I’ve been reluctant to write a blog post for some time now because honestly, I haven’t felt like I’ve had all that much to share. Of course, I’m being mendacious, there has been a lot going on in my life (namely a life-saving bone marrow transplant), but I’ve grown weary of writing about my cancer journey, tired of trying to put into words an experience that I still haven’t entirely understood myself yet.
Except that I do want to write about it. Not so much the physical experience, but how these events have impacted me on a deeper, psychological level.
The topic of mental health is a tired one – sometimes it seems like it’s all we hear about, an obvious vestige of a deeply broken society. We’ve known about this epidemic for some time now. We know that in the UK, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem.
We know that the biggest crises of our modern age; social media addiction, climate change, the pressures of capitalism, political upheaval and economic instability, all of the suffocating components that constitute our unsustainable systems of living have, slowly, begun to impact on our psychological well-being.
In other words, many of us feel lost.
Yet, there’s still a stigma, a fear in admitting we are struggling. We post our highlights and filter our truths. We act like we’re fine all the time and when we’re not, we falsely believe we’re alone in our struggle.
I’ve never been one for hiding my story; sharing the ins and outs of my journey with illness and loss quite openly on social media. Through sharing, I found a way to claim ownership of something over which I had zero control. But I too only tend to share when I’m feeling in my power. And lately, I haven’t felt like sharing at all. Lately, I haven’t felt “strong” or “inspiring”. I’ve felt weak and confused and well, lost.
Since relapsing exactly a year ago, I made it my personal mission to stay busy in order to avoid my emotions. I didn’t want to feel the depth of these feelings that were piling up inside of me, they were too scary, too real. So I suppressed. Not with drugs or alcohol or food, like before, but by keeping busy.
As long as I continually distracted myself I was convinced I would be fine.
People often ask me how I managed to complete a master’s degree while going through treatment and losing a parent, but in reality, without constant distraction, I would have fallen apart. University gave me a reason to get up in the morning, lectures forced me out of bed, deadlines engendered my life with purpose. Yes, I was the girl with cancer but I was also a writer, a student, a friend. The constant social events that accompanied university life enabled me to feel that despite my weekly stints in the chemo chair, I was still me.
Then, it ended. I handed in my thesis and a week later I was lying supine in a hospital bed preparing for my transplant.
It was the first time in over three years that I was physically forced to stop. Yet still, the emotions did not come. Anyone who’s experienced the high-intensity chemotherapy administered before a stem-cell transplant knows just how physically debilitating it is. One is so acutely present to what’s going on in the body, to the nausea and migraines, gut-wrenching stomach pain and staggering fatigue, that all there really is to do is lie there and exist.
Finally, when the chemo had wiped out every remaining stem cell in my bone marrow, my sister’s cells were pumped into my blood through a cannula. I am still dumbfounded by the technology involved in this procedure. How I now have my siblings DNA in my body, how I owe my life to her.
After two weeks of being quarantined in a hospital room while my body regenerated enough white blood cells to constitute a functioning immune system, I was released back into the world.
It was only then, upon arriving home, that the feelings came. And by came I mean, smacked me down like a merciless tsunami of emotion.
I just felt so deeply sad like there was a crater inside me, a pit of cavernous darkness. The lightness and happiness that has always felt so effortless to me, had evaporated. I was angry with the world. Angry that I had been robbed of my youth, of a sense of naïveté and carefreeness that comes with being young. Angry that for the rest of my life I would have to live with the fear of relapse, live with the fear that every pain I felt could potentially be fatal. Angry that I had been treated like a human pin cushion in the hospital, ripped of all my bodily autonomy. Angry that I’d had my long hair, my fertility, my sex drive stolen from me, in what felt like having my sense of femininity obliterated. Above all I just felt sad, saddened that for so long life had been serious and heavy and overwhelmingly hard.
I was awash in a sea of feelings and I couldn’t find the ground beneath my feet. I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror and not just because I was 6 kg lighter or as bald as a baby’s bum. Being forced to rest meant there was no escaping the wounds in my mind. I had to face them.
But of course, I still tried to run. Instead of understanding the value of this period of turning inside and healing my psyche, I got lost in comparison and distraction.
I saw those around me moving on with their lives, starting work, traveling, seemingly thriving and I felt abandoned and purposeless. I punished myself for being so sad, forced myself to go out and try to be my old bubbly self, I even started applying for jobs. I just didn’t want to deal with my grief. But feelings are feelings and man can they be resilient.
In this relentlessly fast paced, consumer-driven society of ours, we are constantly congratulated for playing a conventional role in the system. We know this just from the first question strangers ask us, “so what do you do for a living?” We are rewarded for our packed social schedules, our crowded calendars, our exhaustion.
But what about healing? What about taking the time to do the work to fix ourselves and mend our trauma? We all have internal wounds. Yet these formidable endeavours of internal restoration are rarely rewarded and often even viewed as self-indulgent. Unless there’s something material to show for our efforts, like a ripped torso or a published memoir (watch this space yo!), this work is rarely valued.
Everyone wants to hear the success story without acknowledging the raw and often painful experiences a person must endure in order to get there.
For me, it’s been about learning to accept that there is nothing I can do but sit in the uncertainty of this moment and feel the weight of all I have been through. I’m learning to stop apologising for my tears. I’m learning it’s ok to miss my mother, to ache for her at times. That it’s ok to feel broken, to mourn for the person I used to be, to grieve the life that I didn’t have.
I’m realising that in order to face the world again with the strength and courage and resilience I know exists within me, I have to embrace this season of solitude and sentiment. I have to learn to love my bald head and my broken heart. I have to experience the moments of melancholy and stillness.
This is how we heal.
“There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”Carl Jung