Lying on an MRI bed in Abu Dhabi while large metal magnets clang around my head; the cacophony overpowering Bruno Mars on my not-so-noise-cancelling headphones…flashes of my life…the big things and all the small things that have haunted my consciousness…belly fat, hair loss, too much work, too little work, FOMO about others’ vacations, partners, families…and I would give anything to just have one more day to worry about all those silly things. What stage of grief is this?
Exploring the surprisingly high standards of health care in the UAE is definitely one of my most unique cultural experiences. Little kids hacking up their lungs in the reception room while their hijab-wearing moms wipe their noses. Surrendering to our shared mortal fate while eating a Chicken Tikka wrap in the unnaturally swank hospital cafeteria, not able to stifle tears of sheer fear on the phone with my parents half a world away in Hawaii; them unsure whether to freak out or temper my potentially hypochondriac tendencies.
The past three months I’ve been experiencing blurred vision and dizziness, following a dusty outdoor festival at the end of September. I thought maybe it was due to the Rogaine I had just started using in my obsessive fight against traitorous hairlines. When weeks turned into a month, I went to see my optometrist, who encouraged me to use rewetting drops. When the dizziness got more persistent, I went to an ophthalmologist, who did a thorough eye exam and concluded that other than “still being very nearsighted,” nothing was wrong. He recommended computer vision glasses which made me a little dizzier. As fall turned into winter, I started to feel tingling in my face and decided to finally see a neurologist while trying not to get all hypochondriac on myself (a feat in and of itself for a girl who found a neck tumor at 8 and had a catheter ablation at 29). It was a frustratingly long quest to get an appointment with a neurologist who takes Obamacare and has available appointments within a couple months.
So, that’s how I found myself googling MS symptoms (the devil’s hobby) at 33,000 feet on the short 22-hour jump to Abu Dhabi for a work trip. By the time I landed in Dubai, I had weathered several mini panic attacks and felt dejectedly resolved to continue scuba diving with MS (something I found out you can do in my extensive mile-high googling). Is it possible to pass through the stages of grief in your confined economy seat while passengers around you enjoy complimentary Wonder Woman? Yes, yes it is.
The next day after waking up at the jetlagged hour of 3pm and a refreshing swim in the St. Regis Athletic Club, I called Ian, my manager, to freak out on him about the continuing symptoms…the constant blurred vision, lightheaded dizziness, and facial tingling. Like many other crisis times in my life, Ian was incredibly supportive while remaining level-headed. He encouraged me to go check it out in the ER but not to freak out until we knew what it was. And if I was going to freak out, I may as well fully lean into the fear to empower myself. And that’s how I ended up lying on an MRI table in downtown Abu Dhabi, prepared to enjoy the fuck out of the worst case scenario and whatever moments I had left on this earth…even with a few weeks, I could get my affairs in order and spend time with those I love. That many people never get the opportunity to make it to 35 or live the three lifetimes I’ve lived in the past three years.
Through facing my fear of mortality, I gained an arcane glimpse into the serenity of pure gratitude for being alive. All my mind-strengthening practices and gratitude journaling (trying to convince myself to appreciate every day; not taking anything for granted) paled in comparison to the subjectively real feeling of being on the brink of death. I guess being at the precipice of death also brings you to the precipice of life.
I would never wish that feeling on anyone but when you’re confronted with your own mortality, (which we will all face intentionally or unintentionally one day), you can choose to stare right back into the darkness and embrace the light or cower away and wish for the impossible.
The potential imminence of the end made me realize how irrational FOMO is…the incessant comparing of myself to others on all dimensions, exacerbated by social media and reinforced by a successful track record driven by said FOMO. If being alive isn’t not guaranteed to any of us, we are all already winning by being alive. So, how can I feel FOMO for anything else, since nothing is guaranteed to anyone?
The next evening after a surreal day of business meetings, I went back to pick up my MRI diagnostic report…normal. And the UCSF neurologist I saw on my return to the States confirmed there were no major structural neurological issues. She seemed to think they were physical symptoms of anxiety and (questionably) recommended I read books about cognitive behavior therapy. I’m trying to get a second opinion, and I still don’t know what is causing the symptoms but I’ve decided that I can live with these symptoms, because fuck, being alive rocks. I recorded a video note to myself that night in Abu Dhabi to remind me of the things that really matter. And what a luxury it is to worry about the things that don’t really matter. It’s hard to hold on to that zen-like surrender when not on the brink of death, but I am grateful that what has been felt can never be unfelt…the beauty of life in its transience.
As I’ve written before, I think there are things that you can only “learn the hard way” and understand through experience. This is why we don’t sit in a library all day reading about other people’s lives. We get out there and live the fuck out of life, which is what I plan to do…
Abu Dhabi for “work”: the St. Regis grounds were beautiful and felt really fortunate to have supportive coworkers who I could confide in during my health scare while we sat poolside…totally surreal
Dubai tourism: after the drama of Abu Dhabi, I headed for a day of tourism in Dubai…it was literally big Western shopping mall! Totally not my bag…