Sunday, 27 June 2010

Whatever Gets You Through the Night

Moon Over Sommers Bay - by Mum
Dear Anonymous,

I have been thinking for several hours about how to reply to your comment without sounding glib.

It seems to me that feelings of despair are an inalienable part of the cancer journey. With a diagnosis of cancer, each of us must consider the very real possibility of an early death. But although I find it scary to contemplate, death does not terrify me. What I have found devastating is the loss of hope.

At the time that I was diagnosed I was happier that I had ever been. I was in a wonderful new relationship with Nick but, more than that, I had reached a point in my life where I felt relaxed and confident. For the first time, I truly knew myself. Through the surgery and all the hideous treatments I always imagined myself returning to love and laughter with Nick, to recovering and getting back to my optimistic, beautiful life that was so rudely interrupted by cancer.

It wasn’t until Nick left me that I lost hope. I started to believe that God was out to punish me; that the cancer would slowly strip me of everything. It had taken my breast, my hair and my femininity. As a result, my lover had left me. My emotional resilience was destroyed. With that I felt that I would be unable to recover my physical health, I would relapse, my life would become an endless cycle of suffering, friends would find it too difficult to stay and so would slowly turn their backs on me, just as Nick had. Ultimately I would die alone.

It is so easy to catastrophise because, whichever way you look at it, cancer is something of a catastrophe. And it brings a particularly insidious fear: “I might return,” it whispers, “and you can never know why or when.”

In the face of all this, to long for oblivion sometimes seems the sane and sensible choice.

But my life up until now has been filled with what writers of self-help books euphemistically call ‘opportunities for growth.’ And so I have tried to put into action many of the survival skills that I have learned along the way. These are some of the things that help me. Maybe they will help you too.

When I was younger I was paralysed. At that time I learned the power of creative visualisation. I would picture myself lying in a meadow of wild flowers on a high cliff overlooking the sea. I would feel the breeze on my body. I would hear the tinkling water flowing in a nearby stream. I would watch the clouds drift white above me. I would create a sensuous, colour-drenched world in my head and then put myself in it. I experienced the very real power of prayer and meditation. I lay for months, completely immobile on a life-support machine, and marvelled as every day miracles happened all around me.

Now I do creative visualisation and positive affirmations as part of a practise called Yoga Nidra. There are many cds available that guide you through the process. I highly recommend buying one. I wrote more about Yoga Nidra in a post dated 17th November 2009.

Through being in a twelve-step programme I have learned the value of talking to other people and sharing honestly what is occurring in my life and how I am feeling from day-to-day. I am very privileged to have this ongoing support available to me. I would encourage anyone to join a twelve-step programme if you can – and let’s face it there are twelve-step programmes for just about everything these days*. If that is not appropriate then there are many cancer support groups run by charities. And if those are too far away or too depressing or just too irritating then what’s to stop us from setting up our own support group? I think I will write a separate post about how to do that.

Spending time in rehabs and on psychotherapists’ couches has taught me how to identify and feel my feelings rather than suppress them. This can be tricky. It sometimes involves crying in public places. But that never killed me or anyone else. And it’s not just the feelings of sadness, anger and loneliness that I need to feel but also joy and love. I allow myself to really love my friends and my family, my neighbours and people on the bus. That sounds simple but it takes bottle. After all, if I love people they might reject me or let me down. Yeah! Laugh, cry, just get it off your chest. I see a psychotherapist every week and unburden myself of all my craziest, darkest, most shaming thoughts.

Writing each morning – whether it’s a diary, a blog post, a poem or simply a loony stream of consciousness – gets some of my obsessive thoughts out of my head and into my laptop. Let the hard drive carry it all around. My brain needs the space. I also write a gratitude list in the morning, just five things but they have to be five different things each day. This morning, as I was sobbing into a tissue, it occurred to me that there are some people in this world for whom a packet of tissues is an unattainable luxury. So I wrote it down, “I am grateful for this tissue.” Before bed I quickly jot down all the significant things that I did today under the headings of either ‘Love’ or ‘Fear’.

I swim. I go for walks. I do yoga. I put on make-up. I get dressed up. I lie on the floor and listen to self-hypnosis cds. I talk to my plants. I cook delicious food. Most of all I try to speak to at least one friend every day of my life.

Do I do all these things perfectly every day? Not even remotely. And it can all feel a bit false at times but this is the only way that I know how to keep going. I have to convince myself every day that my darkest fears are not inevitable. Yes, the treatments have been ghastly. Yes, Nick has been unspeakably cruel. Yes, I am lonely and afraid sometimes. But what have I gained from having cancer? I have been shown a great deal of love. The truth is that none of knows how long we have to live on our beautiful planet. Sometimes I love this world so much that I never want to leave it. The only certainty is that, one day, I will. But I now have the courage to live as I want to live.

The World Cup is on. This evening Sheldon and I have been sitting on the couch and laughing, rooting for our team-du-jour (Ghana), whooping and dancing around the living room when we scored. That got me through the last three hours.

When I think about it, it isn’t the fear of death that makes me feel so utterly bleak. It is the fear of not living.

Anonymous, I don’t know who you are but I hope that you will find a way to stay with us. I for one, need your comments on Chemo Chic.


* Here is a small selection of the many twelve-step programmes that are available. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section below.