Life goes on, but it’s not the same

I’ve got the “I beat cancer” blues.

Am I still a mountain biker when I haven’t been on my bike in years? Am I a runner when I haven’t gone running in months? Am I a writer when I’m not actively writing? Am I a musician when I haven’t been playing my guitar? Do I have value to anyone when I’m not doing something valuable?

Two years ago I beat* cancer.
*which just means it hasn’t yet come back in two years, and it may never come back, but then again it could.

I think there’s a time, just after cancer has been beaten*, when survivors feel more alive and connected than they remember feeling before cancer. It’s an incredible experience. You have no patience or time for bullshit, and you act on things that are important to you—even little things—right away because you know how close you came to having no time left. There is no should when it comes to doing – only will and won’t. You feel overwhelming impatience for meaningless or frivolous delays. If something is worth doing then it’s worth doing it right now—or at least taking the first difficult steps—and it’s exciting.

My husband and I had talked for years about our next pet being a dog. When I was done with cancer, I pushed hard to get that dog. I had been thinking for ages that I should improve my guitar playing through lessons, so I went out and found a teacher. Everything that seemed important to me — from taking a course to riding my bike 200 miles in a weekend to finding a way to get into community theatre to just getting outside — I was ready to act on each and every item in the moment it occurred to me.

My productivity was off the charts… but only for a little while.

As my strength came back and the chemotherapy drugs wore off, I felt unstoppable. And then life started creeping back in.

It’s hard not to believe that once your cancer is in complete remission that there’s nothing you can’t overcome. When life starts throwing exciting challenges (stressful situations) at you, you’re confident that you’ll breeze through it all.

The adorably troublesome and neighbour-irritating new puppy gets pneumonia and nearly dies on the same day that my husband’s grandmother across the country passes away suddenly? That’s awful. But the expensive emergency vet trip saves the dog, and the expensive private training sessions make it less likely that our neighbours will hate us for the dog, and we’re grateful we took our daughters to visit Bubbie a few months earlier. We can recover from a little credit card debt. And it’s nice having a puppy.

My husband starts having seemingly undiagnosable abdominal pain? Okay, well we survived cancer, so we can get through this and figure it out and move on. No big deal. And when it turns out to be a pulled abdominal muscle gone rogue with PTSD, we breath a sigh of (painful) relief and laugh nervously about the strange post-cancer side effects we never expected.

Our ground-level apartment floods, leaving us homeless in the most expensive housing region of the country with possibly the lowest vacancy rates? I guess we can take our family of four + puppy and sleep in our friends’ basements and guest rooms, and stay at hotels and short-term holiday rentals, and try to buy a townhouse in a seller’s market that’s just gone from barely affordable for us to completely unaffordable. For six months.

And then I didn’t feel unstoppable anymore.

I didn’t float through problems secure in the feeling that everything was going to be okay. Everything consistently wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay.

And now that things are settled — the dog is healthy, the family is healthy, we’ve uprooted ourselves and settled down in a new town in a house of our own, and everything is feeling deliciously normal — I’m still not okay.

I’m supposed to be okay by now.

I held it together for two years of crises. Nobody — myself included — knows exactly how. That’s okay — how doesn’t matter.

What matters is that I’m not holding it together anymore and I feel like I should be. My life is as stable as I could ever hope it would be. And I miss that feeling I had when I first beat cancer — that I could do everything and I could start right now, so I did.

Some of that feeling has stayed — specifically, the part where I want things to start or change or be the way I imagine they should be right now. I’m in a new town, why don’t I already have all sorts of new friends and social engagements and volunteer work? Why am I not already involved in everything? I want it to happen right now. I have no patience for pointless delays like small talk and trying to meet people in my usual awkward ways. Not that I have skills to do it without the awkward.

But the other side of it, the side where I feel alive and unstoppable, where I’m excited about every new idea I have and the new friendships I’m about to discover… that part has disappeared. More than disappeared, in fact. It’s gone into negative space, and it’s feeding the imposter syndrome I’ve felt for as long as I can remember — about my career, about my hobbies and interests, about being not a real cancer survivor because I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of other people. I don’t feel like I’m a real anything, so I don’t want to do anything.

The combination of stress whiplash and the jarring feeling that my ambitions and motivations no longer exist make me suspect one thing. These are the hardest words to say aloud, the hardest ones to even write down on a page:

I am depressed.

I shouldn’t be depressed, because everything is okay now. I don’t have cancer anymore, and it’s been two years since I did. I have a home and a great relationship and family. I have a job with a great team who have supported me through every hurdle I’ve faced in the last couple of years. I am not allowed to be depressed because there is no valid reason to be depressed. My life doesn’t suck enough for me to be depressed. I still play with my kids and laugh with friends and make terrible jokes and sarcastic comments. On the surface I’m perfectly fine.

I know better. I’ve walked this path before, though it’s been a while. I remember how it felt the last time I went through this. It felt exactly like I feel right now.

I’ve talked to friends who also survived cancer; they say they went through that period of feeling alive and motivated and excited about everything, and that it went away, and that they miss it now that things are settled and normal. I haven’t asked them if they, too, struggled with feeling worthless, pointless, fraudulent. I haven’t asked if they got depressed, because that would be telling, now wouldn’t it?

Am I still a biker, writer, runner, musician? Am I valuable? I don’t feel like I am when I can barely find the motivation to sit on my couch and play my video games once I’ve taken care of all the standard mom responsibilities.

I’m terrified of telling anyone my suspicions — that I’m actually depressed — because they’ll look at my life and wonder how that’s possible, when all the bad things are over — I won. They won’t believe me. They won’t know how to help. I certainly don’t, and I’ve been depressed before.

Do many cancer survivors have this much trouble resetting themselves into normalcy?

I don’t know the answers. What I have done is started seeing a therapist regularly. Unraveling the weave that has made me who I am means walking through a lot of things that I’ve been skirting around for the last twenty years. I’ll see you on the other side.

A Performance Review for 2015

Hello, 2016. Please come in and take a seat. Here’s a cup of coffee; I’ll just be with you in a moment. I have something I need to wrap up before we can get started.

Twenty fifteen, we got off to a bit of a quiet start, and then things really went downhill. Let’s just work through your performance review together, and maybe we can both learn something from the experience, okay?

The thing is, 2015, you came highly recommended by so many people. I was told that you were going to be fantastic. I had officially beaten cancer in 2014 and was full of thoughts and ideas and plans for things I wanted to accomplish. I was playing my guitar and thinking about recording some songs, and was beginning to pull together a vague idea for a short story–nay, a novel! You were going to be so great, 2015.

But then, 2015, you decided to outdo yourself in the area of Velociraptor Incidents. Maybe you were trying to be an overachiever, like your friend 2013 and her cancer diagnosis, or maybe 2014 and her PTSD/anxiety assault on my husband while he tried to recover from 2013’s velociraptor incidents. I’m sorry to let you know this, but Velociraptor Incidents are to be avoided whenever possible–they are the opposite of what we want to see as progress on your Goals and Objectives.

Let’s just take a quick look at what we set out as Goals and Objectives for you, 2015, and review how well you did on them.

  1. Give me a place to do more music: Okay, we did that for the first few months of the year, and it was fantastic. But you really dropped the ball during your second half, 2015.
  2. Give me space to write more: Same as above.
  3. Help me get back into running: we’re both responsible for this one faltering, it’s true, but I can’t help but place a lot of the responsibility on your shoulders, 2015. You really made things extra challenging for me.
  4. Time management: You were particularly bad with this one, 2015.
  5. Taking initiative: Maybe we should have been more clear at the outset what kind of initiative is good to take, and what is not good. I’m not pleased with your performance there.

I’m sure you know what w’re going to chat about next, my dear 2015. That’s right: Your Velociraptor Incident. The Great Flood of 2015 started off as a frustrating but probably manageable velociraptor incident. We were old pros by then, of course, after 2013 and 2014’s performances. But you really tried extra hard to reduce our capacity to deal with things. Above and beyond, my friend — truly. We were battered and bruised, the kids were starting to have anxiety issues, my post-cancer positive outlook and unshakeable attitude was shaken. I got depressed, Adam was beyond unhappy, and Lyra suddenly couldn’t be alone in a room and was convinced we were going to end up living on the street, no matter how many assurances we gave her.

Just a quick reminder for you, 2015: Velociraptor Incident was NOT on your Goals and Objectives list. It was about as far from it as it could have been. I’m uncertain where you got confused, since I don’t think my communications on that front were unclear. If you thought that we needed some more problem solving skills and a more complete SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, in case you’ve forgotten), you are mistaken. We’ve really had enough of that around here to last us at least the next few years. We are strong, and we are weak. We see many opportunities, and threats will always be there. As an organization, we’re almost hyper-aware of these things now. We didn’t need more reminders this year.

Overall, you haven’t done a stellar job this year, 2015, though it seems like you made an effort to pull up your socks and put some extra work in come autumn, and I don’t begrudge your efforts to redeem yourself from October onwards. We’re happy to not be living in hotels, or friends’ basements, or temporary rentals. It’s even better to be living in our own home, with yard and space and everything. I think if you do a self-evaluation you might figure out where you went wrong. I really hope that you did better for others, though I’ve heard mixed results from many.

Hopefully you’ll take away that you should pay attention to your goals, and try not to take initiative in a way that is completely opposite the goals of the organization. As for me, I’ve discovered that I should improve my communication skills, so that mix-ups like this are less likely to happen. I’m glad we can both say we’ve learned something.

Still, what you’ve learned is no longer my concern; we’re done here, and it’s time for me to begin orientation with 2016. I thank you, 2015, for the good things that came of your work, but I won’t lie when I tell you that I’m glad our time is at an end. Thanks, and here’s a cup of coffee to enjoy on your way out.

Now, 2016, please come into my office. Let’s start with a nice, clear definition of your goals and objectives…