‘Do you have a partner?’ That is the very first question I was asked after being given my diagnosis. I said no. ‘Do you have any family around?’ I shook my head: ‘They are in France.’ ‘Do you live on your own? Do you have any close friends here?’
I have always been fiercely independent. I do not trust people easily. I used to think I did not need anyone, ever. I moved to the UK right after finishing uni in Paris, saying goodbye to friends and family I would only see a couple times a year from there on. I liked the challenge, the idea of not relying on anyone but myself. I was building a life for myself, with very little help from anyone else. I was financially, emotionally and physically self-sufficient, and that made me strong.
I am a people person. The coaster on my desk reads ‘I like otters, it’s people who annoy me’ – it is accurate, but also not. I am independent but I love having people around. I am very close to my friends, I am fiercely loyal to them, I enjoy meeting new people and building new relationships. Even during lockdown, I found ways of staying in touch with people – messaging friends at all hours of the day and night (they stopped replying to every single text after a while – how rude).
I get on with my family, most of the time. I see them a couple of times a year, we have a great time, then I go back to my life. We are not in constant contact, they do not know every single facet of my life, and that works for me.
I have been single, casually dating most of my adult life. I do not feel the need to constantly be in a relationship. I have always struggled to let people in, trust them enough to let them be a permanent part of my life. I do not like change, I am terrible at compromise, and that does not make it easy to build a life with someone.
Did I feel lonely? Sometimes, but I think most people have similar feelings from time to time. Would I support my friends through anything? Absolutely. You can call me at any hour of the day and night, and I will jump in a taxi/on a train/on a plane if you need me. Because I was so keen on being self-sufficient, on being independent, because I tend to keep my feelings and my problems to myself, I had never considered a situation in which the roles would be reversed. Would I be able to reach out, if anything was to happen? Would people be there for me like I would for them? Would I even want to ask for support?
I will admit the thought of doing this on my own crossed my mind. In the first few seconds, in the first few minutes after I understood what was happening inside my body, I considered not telling anyone. I thought it would be best. I thought I would protect people by not telling them. But I decided to reach out, and I am grateful every day that I did.
I reached out to my mum. I do not speak to her often, maybe a couple text messages every week or so (mostly talking about cats), one video call a month, two or three quick trips back home a year. But I called her straightaway on that day. And she offered to tell everyone in the family, to break the news herself as I was not strong enough to do it.
I reached out to two different groups of friends whilst still in the hospital. I texted some of my best friends here in the UK, people who knew I had a doctor’s appointment that morning. And then, I messaged some of my friends from home, people who have been by my side for over ten years now. The support started pouring in.
Obviously, I needed to tell work. I asked one of my friends from work to speak to my manager, and tell her that I had had some bad news at the appointment. I walked home. I cried all the way up the hill (and what a hill it is). I went into my room. I think my housemates were in, at least some of them. I did not see them. Did they hear me cry that day? Maybe.
I called my manager, and I gave her the news, lying on my bed, clutching my phone with one hand and the appointment letter in the other. I cried throughout, I said I would come into work later that day.
Once that was done, that was it. All areas of my life had been covered. Work, friends, family (not necessarily in that order). Someone from each of my social bubbles knew about it. It made it real, it also made it easier. Once you start telling people, it is no longer your burden only.
As the hours and days passed, I started telling more people. Every time, I told myself that I was only doing it for a practical reason. I told my housemates, because I was going to be home more often, because they might walk into me crying in the living room. I messaged more friends from the UK, because they were people I was going to see face to face in the next few weeks, and they would realise something was wrong. I told my team at work, convincing myself I was only doing it so they could understand why I disappeared every other day for a few hours, and why I would be off for six weeks later in the year.
But what I was really doing was showing people, for the first time in my life, that I needed emotional support.
Every time I told someone, I felt guilty. I felt guilty of bringing people into this situation, of making them part of something they had not asked for. It felt like I was involving them in something terrible, just to ease my own pain. Like I was forcing my issues on them, like I was asking too much of them, in a selfish and undeserving way.
Because of those feelings, I decided that I would not tell any of my other friends unless they reached out and asked how I was doing. I have always been terrible at lying, so I would not have been able to hide the truth. I would not share the news on social media, I would not do one big announcement, I would not shout it from the rooftops.
The support was overwhelming. I do not think I will ever be able to thank people for the kindness and understanding they showed me. Be it the friends who hugged me on the day of the diagnosis (one of the few times I allowed people to hug me), who drove me to my appointments, sat with me in the waiting room and asked the questions I could not think of, the friends who kept asking how I was doing, the ones who drove across the country just to spend an evening with me, the ones who sent cards and origami otters, the ones who told people I could not face, the ones who came to spend New Year’s Eve with me, crossing the Channel just to be there after the surgery, the ones who held me when I cried, the ones who were angry on my behalf when the surgery got cancelled the first time around, the ones who called the nurse for me when I could not even hold the phone, the ones who drove me home after the surgery, the ones who felt uncomfortable and pushed through it, because I needed them.
My parents who, barely speaking English, dropped everything to be with me for the surgery – my dad who, on my scheduled operation day, waited with me in the hospital for eight hours before the surgery was called off due to a lack of available beds, and was angrier and quieter than I have ever seen him when they told us to go home (and that includes that evening in 2002 when the far-right got into the second round of the French presidential elections). My mum, who came two weeks later for the rescheduled surgery, and listened to me babbling in English when I woke up from general anaesthesia, unable to speak a word of French. My brothers, who came to spend Christmas with me and agreed to watch Home Alone and Home Alone 2 back to back, snuggled up on the sofa.
My colleagues, who cried when I gave them the news, and my team, who bore with me when I kept bursting into tears at random times during the day and could barely get any work done. People who gave me advice, who told me they would be there for me if I needed them.
People who are still here for me today as I am struggling with depression, PTSD and anxiety, and for whom I have vowed to battle through it all, and come out stronger on the other side.
I am still independent. I am still tough, I am still strong. I now live on my own, and I love it. I still have my walls up with most of the world, even close friends, but I now understand the value of support. And you can be independent, you can be self-sufficient and still need a helping hand from time to time.