In 1998, I noticed I had sore armpits. They felt more achy than bruised, which seemed strange, because what is true now was true then: I don't move a lot. And the soreness was not related to odd lumps or my glands.
Confused, I went to visit my family doctor.
Because my mother was a hypochondriac, Dr. Cotton saw me a lot. I say a lot, but I could say "the most," or "every time I left the house it was either school or the doctor," and it wouldn't be hyperbole. In the second grade I listed "banana-flavored antibiotics" as my favorite drink.
"Lie down," Dr. Cotton said gently. The familiar sound of the crinkly white paper instantly relaxed me. "What have you been up to?" she asked. "Still working at your dad's office?"
"OK, where is the problem."
I lifted my arm and pointed into the pit. "It's really sore, right here. It's been like this for a week, maybe a few weeks. I can't take it anymore. I don't feel a lump, but I'm fully prepared to biopsy."
"You worry a lot, right, Kelly?" she inquired, as she pushed on the sore spot. I winced.
"Ow — yes. But nothing out of the ordinary."
She gently lowered my arm back to the table and gave my leg a pat. "You can get up."
"So, did I just pull a muscle or something?" I asked, hopefully.
"Kelly," she started as she dried off her hands, "have you heard of panic disorder?"
The blood drained from my face, my arms got sweaty, my ears began ringing. I felt like I'd been insulted.
"Whoa, no, no …" I threw my hands in the air.
"They're very common. Let's do some bloodwork to be sure there isn't anything else going on, but I'm pretty sure you've had panic disorder since you were twelve."
"And you're just telling me now?" I exclaimed, keeping my emotion sounding like a three when I was really feeling a nine.
"Well, I wasn't going to suggest you were eventually going to get panic disorder if you weren't."
"OK. So will the armpit thing go away?"
"This is completely manageable."
Yeah, she didn't answer me. This means it is an incurable situation. I'd always hoped for some disease in my life to add some morose glamour. I took a lab sheet and a referral for a therapist from her hands and fled the office.
At my boyfriend's gig that night, I was standing against the bar, holding my arm in the air and massaging my left armpit, when a frat jock stranger asked what I was doing. "Oh, this?" I pointed to my armpit. He nodded. "Not much, my armpits are sore. I'm also trying to figure out what I'm stressed about, because apparently it could be really fucking with me." His eyebrows flew up as he made that falling-sound whistle and walked away.
"Hey! Kelly!" One of the bartenders, Joan, leaned toward me, shaking her head.
"You didn't have to talk to that guy," she said. "You don't owe anyone an explanation."
I thought about that for, like, half a second. "What?"
"When someone asks you a question, it doesn't mean you have to answer. You don't owe anyone anything."
What? "You mean that jock guy?"
Joan sighed and eyeballed the band. "Are you still dating Reed?" I nodded. Her grimace marked her disapproval. "He's really young." He was 26, she was 26, I was 20. She laughed. "Look at him. He's a boy." I looked at Reed onstage; he seemed cute, but she said boy in such an evocative way. "Kelly, you need to date a man. Someone educated and wise. Stop dating these loser boys who aren't doing anything with their lives."
Joan's wisdom was coming at a time when I needed guidance the most, and maybe she was right. I decided to dump Reed, right after the show. There was no way I'd be so stressed if I had a real man in my life. Suddenly, my armpits felt lighter.