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While I was frantically speeding along mid-town Manhattan to meet my sister, an old memory popped into my mind. I was learning about different types of personality disorders in graduate school. Worried, I asked my therapist if I was a narcissist. “No,” he said, “You’re just a run of the mill neurotic.” A narcissistic person would never ask.


My diagnosis has always been an adjustment disorder: I’ve had hair-raising reactions to many life events, like the time I was 8 — my cousins and I were doing the can-can together and when we kicked up our legs, my shoe flew off my foot, through the air and landed behind the stove. Why couldn’t that have been funny? Instead, I was scared because I lost my shoe. My cousin jokingly said they’d now have to cut off one foot which made me even more anxious. It’s still not funny.


Diagnoses are mostly for insurance purposes. Some, however, are more interesting than others, like the narcissist. There is often one in our families, classrooms, and groups. Their energy is intoxicating but basically it amounts to “it’s all about me.” It’s sometimes entertaining to see how two narcissists interact with each other.


While the anxiety-ridden person often hides, the narcissist seeks the attention from everyone in the room. Once in a therapy group someone asked the group’s narcissist to speak louder. Her reply was, “Oh? I can hear myself perfectly well.”


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes adjustment disorders as the development of “symptoms” in response to an “identifiable stressor.” It should only last 6 months after the stressor has been resolved. If that’s the case, I’ll have to wait 6 months after I’m dead. Life creates an adjustment disorder but it’s not nearly as entertaining as a personality disorder. Given the choice, I’d trade bravado for self-doubt any day.


 Anxiety accompanies me throughout life. My goal is always to feel as good as average. Every venture has the underlying need to prove that I can do things. The narcissist, by the way, doesn’t go through this. If he fails, it’s with a flair and another exciting drama evolves.


Eventually I learned to accept that anxiety is part of who I am. Low self-esteem and constant uncertainty is an exhausting cocktail which I exchange for some real ones as a reward for enduring the inner chaos that I create.


Surprisingly, I am not so anxious with cancer. Being taken care of by a team of competent people, as opposed to mom and dad, is very reassuring. The cancer recurrence, however, threw me over the edge. I felt like Jack and Jill so I decided to see a therapist who diagnosed me with: can you guess? An adjustment disorder!  So, who wrote the DSM anyway? Did they get their ideas from the makers of Chutes and Ladders? Sorry? Clue?  Are they suggesting that episodes of depression, anxiety, and anger are inappropriate reactions to having cancer return? If that’s the case, then it’s like blaming the victim.


Cancer and treatment are all-consuming and makes an adjustment disorder seem so flimsy in comparison. I have been coping, achieving and managing all along using all the skills I acquired during my lifetime, but I was feeling too inadequate to know it. All those years of self-doubt were a waste of time and energy. This experience is like the third act in a play, a culmination of all that I learned about surviving but this time it’s with acceptance.


Therefore, I created a new diagnosis: Asymmetrical Life Challenge, reconstructing because the purpose of life is to find balance, and we are busy reconstructing every day.


So, when I met up with my sister that day, I took a calming breath as my anxiety melted away. I am comfortable with who I am.