‘Age- appropriate Milestones’ – ‘Biological clocks’ – ‘Schedules’ – ‘Plans’ – ‘Destinations’ – ‘Timelines’…
Our lives are ruled by invisible “shoulds haves”. “I should have graduated by now”, “I should have that job already”, “I should have saved x amount of money”, “I should have traveled to this many countries by this age”, “I should have met my life partner by now”.
We’re all guilty of conforming to societal timelines. Comparing ourselves to others and wondering why we haven’t achieved as much. It’s easy to fall into this trap because the entire system has been created to make us believe that we aren’t enough. The adverts and images we’re bombarded with every day are illusory mechanisms designed to instill a deep-seated sense of anxiety within us all, so we keep purchasing products we don’t need, keep buying into the notion that if we just eat this, lose this weight, or achieve this goal we will be happy. Deep down we all know its bullshit. Yet still, we compare, we contrast, we wonder… why am I not enough?
We’ve all heard the famous quote: “Life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.” Stop planning start living right? But we protest, surely it’s important to have plans and goals? It’s true. Goals give us purpose; ambition gives us the chutzpah to get up every day and keep moving forward. But, when that ambition morphs into an obsession over how things should be, instead of how they are – it quickly becomes harmful. We stop experiencing today because we are so caught up in tomorrow.
I’m currently reflecting on this because right now I am being forced to let go of my own timeline; the carefully constructed schedule I had planned out of exactly how my life would be.
I spent the first few years post-high school living almost entirely in the present. Leaving school I had no plan and no schedule, just an insatiable desire to figure out who I was. I did that through travel (yes I’m a cliché). Almost two years were spent meandering across South America with a backpack learning a new language, absorbing a foreign culture, figuring out the world and my place in it. By the age of 21, I found myself itching to study. It’s unclear whether this was born out of my own desire for routine and further education or I was feeding into the societal expectations of what I “should” do, I think perhaps it was both. Regardless, I came home and started my degree. All was going smoothly, until my final year, when I was diagnosed with lymphoma. The trauma of going through six months of chemotherapy at 23 reignited my desire for spiritual and physical exploration. I needed to revisit the open spaces to once again understand who I was.
So I returned to South America, backpacked, lived in the jungle, worked as a teacher and healed. I had taken time out of my so-called “schedule” to learn/remember who I was because cancer had stripped me bare. A year and a half later and once again I was consumed by that familiar itch to jump back on the bandwagon of “normalcy” (whatever that means). I moved to London to study my masters. Things were back on track.
But cancer simply laughed in the face of my plans.
After I’d recovered from the devastation of realizing that the disease had returned, I picked myself off the bathroom floor and vowed to carry on. Nothing would interrupt this regularly scheduled programming. No way would I allow the malignant cells in my body from getting in my way. I’d get my degree, I’d maintain my social life, I would not let this illness win.
The plan was to do chemo and then get my stem cell transplant out of the way (just a “small” medical procedure where they infuse your body with intense chemotherapy then transplant a donors stem cells into your body so your immune system can regenerate, all of which involves being quarantined in the hospital for about a month and then a long, tiring process of recovery at home). But I’d get it all over and done with within 6 months, obviously then finish my masters and then start looking for jobs. Easy right?
Except the chemo didn’t work and my cancer didn’t respond to the drugs. And suddenly my schedule didn’t seem so clear. After failing two different types of chemo I was put on a clinical trial called immunotherapy. The side effects paled in comparison to chemo and I was able to finish my degree. Then the scans came back looking positive. Finally after 6 months of treatment things were working.
Then another scan last week and surprise surprise, the drugs have stopped working.
The biggest thing you realize when you go through cancer is that healing is not linear. It’s a long, arduous process that requires patience, acceptance, and surrender. It’s days when you feel like you can achieve anything and nights when everything falls apart. Healing takes time. It takes everything you’ve got. The past nine months of my life have been a rollercoaster of emotion. Trial and error. Doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy, scans, anxiety, waiting rooms, and around we go. My reality often feels like one big dejá vu.
What I have had to accept is that my life is not going according to plan. Because there is no such thing as a life plan. Ultimately this journey is messy and chaotic and completely out of our control. Yes, we can sway the tides, put things into motion, sign up for courses, apply for jobs, join dating apps, move abroad, drink our celery juice, try our best to alter the course of our lives but ultimately… que sera, sera.
So I don’t get to dust my hands of this cancer thing quickly and carry on. I don’t get to be a normal 26-year-old. I don’t get to be healthy in the period of my life that we’re constantly told is our physical peak. I probably won’t be able to conceive children naturally. Or ever live a life where I’m not worried about surviving. That’s just how it is.
But what I’ve also learned through this process is that none of our lives go according to plan. That as much as we try to envisage exactly how things will unfold, things fall apart. People get sick, loved ones pass away, lovers leave us, we fail, we fall down, we suffer. Morbid as it sounds that is the reality of this fragile existence. Life is filled with surprises. Those surprises can also be amazing. Opportunities that come knocking out of the blue. Falling in love when we least expect it.
So I write this from a place of deep acceptance. I’ve just been told that once again my disease is active. That once again I have to surrender to what is and just accept. That I may or may not have the transplant next month, depending on whether the disease remains stable, which means another scan in two weeks and more waiting, more hoping, more anticipating. So I’m giving up the plans, the timeline, the expectations. That doesn’t mean I’m no longer trying to overcome this illness with everything I’ve got, it just means I’m done resisting what is. I’m done trying to shape this illness around some illusory schedule in my head. I’m done planning my future when none of it is guaranteed. Nothing is ever guaranteed.
But right now, today – I am here. And I feel good. I feel healthy. I feel strong and alive. I’m done believing I should be anywhere else other than exactly where I am right now.
The only place there is to be is here, in this moment, which is all any of us will ever have.