can increase the activity of “natural killer” (NK) lymphocytes in the body.  This could mean that unforced laughter at humorous things can, over time, improve a person’s immune function in regards to fighting serious illnesses like cancer as well as diseases like the flu.

Laughter functions like exercise, in a way – it increase heart rate and blood flow, as well as engaging various muscle groups in contractions and expansions. It’s believed to release endorphins, otherwise known as the “feel good” chemicals of the brain.

And who doesn’t want more “feel good” chemical, especially one that’s legal AND made right in your own body? That’s pretty damn cool, if you ask me!

I know that everybody has their own zebras.  You may not worry about having an illness, but usually there’s something causing anxiety and stress in your life: Maybe it’s a REAL illness, not an imagined one; maybe it’s work, family, politics, money, a large roach in the hallway, or a bottle of tequila that crashed onto the floor when you angrily tried to pull a bag of frozen salmon from the fridge (true story, BTW).

These things may not be funny (except for the tequila part) or wonderful (except for the part where the tequila actually made the tile grout SUPER clean where it spilled!) But there will be funny things in your life, things that you happen upon or things that you seek out.  Find these things and enjoy some laughter.  The zebras are coming, but laughter weakens the damn things, so laugh with me. Enjoy what you can!  I know that you surely do laugh; everyone does. But try to laugh MORE. Laugh right now – think of a good joke, Google something silly, call a friend, whatever works for you – but add in some laughter this minute. Your body and mind will thank you.

P.S.: And whatever you do, do NOT find and read article like this one, entitled “In Oncology, Hoofbeats Are Nearly Always From Zebras” written by Miranda Fielding, M.D. or this one, “Sometimes When You Hear Hoofbeats, It Could Be A Zebra” by Burton et. al. because these articles, while certainly informative, are not going to help you focus on the fact that probably? In your life?  Horse, not zebra.

P.P.S. – If you haven’t yet read it, the book Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is VERY funny.

P3S: As a general FYI, tequila IS a wonderful tile cleanser, once you are able to remove a)All broken glass from the vicinity, b)Your dog, who is trying to lap up the spill, c)Your daughter, who is screaming, “Did it get on Seahorse!? Is Seahorse OK!?” d)Your rage at whomever left the bottle sort of interlocked with the bag of salmon, probably yourself, to be honest, AND e)Your shoes, which now smell like a frat house floor.  Good times!

P4S: If you need help:

Food Court Musical:

Shweddy Balls on SNL.

Monty Python – The Black Night

Monty Python – French Taunts








Cottage Cheese, Toupees, and Cardiology

As I was walking through the parking lot towards the entrance of the Banner Heart Hospital, I saw a piece of black hair lying on the ground by the driver’s side door of a parked car. The car, a modest sedan, had handicapped plates. The hair was shiny and black and luscious.

“Is that a…toupee?” I asked myself with eager curiosity, as I approached the scalpage.  (Curiosity, because I’m just always on the quest for knowledge and new experiences. Eagerly, because — come on, how often do you see a wig in a parking lot? And also, because I wanted to distract myself from my upcoming cardiology appointment, and ALSO, because isn’t LAUGHTER THE BEST MEDICINE OF ALL? And if so, maybe by having a good old chuckle right here in the parking lot I might cure all of my symptoms so that the doctor would proclaim, “Get out of here, you scamp! There is absolutely nothing wrong with you at all!”)

Anyway, so there I was in the beating sun, looking down at a tousled but otherwise intact patch of vibrant black hair, and thinking:

  • 1. Should I…pick it up?
  • 2.  NO, right? Because, what would I do with it?
  • 3.  I mean, I COULD put it into the ‘eyeglass basket’ in the cardiology office on the 3rd floor (Yes, they do have an “eyeglass basket”; yes, it’s always filled with at least 4 pairs.)
  • 4.  But perhaps the owner of the hairpiece is not at that office. There are many different offices in the building…the hairless wonder could be anywhere.
  • 5.  Besides, what if it had, like, lice or something? Cooties?
  • 6. Better to just leave it here, by this car, because probably the owner will see it on the way back out.
  • 7. But also, I should text several people about this immediately.
  • 8. And probably also tell the tech today at my appointment, because, hey! A toupee in the parking lot!

So after chuckling to myself and admiring, for one last time,  the luster of the sun shimmering from the ebony tresses, I took a deep breath and continued on into the building, and to floor three, where I had an appointment to pick up my eCardio heartbeat monitor.

I noted that the eyeglass basket was full, and that there were no people in the waiting room who appeared to be lacking a hairpiece. That’s not to say that they didn’t lack hair — it’s just that those who lacked it seemed to be OK with it.

“The Blessing!” I muttered to myself, summoning up another chuckle as I reminisced with myself about the awesome uncle in “Christmas Vacation” and about his toupee. Awesome!  “The Blessing!” I said under my breath again, wishing that I could insta-send a mental Skype to my sisters and family to laugh about this with me.

Because I could not do the mental thing, and because nobody sitting near me piped up with, “Oh, I LOVE that movie too!”, I  passed time while waiting nervously by alternating between two thoughts:

  • 1. Oh My God. I am probably the youngest person in here. I guess that’s OK, right? I mean, look at all these people – they’re pretty old, and they have serious problems, and they’re still kicking! It’s OK. I’m OK.
  • 2. Oh My God. I am probably the youngest person in here. That’s TERRIBLE. I mean, look at all these people – they’re pretty old, and they have serious problems. If I’m having problems NOW, good God, what, how will I —

And now it was time to distract myself by reading a book on my tablet by Joshua Foer called Moonwalking With Einstein. This book proved to be even better than the toupee in the parking lot. Have you read it? If not, you should!  Foer writes in a fun style about memory, memory competitions, how to improve your memory, and how even “ordinary” people who don’t think of themselves as savants can learn to memorize incredible amounts of knowledge.

He said there are techniques you can use to memorize lists of words or numbers, and he started with a very catchy example.  Let’s say you want to memorize his friend’s long ‘to do’ list of 15 items that includes purchasing pickled garlic, cottage cheese, 6 bottles of wine, elk sausages, etc. He says to start by thinking of a place that is very familiar to you, such as your childhood home . Take the first item on your ‘to do’ list and put it by the entry walkway. Imagine yourself placing that jar of pickled garlic there, maybe a HUGE bottle, and tasting the delicious and/or revolting taste as you do. Really visualize it there in your mind.  Next, proceed up to the front door. As you get there, imagine that right there is a kiddie pool filled with cottage cheese, and Claudia Schiffer is in there swimming in it. A few items later,  imagine the 6 bottles of wine sitting on the couch, arguing about which one of them tastes better. (Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.)

And so on. The thing is, it WORKED.  I read along with his friend’s eccentric to-do list, mentally placing them  in my childhood home, and it stuck. I can recall the list right now. I am visualizing the jar of garlic, the pool of cottage cheese, the wine bottles…all of it!

I started to get excited. Next step? Maybe *I* can be the one who memorizes pi to the ten thousandth digit!  Or, maybe not, because honestly? –That sound super boring. (Although kudos to those who can do it!)

But I figured that if I could now memorize long weird lists of things just after reading about a technique for 10 minutes, imagine how much I could improve my memory ability if I actually studied more about this and practiced, as Foer did. He ended up winning the U.S.  Memory Championship in 2006 after learning & practicing various memory techniques.

So I walked into my appointment thinking of Claudia Schiffer and the garlic (those images are REALLY sticky! — mental note; need to learn how to un-remember something), and proceeded to tell the tech about the toupee in the parking lot at a suitable point in the conversation. She did not seem to think this was as funny as I did, or as interesting. Also, she did not seem to know exactly how to work the device she was currently giving me to take home for 30 days.  I found myself thinking that perhaps SHE could use a few lessons on memory. (“I can’t remember how many events it records before you can send it. I think maybe, like, two? Or like, maybe three? Just send after each event though, OK?”)

It’s an eCardio monitor that looks like a little pager. If I feel irregular heartbeats or palpitations, I just hold it to my chest and it records for 60 seconds. Then I call the number listed on the pager, hold the receiver over the pager, push the “SEND” button, and it transmits.  I was simultaneously relieved that I didn’t have to WEAR the monitor for 30 days and also surprised that there was not better technology. I mean, seriously — how about a device that records and can upload to a website on the computer? Wouldn’t that be simpler?

My cardiologist told me not to worry about having a heart attack from my sometimes-palpitations after I told him I was worried about this. He wants me to record any irregular heartbeats so we can figure out what is going on, but he did not seem to think it was going to be life-threatening, which is comforting.

So now I will be carrying around my little eCardio in my purse for the next 30 days, and also possibly reading more about memory techniques and improving my memory.  I will also be trying to remove the images of Claudia in the cottage cheese, and the huge bottle of garlic, and the grumpy wine bottles from my childhood home, because — as you can imagine — there are MUCH better things I can use to fill up that home. Like a luscious, gleaming black toupee.