Seems like it's time for me to come out of the closet. A medical problem closet. One that too many of us -- especially men -- keep ourselves in.
I've got a peeing problem. Now, this isn't unusual for men my age (I'm 68).
I'd been taking several prostate medications that appeared to be working fairly well. But a few months ago a UTI, urinary tract infection, kicked me off into a state of hardly being able to pee at all rather than my previous state of having to pee too often.
Urinary retention obviously isn't anything to ignore.
I had to wear a catheter for two weeks after going to the emergency room. That was followed by going to a urologist who scheduled various tests. I'm still being evaluated. The basic problem seems to be an enlarged/stretched bladder that, hopefully, will get back to normal (or near normal) after what I'm doing now: not-so-fun, but necessary regular self-catheterizing because more pee is being produced than is coming out.
I'm not writing this blog post to tell you all about my medical problem. What's more interesting, and way more universal, is what I've learned from this experience so far.
Being a (wordy) blogger, for now I'll just hit a few highlights of what my urinary adventure has taught me. Later I may expand on these lessons.
(1) Keeping a problem private is fine. Until it isn't.
At first I had no desire to tell friends or relatives about my peeing problem. After all, it isn't like I was on crutches and could say, when asked what happened, "Oh, bit of a fall on a black diamond ski run; just one of those things." I felt like withdrawing into a cave where I could lick my urinary tract wounds in private.
OK, not literally. I'm nowhere near that flexible. I'm talking psychologically.
Gradually, though, I began to have a feeling that keeping this private was too much of a strain. So I told a few friends, but not many. I still had a typical male sense that I should just tough out what I was going through pretty much on my own -- naturally with the support of my wife, doctor, and dog.
Which reminds me of my tennis-playing days at a club level. I was part of a group of four men who played doubles every week for years. Our conversations weren't exactly deeply personal, as evidenced one day when one of the guys mentioned his divorce. It turned out that he'd been separated from his wife for maybe a year. He just never felt like talking about it.
Four women who knew each other well... I'm pretty sure the divorce would have been discussed at every get-together.
(2) Being open about your real life usually is a very good thing.
Yesterday and today I had two experiences that propelled me into deciding to open up about my peeing problem. Probably not coincidentally, they both involved women.
I'd been having leg cramps at night that seemed to be caused by my body tensing up with a need to urinate several hours into sleep-time, but not having the ability to do this. Both my urologist and primary care doctor weren't very helpful or even particularly sympathetic, basically saying I needed to figure this out myself.
So I set out for my favorite Salem marijuana store to get some topical cannabis and some vapeable mixtures of CBD and THC for relaxation and pain relief (both of which worked great, by the way!).
My "budtender" was a woman in her 40's who listened to my medical tale with attention and compassion. In the course of discussing the benefits of cannabis, she was very open about her own health problems -- which were complex, extensive, and way worse than mine.
I told her not to take this the wrong way, but I felt a lot better after hearing about her medical challenges. Not because she had them. Because she was handling them so well. In just a few minutes we went from being complete strangers to sharing some intimate details about our lives.
Her openness was refreshing. I drove away from the marijuana store feeling good about both the products I'd purchased, and the free gift of this woman's candid communicating about her own health struggles.
(3) Vulnerability isn't a weakness, but a strength.
Then, this morning I fired up my iPhone's "Calm" meditation app. I enjoy listening to the Daily Calm guided meditation where a woman with a pleasing voice and (no big shock) calm demeanor addresses a different theme each day,
Today it was Vulnerability. Good timing, because what she talked about fit in with my above-mentioned conversation in the marijuana store and my increasing feeling that when someone asks me 'How are you?" it isn't always good to glibly answer "Fine."
The Daily Calm woman spoke about this.
Sure, regaling a supermarket check-out clerk with the details of your health struggles after she says "How's your day going?" while weighing a bunch of organic bananas really isn't appropriate. But when a co-worker or close friend asks about how we're doing, being honest probably is better than being fake'y.
"Not so good; I've been feeling isolated lately." "I'm struggling with some family problems; thanks for asking." "My back pain has been driving me nuts; hopefully it will feel better soon."
It takes courage to trust in being truthful. You have to believe the person you're talking to actually wants to know how you are, rather than engaging in the familiar ritual of "How's your day going?" "Fine, how about you." "Great, just great."
This almost always isn't true, which gets me to my last point.
(4) Everybody is struggling with something.
Some ways into my urinary problem treatment, I'd find myself getting a bit irritated when I saw people going into a restroom and coming out in a short time, their peeing business all completed with no problem. Heck, I even look upon our dog peeing a dozen times during our evening dog walk with envy.
I had an obviously erroneous feeling: that most people were living happy carefree lives, just as I had before my urinary retention problem popped up.
Well, here's the truth. My life always has had plenty of problems. I wasn't completely happy before my emergency room visit, just as I'm not completely happy now. There's always something messing up our life, physical, psychological, social, whatever.
On the positive side, I feel more compassion toward people with obvious health struggles now. Someone using a walker, crutches, a wheelchair. Someone battling cancer, heart disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, whatever.
Life is tough. Every single person I encounter, no matter how cool, collected, and I've got my shit together they appear, has some real problems they're having to deal with as best they can.
Just as I am. My peeing problem isn't anywhere near as serious as what other people have dealt with for months, years, decades, maybe a lifetime.
I'm not saying that we all need to be completely transparent about our personal struggles, just that I've learned, and am still learning, that keeping our problems to ourselves may feel like the right thing to do in our hide in a cave moments, but we need to remember that everyone needs a shoulder to lean on.
And it's tougher to be aware of those shoulders if you don't say, Hey, friend, I could use some support.
I had to struggle to begin writing this post. Now, I'm glad I did.