Sheree L. Greer
“If you scared, say you scared,” is one of my father’s favorite lines. I remember it most from childhood basketball games. On sunny, summer afternoons in Milwaukee, my father and I would walk to the nearest park to play one-on-one. With the ball in my hands, I would dribble up the lane, working for a shot, and when I found one, I would hesitate—scared of making a mistake, afraid of making a move, struggling to believe in myself. He’d face me, arms out or up or both, and say, “If you scared, say you scared.” I wore that fear like a second skin well into the realities of adulthood. I might have been afraid, but I’d never say it.
When I started lactating in 2006, it scared the shit out of me, but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t pregnant: I hadn’t slept with a man in over two years. At the time, I was in graduate school to earn an MFA and was initially too consumed with writing and drinking and working multiple day jobs to visit a doctor. Three months passed before I finally went to Planned Parenthood and was referred to a women’s health center on Chicago’s northside, thankful for their sliding scale. They ran levels for all sorts of hormones, and mine were all in normal range except one—prolactin. This pituitary gland hormone that induces lactation in the breast is usually less than 30. Mine was 145.
The doctor at the health center asked me a few questions, then recommended I get an MRI of my brain. She said she had a suspicion that it might be a tumor but wanted to be sure. There was more after that, some attempts to comfort I think, but all I heard was: Brain. Tumor.
The very next day, I called around for MRI prices. They averaged between $1,650 and $3,600. A few places had sliding scales, but the price never slid down quite far enough for my budget. In hindsight, I could have called my mother in Florida and asked for help, but I was twenty-six and had just left home for the first time and really, really wanted to handle things on my own. Nor did I want her stressing any more than she already did.
My body had always been a mystery to me—from stories about having a neonatal spinal tap, to hair that wouldn’t grow at my temples, to keloids at piercing sites and irregular periods that went on for weeks, with clots as big as beef livers flooding my homemade diapers constructed from Always maxi-pads. So why get wise now? Why freak out now?
I decided to drink more, write more, and have more sex (mostly with my shirt on). I decided to live harder and faster than ever before. I was dying anyway. What did it matter? I didn’t have time to be afraid.
When my parents argued about my father’s drinking, and my mother threatened to put him out, my father would say, “I ain’t neva scared.” He never seemed afraid. I learned for myself, earlier than I like to admit, that drinking fuels courage and eradicates fear. I discovered that being drunk can take you away from things that made you uncomfortable or made you feel weak. When I drank, I felt confident and unafraid. My father had never been afraid. I, too, would be fearless.
Four years later, I scored a full-time faculty position at a community college that came with the dopest insurance ever. I balled out on medical services: eye exams and new glasses, physicals with a primary-care physician, and of course, annual exams with a gynecologist in a private office. It felt good to say, “I have a doctor’s appointment,” to my mother. I’d told her about the lactation but framed it as a hormonal thing that would pass. Admittedly, the lactation had become less frequent though it hadn’t stopped completely.
My insurance covered all the medical visits with minimal co-pays, including the one where my gynecologist did a breast exam, and upon seeing the cloudy white liquid discharge from my nipple, scrunched up her long, freckled nose and said, “You have to get an MRI as soon as possible.”
If you scared, say you scared.
Or hesitate. There’s more stuff you must do before they tell you you’re dying—books to write, presentations to give at academic conferences, a teaching contract to secure, a relationship to build because you think the woman you’re with is the home you’ve been looking for this whole time. So I smiled and charmed my way through the appointment, promising that I would schedule the MRI as soon as I had the time.
I worked hard like my parents had taught me and pretended everything was fine. And when things didn’t feel fine, I’d have a drink. Within minutes, everything would be fine. Every day, I drank. Every day, I felt invincible.
The following year, my caring, funny, no-nonsense primary-care physician told me I couldn’t make another appointment with her until I did the MRI. By this time, I’d gotten an IUD to help control my long, unpredictable periods, and the lactation became almost nonexistent. I felt fine, mostly. But I didn’t want to lose her, so I scheduled the MRI.
I tried my best to relax, but there was nothing relaxing about sliding into a coffin-like chamber with the weakest headphones ever created blasting static-buzzed music that could never mask the clank, clunk, clank, clunk of the machine. When it was over, I hoped I’d never have to have another MRI for as long as I lived.
The MRI showed two lesions in the pituitary gland, two lopsided nodules asserting themselves against the grayscale of the rest of my brain. There was no denying it. Though that didn’t stop me from trying.
My primary physician referred me to an endocrinologist, who had kind eyes and veiny hands. He told me that we needed another MRI. The first was protocol, the second round was to assess my specific case. I didn’t understand what more he needed to know. I had a tumor. We both saw it. I wanted answers, not to take more tests. I wanted to get on with living, or dying, whatever the case would be. I left the office frustrated and annoyed, with paperwork for another MRI and a follow-up appointment reminder card.
I wouldn’t return to the endocrinologist or my primary physician for another two years. The steady stream of drinks and work and sex and writing kept me focused on what I could see, what I could control, the here and now. There’s a safety in certain kinds of ignorance. It isn’t true, but I made myself believe that what I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me.
Three years later my parents had their last big argument. The altercation turned physical and I arrived at the last house they’d ever rent together in time to see the red and blue lights of a squad car flashing down the alley. The police had taken my father away.
Shortly after that last fight, my father stopped drinking. For good. Shortly after he stopped drinking, I stopped drinking, too. The decision felt impulsive, and I kept it to myself. I didn’t make any proclamations or join AA like my father did. I was afraid to talk about why I needed to quit drinking and scared to say aloud that I had a problem. Everything I cared about felt broken—my family, my body, my sense of self. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I knew that I needed to do something different.
In my sobriety, and for the first time, I considered a place beyond the here, the now. I couldn’t see or feel my tumor, but I knew it was there. Its weight emotional, the burden of it made me scrunched and small. Overwhelmed, I took a week-long trip to Paris to write and walk in the steps of James Baldwin. I thought about everything but my diagnosis while I was away. I tried my best to deny the fact that I was afraid.
The week I returned to the States, I took my father to lunch. By that time, he was sober in a way I’d never seen. His face freshly shaven, his mustache neat and full, he smiled rather than smirked. He moved a little quicker and seemed more relaxed in his body. I was sober, too, welcoming each day with a clarity and calm I didn’t know I’d been missing. I gave my father a wallet with the Eiffel Tower on it and told him that I missed him. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t really missed him since I was a young girl, maybe even since our last time on a basketball court.
My father told me that he lay awake at night, stricken by memory. His mistakes haunted him, he said. I recognized his stories—the drunk-driving incidents, the stints in jail, the arguments, the blackouts. He couldn’t remember all the details of that last fight with my mother, but he knew it was bad. He talked about his regrets as these monstrous beings that came to crush him, mostly at night when everything was quiet and dark.
“Scared me,” he said. “The thoughts I was having. The nightmares. They scared me.” It was the first time I’d ever heard my father say he was afraid.
Sober and determined to face my own fears, I returned to the endocrinologist. It had been more than a year since my last visit. When he asked where I’d been, I told him I’d been traveling. He shook his head and scheduled me for an MRI. I called my father the day of the test and told him I was scared. He offered to go with me, but I declined.
“You know I’m blind in one eye,” my father said. “But I didn’t have to be. I remember when I first got my eye looked at. It was years and years ago. Doctor gave me some drops. I was supposed to use the drops every day. I ain’t do it. Too drunk, too busy running the streets.” He paused. “And now, I can’t see out that eye. All I had to do was what the doctor said, take them drops, whatever, and I could probably still have my eye.”
A decade after I first started lactating, I was officially diagnosed with a prolactinoma in my pituitary gland. The benign tumor is usually managed by a weekly pill, which I started right away. My prolactin level plummeted from 144 to 3.8 in a matter of weeks. I felt better, but I didn’t feel cured.
The medication manages the tumor, but it’s still there. And taking the medication makes me feel like my body is not my own, like it has problems I’ll never be able to solve and questions I’ll never be able to answer, like it will never do what I say or as I say.
My wife and I are going to try for a baby, but I am afraid. However, I don’t say this aloud. I smile and make jokes and tell her that we’re going to be excellent parents. We already have our baby daddy picked out. My cousin, a gay man and only child, has agreed to donate his sperm.
I have imagined myself a mother, but I have never wanted to be pregnant. When I ask my wife how long she’s wanted to be a mother, she says, “Since forever.” I laugh and feel a twinge in my gut. My wife is over thirty-five and will be considered a “geriatric pregnancy,” high risk. I try to lighten the mood. “If I was a man, we’d have five kids by now.”
“Five?” she balks. “I don’t know about that.” My wife is bisexual, and even though I make the joke, I can’t help but feel as if our relationship is a hindrance to one of her most pressing desires. When I frame it this way, my wife gets upset. “I married you,” she says, holding up her left hand, her wedding ring catching the light and sending it back in joyous sparkles.
My wife reminds me to take my medication each week, even though I have an alarm set on my phone. She loves my body, my heart, and my mind. She is happy, and relieved, that I no longer drink excessively. She wants me to take care of myself. She wants me to be healthy. She wants to have babies with me, and she is not afraid.
When my wife sees babies or baby accoutrements, she feels a longing that pulses through her whole body. In a flush of want, she imagines the stretch and tug of her belly. She smells the sweet scalp, and feels the soft hair tickling, the warm wiggle of the tiny body cradled in her arms.
Having a tumor that makes me produce breast milk and me not wanting to be pregnant is an irony for which I have no use. For years, I told myself I didn’t want kids. When I say to myself now that I want to grow my family, that I want to have children with my wife, I’m sometimes afraid that I don’t mean it. I’m sometimes scared that not wanting to be pregnant is related to not wanting to be a mother. On a good day, I know that the two feelings can coexist. On a bad day—a self-doubting, fear-fueled day—my mind demands a way to fix what feels like a broken equation. Those days make me feel hopeless and wrong and confused and uncertain and usually when I feel like that, I would have a drink. But on those days, it’s imperative that I don’t. So, I don’t. Changing my relationship with alcohol meant recognizing that drinking to numb feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and hopelessness only harms and never heals. It never makes things better. It only makes things worse.
Two years later, in the fall of 2018, after a few failed attempts at getting pregnant, my wife and I took a break from trying. I wanted to remain hopeful, but I felt defeated, an emotion that deepened when, only three months after my endocrinologist gave me a trial off my medication to see if I might be in remission, I began lactating again, and my left breast became infected from a blocked milk duct. The infection gave way to an abscess that required surgery.
A couple weeks before my surgery, both my sisters—smart and caring, inquisitive and determined—asked me if I could reverse my condition with pregnancy, would I consider having a baby? The question pissed me off. I sent both of them long-ass, full-sentence-ass text replies about how one had absolutely nothing to do with the other.
Then I googled “prolactinoma” and “reversal.” Most of what I found I already knew: Prolactinomas can be treated with medicine, surgery, or radiation. Medication is the most common treatment. Surgically removed tumors have a 34% rate of recurrence, with most of them returning within five years.
Then, I googled “prolactinoma” and “childbirth.” I found a study of seventy-three pregnant women with pituitary adenomas. Post-pregnancy, 40% of them went into remission. Two years later, some women had no detectable tumors at all.
I love my sisters but fuck them and their googling asses.
I look like my father, though I have my mother’s eyes. My smile is all my own. Thinking about childbirth as a remedy for my condition, I find myself staring at my face in the mirror, imagining how cool it might be to pass these mischievous brown eyes framed in curly lashes to my daughter. I imagine a version of this easy smile spreading across my son’s face.
To this day, my mother says I was a bad child. Most days I agree, remembering my propensity for lying, stealing, cursing, and bullying. My mama stayed on my ass. The whippings were never a deterrent, only a motivation to lie more and lie better.
I also remember another child, the one I kept hidden, the one who lived in fear of being wrong—of saying the wrong things, thinking the wrong things, wanting the wrong things. As an adult, I struggle with self-worth. I often experience dread after making decisions. I worry about money, about dying, about failing, about making mistakes.
I come from a family of alcoholics and addicts, men and women who swallow their pain and drink their sorrows until their stomachs ulcerate and their gums bleed. I come from a family of alcoholics and addicts who drink and use to feel alive, who drink and use until they die.
Some days, when I think about that legacy of trauma and addiction, it’s difficult for me to see anything beyond that, to see anything good that might come from me or show itself in my children. Other days, I recognize this thinking to be destructive, limited, and sad. It’s a battle in the spaces between, and I am terrified of enlisting my children into the fight, into the struggle to see themselves as good, to see themselves as worthy enough to thrive.
The first time I peeled back the bandages and saw my post-surgery breast with its wide, gaping hole, I burst into uncontrollable sobs. I held the heft of what was left of my breast in my hand, afraid that if I let go, the weight of the remaining flesh would pull the open wound further, rip it down in an avalanche of blood and flesh. I pressed back the bandages urgently, afraid for my wife to see me this way. I didn’t want her to see me broken, see me ripped and tender, bloody and raw.
I don’t feel in control of my body. The prolactinoma diagnosis and subsequent surgery compounded that feeling in ways that scare me. I don’t feel in control of how my body looks or how it behaves, what it produces and what it needs. In those rare moments when I do—whether it is remembering how to shoot a jump shot or making the decision not to drink—I don’t want to concede that control to or for anyone. Not even a child who might have my eyes or my smile.
Who wants this damaged blood anyway? These thin veins pumping with disease and doubt, trauma and terror?
Six months after my surgery, I had a mammogram and ultrasound of my breasts. I’d been back on my medication, and my prolactin levels were within normal range again. However, the nondescript letter that arrived soon after informed me that my tests showed an irregularity. My breast surgeon told me that there were two nodules that required an excisional biopsy. The surgery would be on my right breast this time, creating a cruel symmetry.
I had done all the things the doctors told me to do to get well, things that didn’t come easy to me, like getting more sleep and giving up animal products. I’d been taking my medication regularly, spending time in nature, and working out to better manage my blood pressure. I was doing everything they said, but I was back where I started. Frustration and anger swelled in my chest. Then came the fear.
Every time I think I learn something about myself, about my body and how to best treat it or love it, my body tells me that control is a lie. I once read something that said, “fear is the feeling of losing control.” If you scared, say you scared. But saying it doesn’t make it go away. Saying it doesn’t drain it of its power. I’m so fucking tired of being afraid.
After talking with my surgeon to schedule the biopsy, I instantly and unequivocally wanted a drink. I took a bath instead.
As I settled into the steaming water, the last of a rose-infused “bath bomb” fizzing with scent and salt at my feet, I stared at the sweating tile around the faucet. I waited for the tears to come. They were slow to start, the tears, but when they came, they burned the corners of my eyes so fiercely I had to squeeze them shut. Behind my eyelids, a slideshow of all the ways I could die.
The breast nodules could be malignant tumors that spread throughout my entire body—cancer eating my lungs, my heart, my brain as the disease erupts from my breast to my entire body. Or, the medication I take so, so diligently for my prolactinoma, swells my heart with each dose, quietly thickening my ventricles and clogging my arteries with blood, flesh, regret, and secrets, until my heart slows to a full stop. Or, I get an infection from the surgery, with staphylococci overrunning the wound, multiplying and multiplying until the flesh turns from red to pink to yellow to black.
Or, I could replace my tumbler of ice water with tumblers of bourbon. I could drink until nothing hurts, until nothing scares me, until nothing matters—drunk and humming along with Nina Simone until I pass out. The water too hot, the steam too thick, the effort to stay here and fight too great. Then, sliding down, down, down, the water covers my breasts, my neck, my chin, my mouth, my nose.
I used to know how to handle shit like this. Drink and feel fine. Drink and feel confident and unafraid. When I drank, nothing could touch me, not even death. Sober, I think about death more often than feels healthy. I think about making mistakes. I think about changing my mind. I think about being someone else because who I am is not good enough. Then, I hate myself for my thoughts. I hate myself for being tired, for being scared.
One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes says, “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.”
When I told my family about the need for a second surgery, they responded as I expected. My father tried to comfort me. My mother and sisters said they were all praying for me. Family and friends asked what they could do, told me to let them know if I needed anything.
I hesitate to say that none of it helped. None of it shields. None of it lulls me to safety and ultimately to sleep like a strong drink or two or five. I hesitate because even though saying “nothing calms me, nothing comforts me, nothing protects me like a drink” is a lie, in these moments it feels true.
After my bath, I stretched my naked body across a towel on the bed. I didn’t want to cry anymore. I didn’t want to think about death. I didn’t want to think about drinking. I didn’t want to think about blood. I didn’t want to think about my body.
I wanted to think about life. I wanted to imagine teaching my daughter to play basketball. I wanted to think about the ways I could give my children the best of who I am in the here and now, which is more important to me than whether or not they have my eyes or my smile.
The thoughts were elusive in the moment. I had to work for them, fight for them. Sometimes being sober isn’t about being better, living cleaner, feeling stronger. Sometimes, it’s about being afraid, about feeling your feelings, about hurting. That is the most difficult part. These thoughts, these fears, these flashes of death and dying and being lost forever, exist in the spaces between the drinks, and those spaces are deep and dark and lonely as fuck.
When my wife came in, she looked at me on the bed and smiled. Dipping her head down, she kissed both my breasts, first the one that has been forever changed—a cavern that nearly inverts my nipple where fullness once lived. Then she kissed the right one—which in the coming weeks, would be cut open and invaded, the one that will have a new droop or new inversion or both.
“I’m scared,” I said. And even though I didn’t say more, I meant that I was scared of all of it—the surgery, losing my crutches, the future of our family.
She rested her hand on my belly, her palm cool on my still-hot skin. “You’re going to be fine,” she whispered. “We’re going to be fine.”
I placed my hand on top of hers, closed my eyes tight, and willed myself to believe her.