My First Kill (or How I'm Overcoming My Biggest Irrational Fear)

 
 Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash

Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash

Let’s set the scene.

It’s Monday night. I’ve eaten a dose of cookie dough; I’ve FaceTimed with my boyfriend; I’ve watched another episode of “Queer Eye.” The day has drained me dry, and I’m ready for bed.

Alas, my bed’s not made.

I forgot I’d stripped it before leaving to pet sit for my parents for several nights. I get free laundry over there.

Sigh.

As I’m fumbling with the fitted sheet, my friend Lisa calls.

“Hey!”

As I continue jamming the sheets under my mattress, I listen, phone tucked between my ear and shoulder.

I grab my quilt to pull it back on my bed. Then I see it.

A small dark roach skitters out. I panic. It panics. I hear Lisa talking. I hear myself talking. I hear panic roaring inside me.

Writer's note: The unofficial editor on this piece, my boyfriend, Jacob, suggested I describe the roach more to build suspense. It's a good point, but I really can't go into details without throwing up my lunch.


The last time this happened was four weeks prior, to the day, in fact. Yes, I apparently count my weeks based on roach sightings.

It’d been the first since moving in last October. The thing was in the kitchen, on its back, legs still scrambling for traction. I sat on the couch for 20 minutes, panicked, shaking, crying, talking myself up, talking myself down. I finally called my mom for help. She refused. I threatened to ask a man who was walking his dog — whom I’d never seen — to come help. At that point, for the safety of her daughter, she acquiesced.

By the time she entered the premise, it was dead. She groaned about how small it was (it wasn’t) and chastised me for not taking out my trash the night before after emptying leftovers. (It'd been 11 p.m. I was practicing safety first 'cause, you know, dark alleys.)

Perfectly timed, I had a scheduled therapy session about an hour later. As always, my therapist asked how my morning was. Normally I chirp, “Good," before diving into my anxieties. This time, I immediately vented. I wanted to handle the germ-infested creature. I really did. But I panicked. I shutdown. Why. It’s so small. Harmless. But germs.

We spent the first 20 minutes of my session talking about how to handle the situation the next time. Because there would be a next time, she assured me.

I sighed.

That night I stocked up on roach motels and spray. Then I cleaned. A lot.

My therapist was right: It happened again.


I watch the roach scramble for a few seconds before turning, walking to the kitchen, grabbing the roach spray from under the sink and walking back to my room.

Still there.

OK. Good. I mean, not good. But it’s better than my mind wandering for the next 10 hours about its whereabouts, right? It’s better than sleeping in my car, right?

I point. I spray. The poison comes out gingerly, slowly, sloppily. Sad, almost. Still, it saturates the area and the roach. I back away and finish my phone conversation from the sunroom, pretending I didn’t just murder my first roach.

I focus back to the conversation. It’s all good. Lisa’s an angel. I hang up.

Then I snap back to reality. I'm flailing.

I FaceTime my boyfriend, Jacob, again: “Uhm... I have a little situation…”

“Oh boy. What is it now?” he asks, knowing me all too well.

I explained the roach. I sprayed it. Dead. Triumph.

I told him it was kind of hidden behind my floor fan, so I’d just leave it until he came over... two days later.

He laughed, insisted that was insane. (Yeah, probably.)

Get the vacuum, he instructed. Use the hose.

While I’m pacing, amping myself up for the big performance, I spot something. I'd thought it was a knot in my wood floors earlier... Nope. Small dead roach. Why.

I decide I’ll use it as a test run. After some fumbling, I unhitch the vacuum hose. It’s short. I need distance. I try to stretch it out. Nope. It’s not going to work.

I secure it back in, and I turn on the big guns. Here we go.

No wait. I don’t want to hear the crunch it makes as it gets sucked against the plastic. I get my headphones and plug them in, instructing Jacob to tell me a story very, very loudly.

I hold my phone out in one hand so Jacob can see my face, and I use the other hand to aim the vacuum toward the carcass. NoNoNoNo. Why does a vacuum have headlights? I don’t want to see it. I look away. Jacob’s face floats in the air next to me.

Boom. The deed is done. I feel good.

I head toward the bedroom before I can lose momentum, before the panic takes over. That's what my therapist had instructed. I’m covered in sweat, I’m laughing quickly, slowly, loudly, softly.

Keep talking, Jacob. KeepTalkingKeepTalkingKeepTalking.

Boom. I did — shoot, I missed. I went too short. I turn my head away again and stretch my arm as far as possible...

Bingo!

I turn off the vacuum and run out of the room.

OhMyGosh, OhMyGosh, OhMyGosh. I start gasping for air. I’m laughing. Then I realize I’m crying. “What is wrong with me?”

I can’t open my eyes, but Jacob’s still on the other end. I hear him. He’s laughing probably in disbelief, but he says he’s proud of me. He encourages me to go to more therapy sessions.

Then he takes a few screenshots to capture the big moment. I'll spare you those.


I was proud of myself. That’s why I was crying, I think. I couldn't believe I'd just done that. As a child, if there was ever a roach, I climbed onto tables and watched in horror as my blood-curdling screams echoed into the room. At the end of the ordeal, an otherwise relatively quiet me felt embarrassed.

In college, I lived with palmetto bugs one year. (Thanks, University Village at Clemson. I'll never forgive you.) I was so distraught that my mom hired an exterminator for me, the best present I’ve ever received — and slightly cheaper than breaking my lease early.

Two years ago, one crawled on me. I mean, all over me. I spent an hour in the shower, scrubbing my skin raw and dry-heaving. I couldn’t eat dinner that night.

But my fear is finally settling. Or it's at least starting to. Sure, it was a relatively small roach. And it was black, which I don’t mind as much as the brown ones for whatever reason. But I did it.


At the end of it all, I was exhausted. It took all I had to go back into my room, retrieve the vacuum and put it away. I made Jacob stay on the line while I splashed cold water on my face and brushed my teeth. I wondered aloud if there are more.

Nope, he reassured me. Don't think about that.

After we hang up, I texted Lisa. “You caught me right at the beginning of a meltdown,” I started. "But guess what I just did?!"

When the Doctor Asks if You Want the Good News or Bad News First...

“Do you want the good news first or the bad?”

When my dermatologist, who studied English in undergrad, starts a conversation with this cliché, I know it can't be good.

“I always tell the bad news first,” he says in his next breath.

I have only a split second to brace for impact.

 Photo by Jacob Brunson

Photo by Jacob Brunson

Two weeks before, I sat in the same spot at the dermatologist. Clad in a paper smock and perched on a table, I waited. It’d been three years since my last visit. I'd gone in vain to see how I could remedy the persistent patches of dry skin on my face. This time, Jacob had encouraged me to make an appointment. There was a weird mole on my back, one he’d never really noticed before. Then, when it started bleeding, he begged me.

Fine.

In that initial visit, the doctor scooped out two chunks of suspicious skin. One from my leg and then the one from my back.

“Your boyfriend has a good eye,” the nurse said. “What’s he do?”

“Construction,” I said.

The doctor said if anything shows up in the tests, he’d call. But because I’m young and because I hadn't cooked in a tanning bed, it’d probably be nothing.

~

“How long do I have to anxiously wait?” I asked a few co-workers as we sat by the pool the following weekend. They understood my anxiety, the thoughts that take over my head during these waiting games. My feet dangled in the water, and the holes in my skin were bandaged up — Swiss cheese Jacob called me. Even so, I soaked in the sun, still reveling in the warmth that lingered on my skin when I went to bed that night.

~

I had stopped thinking about the suspect mole until I received a voicemail about a week later. At work, I tucked myself away in a quiet phone booth and called back.

“The doctor wants you to come back in,” the nurse said. I begged her to share some details with me, but she said she didn’t have any — just a note left on her desk. I secured the first available appointment: 8 a.m. the following morning.

And that’s when I was hit with the “good news/bad news” schtick.

The bad: Melanoma.

The good: Stage zero.

Survival rate: 100%.

Surgery, a good-sized scar, no exercise for six weeks.

"If I were to have skin cancer, this is the kind I’d want," the doctor says. "You caught it early.”

Still, my fingers and toes go cold. The word cancer lingers.

The doctor keeps talking to me, and to my mom, who’s crying in the chair next to me.

He breaks out a diagram of the skin and starts pointing. His explanation goes something like this: “Here, you’ve got the epidermis. That’s where the melanoma is now. That’s good. If you’d waited a year from now, it could have tunneled down into the dermis layer, and that’s where it can spread to the rest of the body, through the lymph nodes.”

He continues to talk as he feels around my major lymph node groupings. All seems good. Surgery in two weeks. Local anesthesia. Stitches. Scarring.

"Don't Google this," he added before leaving me to get dressed.

~

I didn’t cry while in the doctor’s office. I let my mom handle that. But as soon as we emerged into the parking lot, the tears struck. And continued into the afternoon.

It’s weird, getting served a little dose of reality like that. First, I had to disassociate the word cancer from death. That's what I've known. But then I allowed myself to take a little time to go down the “what if?” spiral of thoughts, just for a dash of perspective and a lot of gratitude.

~

I had my surgery today. The most painful part was the initial shots of local anesthesia. And listening to the doctor as he walked his intern through each step — verbally, descriptively. And hearing snipping sounds. And that he could see my muscle; it was twitching. Mom described the chunk of skin he removed like a half-dollar-sized "plug."

Ironically, Pandora's Margaritaville radio played in the background. Lyrics of sunshine, sand and José Cuervo filled the otherwise sparse room. I pictured myself at the sandbar — wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and long-sleeve rash guard, of course.

Now, I have two layers of about nine stitches each. I'm sore, and I can't move too much. Because I didn’t have a whole lot of loose skin on my back, it's tight. (I told the doctor he could take some extra skin from my thighs if he needed. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did.)

In all, he assured me it’d heal up nicely, though it’ll definitely be visible and people will likely ask me about it. That’s OK, though, because I’m happy to spread some awareness on a matter I'd only read about, one I ignorantly assumed wouldn't affect me.