Saturday, April 26, 2014

Day 1,412: Race to the Finish

For a culture so obsessed with immediate gratification and the concept of winning at any cost, it is interesting how we are simultaneously inundated with inspirational messages that tell us to keep the bigger picture in mind, to concentrate on the end goal, the long term horizon. These messages might originate in war or be developed with sport in mind. However, they are nonetheless used to describe the process of illness as well, or, indeed, any kind of great suffering, as if thinking about determination, moxie, gumption, and that fighting spirit could help us, somehow, cheat death. I've been thinking about these messages, and how they are used in a cancer context, and I'm thinking about them for a reason other than what you might think. They are swimming in my head today:

It's about the journey, not the destination.
Focus on the war, not the battle.
This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Short-term suffering, long-term life.

I understand the sentiments behind these words--really, I do. And yet, they make me feel inadequate. Because for more than 30 years, maybe for the entirety of my life, I have trained myself to play a different game.

I am a sprinter, not a marathoner. I might be a warrior, but I am no general. My whole life has been made up of one destination after another, and while the journey has been interesting, experiencing it was never my intent.I was always just trying to get through the day, the week, the month, the year, the stage in life. Always.

I have figured something out about myself after this second bout of cancer, this fifth round of trying to cheat death, and this something is the subject for another post, or maybe many of them. I need therapy. I figured that out when I saw this on the Mayo Clinic website, an article about PTSD and cancer survivors. It lists the symptoms commonly experienced by cancer survivors who have PTSD:

Problems sleeping because of intrusive dreams or flashbacks of trauma
Feeling hopeless
Memory problems
Trouble concentrating
Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
Feelings of guilt or shame
Irritability and anger
Self-destructive behaviors, such as drinking too much or taking unusual risks
Uncontrolled sadness and crying spells
Hearing or seeing things that are not there

I read this and thought, huh. With the exception of the first and the last one (I think I'd have to sleep more to have intrusive dreams), I have...all of these. Now, I have them Katy-style: My uncontrollable crying spells last about 30 seconds, I feel sorry about how my life has affected other people but I feel no guilt or shame, and while I think I've been drinking too much, because I have a drink almost every day when I never did that before, even in college (hell, I was basically straight-edge the last three years of college), I doubt that qualifies as excessive risk-taking. The sadness, hopelessness, general detachment, extreme trouble concentrating on ANYTHING, my inability to remember something as simple as our weekend plans, my short temper, my desire to be alone even after an entire day of being alone, my lack of interest in doing so many things--including this--all of these things I was attributing to chemo brain. And maybe that is a part of it. But it was when I realized that I didn't even feel like WRITING anymore, when I realized that I'd rather sit in a room by myself and do something completely mindless like sing along to the radio or read Harry Potter than talk to people, have sex, play with my kids...well, then I started to think it might be time to talk to someone.

So I'll get on that at some point. But that is not why I am writing today.

Seeing the PTSD list made me think about a lot of things. It made me think about how I have not really felt that way before--yes I had a depression my senior year of high school, and I felt like I was jumping out of my skin all the time and everyone seemed ridiculous and I ditched school constantly and felt so restless I could barely stand it. Yes I have had some depression, hormone related and not, from cancer. Yes, when I was 9 years old, I had night terrors for months after I almost died in a terrible car accident. Yes, I had panic attacks for years if I was the only girl in a room after I was abused and threatened with gang rape when I was 15 years old. But in general? I just kept doing everything normally, all the time, all my life. After the car accident, I wrote in my diary every night at the same time from the same chair starting with the same phrase. After that assault I went to school where I had to see and interact with the perpetrators every single day. After I felt that gun at my temple at age 25 on the green line, I got right back on the same train less than 36 hours later. I have never stopped working, not with pregnancy or cancer or anything else. I have continued to raise my children and work out incessantly and write and do things, even when I have stared death in the face not once, not twice, not three times...well, you get the picture. People often ask me how I can do what I do, and I have never known what those questions really mean or what I am supposed to say.

OK, that is not entirely true. I know what the answer is, but it is not what people want to hear.

I can do these things because I am a work horse. I was always the shooter when I played ball. As long as there was a number I could count to, I didn't need to stop jumping rope. I never worried about winning the game because what I cared about was making the shot, catching the ball, throwing the spiral, setting up that perfect block.

I am a sprinter. I am a sprinter even though one of the times when I cheated death left me with injuries that would ensure I would never truly be able to run again. I am still a sprinter though--by training.

For as long as I can remember, I have carved my life into a series of goals, no matter how short or long. In the easier years, like college, I had longer term destinations: I wanted to be 21 years old and graduate from college never having been married or pregnant. I don't know why that was important to me, though I suppose the answer is that achieving that seemed like a long shot in my situation. I thought I was pregnant a few weeks before I graduated college, but it turned out to be some mysterious illness, so I achieved this goal that I had had for, oh I don't know, EVER, and then, I thought...

So what the hell do I do now?

There was always something to get through, some goal, some ending to look forward to, to strive for: the day when my legs would work again, the end of the suffering that was happening now, the moment when I got away, the end of treatment, the cancerversary, the wedding, the children's births, living to see my son get to kindergarten (that one hasn't happened yet--so, humor me--knock on wood), a house to renovate, a new job, hell, a new haircut.

And now, I am still sprinting, but they are micro-sprints. There is no 26th mile. There is no 5 k. There is the house three doors down that my mother let me run to as a child, and I know that when I reach it, I have to just turn around and run back. That is what I am doing right now--running back and forth between what is happening this moment and what will happen in the next few hours. There is nothing beyond that. There is race after race, but they are suicide sprints.

I know that many of those who read this will think I am in trouble, that I am losing it. I don't see it that way. I don't think I need fixing, but rather...tinkering.

At the gym where I spin, there is an instructor who encourages us not to think about the ride as 10 or so separate short rides coinciding with the songs, but as one long ride. And I understand what she is saying.

But I have been waiting for the end of one song to lead to the start of another for my entire life. It is what I have trained myself to do. I am not prepared to see this as a weakness, or a lesser choice. I am not willing to concede that this means I am damaged. I don't think I am broken or that I need to learn how to be a different person, because being this way is an enormous part of who I am. There is no KatyDid if you take away the sprint. I am not the kind of person who believes that everyone has to run marathons, or make battle plans, or focus on the afterlife. I do not even believe that being at peace should be the goal. There is nothing wrong with fighting, no matter how tiring it is. Sometimes, you do things because you are good at them, and maybe one of those things is using your body, being aware of its every movement, as a way to stave off the constant thoughts in your mind. You move so that you do not have to think. You keep busy so that you don't have time to grieve.

Until now, I think that I have trained adequately. Until now, I allowed myself the momentary depression or sadness or fear that made it possible to just suck it up and move on to the next mile. Even now, in this detached and numb state I find myself in, I do not think I need to start my training over.

I am still a sprinter. It's just that right now, I'm a little bit...winded.


  1. Oh Katy such an honest appraisal of the inner you. You are accepting the toll that cancer has taken on you mentally and physically. I think there comes a time for all of us when the gruelling, taxing treatments catch up with us no matter how strong we appear to the outside world. We have to accept the changes it brings about in our very psyche, and realise we sometimes can't do this alone. I can't. I send you love, hugs and healing so that you get your wind back. Thank you for being so honest as you don't realise how much you helped me. Good luck. X

  2. Katy, I have PTSD from cancer, too. There is help, and that is something called EMDR (I don't remember what it stands for, but it involves a therapist invoking eye movement on an object (no drugs) and rewiring your brain's trauma. I've had two sessions, and they were remarkable in reducing the trauma. A Google search on EMDR and PTSD will help you if you are so inclined. Hang in there. I have most of these symptoms, too, but the treatment really worked.