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Brainflowers

"All God does is watch us and kill us when we get
boring. We must never, ever be boring."
Chuck Palahniuk

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CONTENTS
Chinese New Year 2010 .......................................................... 4
Not the Chest Surgery I Wanted .......................................... 5
It's Not Brain Surgery –

Wait, yes it is .......................... 9

It's Not Enough ........................................................................ 12
Yes, Mom... ................................................................................. 13
The Intersection of Magic and Magical Thinking ...... 13
(interlude: longest episode of project runway ever)
................................................................................................... 16
Recovery, Vacation, Lost Wages and the Fine Line .. 17
Racing From the Cure ........................................................... 19
This Is Still Not the Chest Surgery I Wanted ............... 21
CYA ............................................................................................... 22
Chinese New Year 2011 ....................................................... 23

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CHINESE NEW
YEAR 2010

Just before the Year of the Tiger began, I had a biopsy
on a lump in my breast.
I'm a transgender man. I don't even want to have
breasts. Up to this point I'd had fairly mild issues
with my body, but this blew them wide open.
I didn't talk about it. My girlfriend knew, obviously,
but I didn't mention it to my friends or family - not
when I went to the first doctor, not when I went for
the mammogram, not when the doctor called back
and said they wanted more pictures and a biopsy.
I felt like my feelings aren't something I should
subject other people to, because other people deal
with worse, because I'm telling myself it'll be nothing.
In the meantime, I felt like a scared little boy who's
supposed to man up about shit. I grew up in a family
that Didn't Talk About Things. Especially serious
things. I don't want to be the person that everything
thinks is looking for a pity party, and just thinking
about it had me so damn scared that I couldn't think
straight half the time.
That's what I get for being queer and bi, right? The
inability to think straight?

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NOT THE CHEST SURGERY I
WANTED

I don't hate pink. I don't have any strong feelings
about the color either way, but I do have feelings
about what it stands for. When I wear a pink ribbon,
when I do the Race for the Cure, it's for my mom. Pink
is for my mom, not for me.
So it was awkward to sit there, staring at the
tastefully-pink decor and the matching pink fronttying hospital tops everyone was wearing in the
waiting room of the evocatively named Breast Center,
and be so painfully aware that I was the only man
who was waiting for an appointment, and the only
one who knew that a man was here at all. I didn't
correct anyone when they called me "miss" - it
seemed too much to explain that here. Everything
seemed too much and too fast that morning.
As it turned out, I was the youngest person in the
waiting room too - there was a young woman whose
mother was waiting for her, but she was in her early
thirties. I found this out when two of the waiting
women responded to the same first name, and after
the nurse took one back, the other started telling
stories she'd heard of mixed-up test results and
accidental mastectomies. The young lady who'd been
with her mom was horrified, and the elder one began

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to speak to her in a motherly way. I learned her age,
and their histories, as they spoke.
I felt awkward, in my pink hospital top, surrounded
by pink decor. I couldn't take my usual small relief in
ungendered bathrooms. I couldn't even bring myself
to talk. Female bonding, even this desperate kind, still
didn't include me.
I felt even more awkward when they called me back
to the mammogram unit and I had to take the top off.
I overanalyzed myself even as the radiologist
analyzed me. Was I too hesitant to take the top off, or
too eager? I was aiming for detached, but I never
quite got there.
To have these breasts shoved onto a shelf, squashed
flat and photographed, then sent off to ultrasound
where they were rubbed and scanned... I was reduced
to a part of anatomy that I barely felt belonged to me.
And all the time I was surrounded by women.
I'm sure that's a comfort to every other patient, but it
was just another thing that held me apart from them.
The nurses, the ultrasound technician and the doctor,
the radiologist and even her student observer were
female. I don't begrudge them their comfort, but it
definitely canceled out every time I've passed in the
last six months.
While I waited for the doctor's recommendations, all
I could think was the same horrible joke about
getting my insurance to cover my top surgery.
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At the end, when the doctor left me alone to get
dressed and find my way out, I cried. I wasn't sure
what I was crying for, and I hated myself for crying
almost as much as I hated this body. I don't usually
hate this body, even if it is so vastly wrong to me.
Usually there is only indifference, maybe some
discomfort. That day I really hated it.
The bitterness stuck around, a thin trickle making me
a little sick to my stomach, making me cringe every
time I put on a sports bra. It was a couple of weeks
before they could fit me in for the biopsy, and that
was much the same, but I was prepared for it that
day.
There was relief later, in the word benign, but it
didn't quite undo what everything else had done. It
was a different kind of relief. The doctors
recommended surgery anyway, just a precaution, and
so the knowledge that I had to go back there and keep
dealing with this was still hovering.
The third time I went back there was the morning of
surgery. Just a precaution, I repeated to myself. So I
went back again to the little pink tops and the pink
walls. This time there was only one woman in the
waiting room, this one much older than me. She
talked about her church, and how late they were
running today. I joked that at least they couldn't start
the surgery without me.

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She asked if she could pray for me. I said yes. I never
said yes, but that time I did. She closed her eyes and
prayed for me, even as she was facing her own trials.
We all knew that everyone in the damn pink shirts
was here for a reason, after all. She even gave me a
little book when she was done, with her own name
and number written in on the back. In case I needed
to talk, she said.
I could have cried for it. Did cry, later in the day while
I waited for the doctor in pre-op, when everything
was finally too much for me to handle. I couldn't
explain why, hardly to myself and not at all to other
people. There was too much wrapped up in it.
I woke up in recovery with a stiff neck. That always
happens when I sleep wrong. My chest hurt, but my
throat hurt more, and I gagged and choked. I'm
grateful for it, in a way. As long as my throat hurts, I
don't have to think about what else does.
The doctor mentioned sending the remains to a lab.
Just to be sure, again, even though the biopsy already
came back benign. That was another week, still, and
the bruising and the scar, before I can try hard to get
back to not thinking about the parts of my body that
shouldn't be there, that aren't part of what's really
me.

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IT'S NOT BRAIN SURGERY –
WAIT, YES IT IS
Sometimes when you jump, you're a lot higher than
you thought. Sometimes fate catches you by the scruff
of your tshirt.
I almost quit my job in July. I'd been thinking about it
for a while, because I really disliked it and I wanted to
go back to school full time. My girlfriend said she
would get a part-time job, even though I'd wanted to
be able to put her through school without her having
to work. She said she was happy to do it because my
job stressed me out so much.
She started looking, but nothing much turned up
because of her class schedule. I put off quitting
because I didn't want to do it until she was employed
and I was sure we'd be okay, mathematically
speaking.
I told my supervisor and my boss that I was going
back to school about a month before the semester
started, and offhandly offered to stay on part time if
there was a way to make that work. I expected an
immediate "no," to be honest, but it never came.
Instead it was weeks of "we're waiting on someone"
and finally I decided I'd quit after the business trip I
was already scheduled for in late July.
Then I had a vertigo attack right before I was
supposed to travel. It was the worst I'd had in a while
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and I knew I couldn't fly, so I went to urgent care on a
Sunday night since I was supposed to leave in the
morning. The doctor there wrote me a note, but she
also instructed me to go to my primary care doctor
and ask for more input on the vertigo than the
offhand diagnosis of Benign Positional Vertigo I'd
gotten before.
I did as she'd told me, and my primary care physician
said sure, but first let's get an MRI done. Just to be
sure. And meanwhile I made plans to leave my job
anyway, figuring I'd find something else and skate by
on my student aid.
So I worked up my nerve and I told my boss I was
going back to school the next week and if they didn't
have an answer I'd have to just quit.
The day I'd planned to say I was definitely quitting,
my doctor told me there was a brain tumor on the
MRI results. The day. And so I negotiated, and I got
my modified schedule, and I took my paycut but I
kept my insurance.
There's a lot of things about the year that scare me,
and one of them is the idea that Someone is looking
out for me.
You know how people say things like "I went numb"
or "I stopped hearing even though I knew they were
still talking"? It was exactly like that. I almost
dropped my lunch as I was carrying it to my desk.

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Words. She said words. That's really all I can tell you.
I called my girlfriend and then I spent twenty
minutes crying in a storage closet in my office.
A week later, I got a call from the doctor while
waiting for the bus. The second set of MRI results
showed a definite Problem and she was handing me
off to a neurosurgeon. My doctor asked if I was okay.
I told her yes, because I have to be okay.
It was starting to mess with my head a little (no pun
intended). The doctor told me to go to the ER if I had
a seizure or severe vertigo or a bad headache, "just to
be safe."
My first consult with the neurosurgeon went about as
well as a consult with a neurosurgeon can go. He said
the tumor looked benign and probably slow-growing
and congenital. Operable.
Later that day I told my girlfriend I was oddly
relieved, and she asked why.
If I had to have a brain tumor, I told her, I'd ended up
with one of the best possible options. Brain surgery
wasn't fun, no, but the doctor expected me to be out
of the hospital in less than a week and back at work
in a month. Compared to the people I'd read about
online who spent months or years recovering, yeah, I
felt lucky.
It's all relative.
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IT'S NOT ENOUGH
Because I am a geek, my first
thought after diagnosis was google.
Some good information came up,
including a mailing list for people
dealing with brain tumors. I joined
and planned to post an intro after a couple of days,
when I had a feel for the group.
Most of the posts on the list came from family
members and loved ones, not the patients. This was
largely because the situations being discussed were
much worse than mine – cancerous, fast-growing
tumors, people with major delays in recovery and all
sorts of mental impairment.
I often end up feeling like my situation is not
"enough" - I'm hard of hearing but not enough that I
feel it's fair to call myself disabled, I'm prone to
depression and anxiety but not enough not to feel like
I'm whiny and appropriating when I talk about it, and
so on.
So after a few days, I realized I'd joined a mailing list
for brain tumor discussion, and then found myself
thinking that my situation wasn't bad enough to
participate.
I never did end up posting on that mailing list, but I
like to think I've learned something about owning my
illnesses.

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YES, MOM...
To top everything off, my mom messaged me on
Facebook to ask me how the MRI results were, and I
told her on there. I feel like a dick but it's fair if she
asked, right? And in tried-and-true, my-avoidantfamily fashion, she immediately changed the subject.
My dad called me the next day to ask a bunch of
questions I didn't know the answers to. I kept waiting
for him to say that he or my mom was going to come
out to see me, but no.
I called my parents as soon as I got out of the
surgeon's office with the details. Mostly all they could
keep saying was how they wished I was closer to
home. No reassurance, no offers to visit. My family
has never been particularly good at dealing with bad
news, but this was ridiculous.

THE INTERSECTION OF MAGIC AND
MAGICAL THINKING
I'd been prepared to hear all kinds of things. I was
hoping for "I made you an appointment with an ENT."
but I was prepared to accept "There's something
structural in your ear causing your vertigo." Hell, I
could have taken "There's some odd lesions on your
brain" - my sister has lesions that apparently do
nothing, so I could deal with that.
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But no, I got "brain tumor." Then it was one thing
after another. I had to wait for another MRI. I had to
wait for the results. I had to wait for a neurosurgeon
to look at it, I had to wait for my consult, and then I
had to wait for the surgery. After five years with the
vertigo and eleven since I first saw a neurologist for
migraines, it seemed like a terrible rush.
While I was waiting for the surgery date, I was a mess
of obsessive thoughts and magical thinking. I can
recognize them now, and they can even be a relief. A
solid, magical-thinking-based reason why I have to be
okay, or an obsessively distracting line of thought,
can get me through the days. I'm not proud. I'll take
what I can get.
It's ironic, but I find myself disappointed in my sound
logic. Magical thinking used to go farther. Since I
started working through my obsessions, I can reach
the magical conclusions but they just don't stick the
way they used to.
That should be a good
thing, but my coping
mechanisms are there for
a reason and every time I
break down a wall, the
anxiety flows back in.
I found myself falling back
on it as I prepared for
brain surgery. I found
myself playing solitaire
obsessively for hours,

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because as long as I won I would survive.
For the first time I was able to see what I was doing
as I did it. I understood why I was thinking these
things, even if I couldn't stop myself from thinking
them.
And in the process of becoming aware of the magical
thinking, I'm having a hard time with magic. I can
believe in what I've seen, but I have a hard time
extrapolating from that. Honestly, what I don't have?
Is faith.
My girlfriend said she knew I'd be okay. My mom said
trusting in Jesus is what got her through her cancer.
And I just wish I could give myself over to that.
I've gotten so used to thinking something and not
thinking it at the same time that I'm second guessing
my own experiences, those of people I trust, things I
know are true.
I don't trust myself - and how can I? My brain is
broken. My lungs are broken. My digestive system is
broken. My knees are broken. My inner ear might still
be broken. And on top of everything else, the gender's
wrong too.
As corny as it sounds, I feel like I can't have faith in
other things because I don't have faith in myself. And
I don't know how to get there from here.
Instead, I tried my best to put the whole thing aside
and just keep doing what I could. I went to work. I
went to school. I wrote and I painted and I chatted
online. I went to see the Green Day concert I'd
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scheduled the surgery around. I went into the
hospital for pre-op blood tests and x-rays and more
MRIs.
And then, almost before I knew it, it was the day of
the surgery.

(INTERLUDE: LONGEST EPISODE OF
PROJECT RUNWAY EVER)
I spent most of the day after surgery in the ICU. Late
in the afternoon they moved me into a regular
hospital room. I was still hooked up to a bunch of
monitors and IVs and not entirely conscious. My
girlfriend was there all day, but I wasn't able to
follow a conversation, so I mostly kept the TV on. I
came across a Project Runway episode and left that
on, since I generally enjoy that show.
What I didn't realize was that they were showing a
marathon of several episodes leading up to the new
one. I was half-awake and waiting for
a post-surgery MRI that I fully
expected to be miserable. I kept
nodding off and waking back up
again for hours, but I thought I was
only briefly closing my eyes because,
well, Project Runway was still on. My
poor girlfriend didn't have the heart
to explain to me how long it had actually been until
later.

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RECOVERY, VACATION, LOST
WAGES AND THE FINE LINE
I spent almost a month off work after my surgery.
This required a mass of paperwork before, during
and after the leave of absence. I checked I had to
make arrangements to pay my portion of the
insurance during the weeks I didn't have any pay for
the company to deduct it from. I can't complain about
this – when my sister went on medical leave a few
years ago, she had to cover her entire
insurance payment while she was
out.
I had a panic attack about bills
before I even left the hospital. Once
I returned home, I carefully tracked
how long my strength lasted while
checking the remainder of my
savings between bills.
In the end, I asked the surgeon to
clear me to return to work early. I did feel fine for the
most part, but my real motivation was not whether or
not I was 100%, but how much longer my savings
would last.
I had to borrow money from my parents, which I hate
doing. Not long after I came home from the hospital,
my girlfriend finally landed a part time job on campus
that would work around her classes and her required
internship.

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Even then, we just barely scraped by in October,
November, December, and into January. There was
no margin for error. More than once I thought we
were about to be caught up and one tiny thing set us
back again.
I had all the things you're supposed to have –
insurance, a job that qualified me for FMLA, a (small)
savings account, a supportive family, and hardly any
unnecessary spending – I still came very, very close
to losing control of my finances. If I hadn't been able
to return to work when I did, or if my girlfriend
hadn't been able to find a job, we would have been
much worse off.
It doesn't surprise me that medical bills are the
number one cause of bankruptcy in the US. My
insurance covered a lot, but I'm still arguing with
them and the hospital over part of my bill. If I had to
deal with hospital bills on top of trying to make up for
any more time off work? It would not have been
pretty.
Stories of people who destroyed their lives trying to
keep insurance, or who died because they didn't have
it, are depressingly easy to find.
In yet another questionable definition of "lucky," I
managed to skate by without getting too far behind.
But it's a hell of a tightrope walk, and if you fall, I
know it's a long way down.

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RACING FROM THE CURE
I was the one who answered the phone the night my
aunt called my mom. Mom's sister called only once in
a while, so she took it right away.
Before bed, she sat me and my sister down and
explained to us that our aunt had breast cancer. Our
aunt lived hours away and we didn't see her often, so
the idea was abstract. I knew that breast cancer could
run in families, so I asked my mom if that meant she
would have it. Mom said that was in God's hands.
Six years later, I was in the grocery store with my
girlfriend when my mom called and told me she had
breast cancer. I held it together until she hung up,
and then I cried all over the freezer section.
My mom and her sister are six years apart; they both
were diagnosed at the same age. Somehow this
turned into a belief that I wouldn't have to worry
until that same age. And by the time I was fortysomething, it would be cured or at least minor, right?
And then I found the lump at twenty eight and that
went to hell.
I was supposed to be doing the Race for the Cure with
my officemates again this year. I couldn’t because I
was still recovering from brain surgery, and I was
disappointed about that. I hope to be out there again
next year.
But in the meantime, all I can see is pink everywhere.
I've seen cancer-battling kitchenware, cookies, and
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shopping bags. During October in particular, the
grocery stores have huge displays of cancer-themed
food, and I do not have words for how much I do not
want to think about my latest mammogram results
while I'm picking out dinner.
I had my six month follow-up mammogram the week
of the Race for the Cure. I don't want to think about
breast cancer all the time; it's exhausting. But I'm
being told I'm betraying my mom and my aunt, and
maybe that I hate women, if I don't either support it
loudly at every opportunity or explain why every
time. I'm tired of explaining, and I shouldn't have to.
I'm getting numb to the pink. My eyes just gloss over
it. For me, that's a plus. But I wonder if the sheer
volume of pink isn't overwhelming other folks too.
You look at the pink paring knife and you wonder
what percentage is going to actual charity, and you're
a little more cynical the next time the pink comes
around. And it does.
And then there are the fundraisers - save the boobies,
save the ta-tas, and the local radio station doing "bras
for a cause" without explaining in what way a wall of
underwires will destroy cancer cells. My mom's
breasts were not saved. She had a double
mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Does that
mean she failed, somehow? Did society? If we'd just
been more aware, would she not have needed that
surgery?
If she hadn't had that surgery, she might have died.
So to be honest? I say fuck the ta-tas. Save the women
and men with breast cancer.
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THIS IS STILL NOT THE CHEST
SURGERY I WANTED
When I went for the six month follow up on my first
chest surgery, they found some new spots. I had
another (negative) biopsy. The doctor recommended
the same surgery and then yet another follow up.
Because I needed something to look forward to along
with my yearly MRI.
I asked about having a mastectomy, but the surgeon
said he couldn't sign off on it yet. He did say that if it
happens a third time, he'd be willing to discuss it.
That's an improvement. I don't want to keep having
surgery every eight or ten months until something
turns up cancerous. So I might be looking at the chest
surgery I do want as soon as next winter.
On the other hand, between the family history of
breast cancer and the ongoing hormone-related
issues, I don't know that I'd able to go on T at any
point. It seems like asking for trouble. I keep putting
it off for health reasons, and I'm just not sure I care
anymore.
Maybe that's the depression talking, or maybe I'm
just a Bad Trans Person.
I've been circling around "genderqueer" and "third
gender" and all that baggage for a while now, and this
is only one of the reasons. But there's a lot of scorn in
some parts of the trans community for that attitude
and I'm not sure if my hesitance about accepting it is
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that it doesn't fit or that I'm frustrated with the
health issues or that I'm worried about being an Bad
Trans Person. I think it does fit - I'm definitely not
female but I don't think we're totally male either - so
I'm pretty sure it's one of the other two, or both.
Which... there's not much I can do about that.
So I don't know where I go from here, aside from
continuing to work it out inside my head.

CYA
Arizona is a red, red state and I've read dozens of
horror stories about hospital care for LGBT
Americans. I worried a lot before each of my
hospitalizations. In both cases, however, I was
fortunate.
I was lucky for the hospital where I had my chest
surgery, which was extremely efficient and never
batted an eye when I designated my girlfriend as my
caregiver and handed over a medical power of
attorney.
I was lucky for the hospital where I had my brain
surgery, which was very nice and accommodating
and never gave my girlfriend a speck of trouble and
one of the nurses even overheard her refer to me as
"he" to a friend and asked me if I'd prefer male
pronouns. I told her it was okay because I was too out
of it to care but that was so above and beyond what I
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expected, especially since I did worry about it being a
Catholic hospital. Sometimes good works and
standard of care win out.
And two months later the hospital lost the support of
the diocese because they saved a pregnant woman's
life instead of letting her die with her fetus. Standard
of care wins in the short term. We all lose in the long
term.

CHINESE NEW YEAR 2011
Happy new year to me. I had post-surgery follow up
early this week. I'm looking at the same six month
cycle I was given last time.
What next? I'll worry about that
when I get there, just as I will with
the MRI, with the vertigo and the
obsessive thoughts and the anxiety
and the depression. I'll keep going, because the
alternative isn't really an alternative.
Getting by as best I can is all I can do. I lived in fear
between my MRI results and my brain surgery, and it
was exhausting. Even that was a known threat,
though. Living in fear of what might be coming? Being
afraid of a tumor that will take twenty or thirty years
to grow back?
The stress would do me more harm than the tumors.
Last year my goal was to survive.
This year my goal is to live.
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Brainflowers
by Jack Finch
starling.edge@gmail.com

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