Walking Down Memory Lane, Part One: Avoidance

It took me a while to get this post out. I started about seven different drafts, and it took exactly eighteen days from the moment I wrote the title until I finally got the courage to finish it and the nerve to post it.

It is not my best work but I cannot stand to go over the same words again, erasing them, reworking them, rewriting them. It is ironic, considering the subject matter.

I never used to be an avoider. I liked to confront things head-on. I did not shy away from difficult situations, I strove in the face of challenges, I liked to take risks, take the plunge, run away with things.

I have changed. There are routes that I can no longer bear to take, people that I dread to see, voices that I do not want to hear.

I have known triggers. I know that if I walk past the hospital where I was diagnosed, there is a 70% chance I will be assaulted by unwanted images and memories. Sure, there are days when I feel like I will be fine. Days I know I can’t even attempt it, when I am close to tears already. And days when it could go either way. So I avoid it, I do not take the risk.

I cannot talk to my mum on the phone without being back into that room at the hospital where I broke the news to her. Video calls are fine, but sitting on my sofa, and answering the phone? I feel sick at the mere thought of it. The feeling of the phone in my hand, against my ear. The memories are vivid. I can remember the smell, the plant in the corner, the colour of the cushions. One phone call, and I am back in that room.

There are clothes I can no longer wear. The trousers I had on the day of my diagnosis, I gave to a charity shop a few months ago. The shirt I really liked, so I still have it in the back of my drawers. I hope that one day I will be able to put it on again without drowning in my own tears.

So I avoid all these things that I know will make me uncomfortable. I am not strong enough to face them head-on. I force myself to go to hospital appointments, and I find excuses for anything else that I know will trigger flashbacks and unwanted memories. I get enough random intrusive thoughts in my day-to-day life to choose not subject myself to these situations on purpose.

Until I can’t avoid it anymore.

In late May, I was told I should go to the office for one day, to pick up my new laptop.

I have been working from home (and complaining about it) for fifteen months now. At first, I was elated. The office, yay! Something different. Something I had been pushing for for a year.

I started making plans about a week in advance, arranging a day for me to go in, planning to meet my manager there, have lunch… I was so excited.

And then, on that same night I had learnt I would have to go into the office, I had one of my worst panic attacks so far this year. My brain just started remembering stuff I had pushed aside for a year, making links I had never thought of, and generally working overdrive.

We moved to that office on the day I had the biopsy which would lead to my diagnosis. The date is probably not relevant to anyone else. I had never even made the link before that day. But that means my cancer journey actually began on the day we moved into that office. The cancerous cells that would define the rest of my life were sent to the lab on the same day I rolled my pedestal under my new desk.

I spent hours replaying that day in my mind. The bus I took to the hospital, and then back home. The train I got into work. The lunch I had with my friends, where I told them about the appointment, and that ‘it looked like polyps, but they would confirm in a couple of weeks. It was probably fine though’. How relaxed I was about the whole thing. Oh, how naive I was.

Obviously, that was not enough for my brain. Over the next week, it decided to remind me of every step of my cancer journey that took place in the office.

The day I came in after hearing the news. The way my friends, my manager greeted me. The moment my phone rang at my desk – my dad calling after my mum had given him the news. How I sat crying my heart out in the meeting room. And the other meeting room. And my manager’s office. And the phone booth. And this, and that room.

Every phone call. Every appointment made, every person I told. Oh, that meeting I had with my team two days after the diagnosis. Where I sat, willing myself not to break, trying to stop the tears, to stay strong, to crack a joke that would make it feel less real. The stairs where I sat when I told a friend before we went on lunch.

The memories are so vivid. I remember every second in that office in the weeks before and after my diagnosis. Every hard, terrifying second. Every moment I wish I could forget.

I was terrified. Suddenly, going into the office seemed unsurmontable. If just thinking about it sent me into such a state, surely I would not be able to actually do it.

I was frustrated. I went back to the office after the operation and before covid sent us all home. I was fine. I was perfectly fine, I was happy. And I know there were some good memories in that office too. Decorating the place for Christmas. My friends’ support. My colleagues’ little attentions. I am crying whilst writing this. I wish I could remember those moments rather than the ones that cause me so much pain.

That week leading to my going back to the office was one of the longest and hardest I had experienced in a while. Every moment I was not focused on work, I was reliving those same memories, over and over again. I was crying at night instead of sleeping.

I thought about cancelling a million times. Surely I could speak up. Ask for the laptop I needed to pick up to be couriered over to me.

But I refused to do it. There is a time for avoidance, but I cannot let my fear, my feelings and my memories control my life.

And so I went.

(To be continued)

New Year, New Challenges

There are similarities in the way I rang in the new year those last two years. Same group of friends (minus a few members), same no-drinking policy, same hope for a better year ahead. Minor differences – this time we were in France and had a seemingly unlimited supply of face masks and hand sanitizer. We played games, ate too much and had a chilled, fun-filled evening.

But instead of the fireworks of 2020, 2021 started with a panic attack and hot, burning tears.

I had felt them coming. I had had a few scary moments throughout the evening, moments where I lost touch with reality and slipped into my own mind. Moments when, unable to cope with two many conversations around me (and there were still only six of us), I retreated back into myself, into the mind that used to be my refuge, but has since become booby-trapped with dangerous thoughts.

After a year spent mostly in isolation, I had no idea how I would react to being around people constantly. Over the last three weeks, as I got reacquainted with my family and friends, it proved a challenge.

How do you talk to people who know of your vulnerability, but have not experienced it, witnessed it first-hand? How do you broach an entire year of physical and mental struggles with people who have only known you at your best, healthy self?

As usual, I pretended everything was fine. Most people are comfortable with that, that is what they are expecting. Most of my friends did not ask any follow-up questions. I managed to see both my parents and only mention the word ‘cancer’ a handful of times at most. They were not interested, they were avoiding the subject. It probably made them more comfortable to ignore the issue, so I pretended to do the same.

My mental health struggles, I was not able to hide as well. I felt down at times, which my friends noticed. I realised that confrontation, arguments and aggressive debates automatically sent me into a panic spiral. I cannot deal with conflict anymore – and in a family setting, conflict is sure to arise at some point, particularly if my brothers get started on politics. I guess I needed to experience it to learn of my new limits. I was given plenty of opportunities to test them, and I did not disappoint. Or rather, I did.

Big personalities make me feel small and inadequate. I used to be like that, and now I feel invisible. I no longer have the strength to battle for what I think, so I disappear in group conversations.

I do not want to disappear, but I also constantly feel like I am not enough. Like I am a hindrance, rather than a help. Like I am imposing myself on others, just by being there, by taking up space, quietly, without contributing much. I feel like I am a bother, like people do not want or need me around.

I struggle to make decisions. Weirdly enough, it does not affect me much at work, in a setting where I know I have to make calls as part of my job. But choosing between five different types of tea, what room I want to sleep in, or deciding what music we should listen to, all of that sends me into a panic.

It all culminated at New Year’s. Too many people around, too many different things to pay attention to, too many small decisions – where do you want to sit, what do you want to drink, which conversation do you want to listen to, too many things to look at and people to smile at. I could not keep the pretense long enough and I crumbled.

There were so many thoughts in my head at midnight. How everyone was hoping for a better year, even if quietly and without much confidence it would happen. I find it difficult to hope, to think about the future, which is what New Year is about. Closing the door on a terrible year, and leaping into a new, unknown one. To me, that sounds terrifying. 365 more days, and any one of them could bring terrible news and things.

Seeing people around me being happy is hard – it reminds me of how much I have changed, how I used to be one of them. It draws me into a downward spiral – I feel guilty about being down, about not being able to enjoy a few hours with my friends when I have the opportunity. My guilt transforms into shame, into self-hatred. Panic and tears settle in.

When it finally happened, just after midnight, it was not pretty. I withdrew into a dark room and let my tears flow, my breathing returning to normal after a good twenty minutes. It was my first panic attack of 2021, but I already know it will not be the last.

Last year, my only New Year resolution was to beat cancer. It was a worrying time, but the goal was clear, and could be achieved with medical procedures and treatment. This year, I do not have any resolutions, but I have challenges I want to reach and win. Feeling more confident. Achieving things and enjoying small victories. Letting go of the guilt. Allowing myself to shine and be myself, proudly and unapologetically. Having fun, saying goodbye to doubts and worries, and not being afraid to be happy.

Letting Go

I have always been obsessed with the idea of keeping it together. Finding a way to keep moving forward, even when it hurts, even when it means pretending. Focusing on things I can control, instead of delving into my issues and trying to solve them. Saving face, again and again.

Last week, for only the second time since my diagnosis, I let go. Did I forget that I was supposed to pretend? Did I not have the energy to hold back the feelings, to glue together whatever pieces of me were still whole?

The surge of feelings after my hospital appointment was both expected and unexpectedly violent. The whole experience was incredibly brutal.

First came the panic attacks the minute I set foot in the hospital. I was holding it together until then, but then I broke down. Teary, barely able to think, speaking in a whispery, soft voice that is very uncharacteristic of me, breathing hard but hardly breathing, the whole shebang. But a panic attack for me is not about letting go, it is not about losing control of your feelings. It is a sign of my body being unable to cope with a situation, and reacting physically, automatically, to what my brain cannot cope with. 

After I got home that evening, after I wrote to my friends to tell them everything was fine, after I posted here about my relief at being cancer-free, I finally let go and gave in to my feelings.

In a rare display of true emotion, only exacerbated by sheer exhaustion and the now familiar migraine that comes after panic attacks, I spent hours that night crying. I am not sure what I cried about. Relief. Fear. Anger. Acceptance. Loss. I let my feelings overcome me and tear at my carefully-crafted armour of false-strength.

And for two days, I could barely move. I was paralysed by my feelings. I felt sick, I felt useless, I struggled to even open my eyes. The only other time I can remember feeling so overcome with feelings was after the cancelled operation. I let my feelings wash over me, and take control of what happened to my body. I lay in bed, under the covers, with a pile of tissues and a box of painkillers at my side. I alternated between crying, drifting off to sleep for short, restless periods, and feeling sorry for myself. Feeling angry at myself.

Since October 2019 and the diagnosis, I had not taken a single sick day for cancer reasons that was not related to either a doctor’s appointment or the surgery. I came in the day of my diagnosis, and the day after. I came back from sick leave after surgery a week early. But last week, just like the week after they cancelled the operation in early December last year, it finally became too much. I had no energy. I had no brainpower. All I had were feelings a year in the making, an unrelenting migraine, and a week’s worth of insomnia.

So I let go. I let my feelings take over my body and my brain, and I stopped pretending, for two blessed days, that I was fine. I gave in. I knew my feelings and self-pity had an expiration date – I was travelling back to France at the weekend and needed to be back up on my feet by then.

Did it feel liberating? In a way. Because I did not go to work, I did not have to pretend to be ok. I did not have to repress my feelings and put up a brave front. I was unapologetically broken, and I was honest.

For two days, I did not make myself do anything I did not fancy. I did not eat. I drank lots of tea, I went for a couple of walks, I avoided people and listened to Christmas music. I cried for hours, in the comfort of my own bed, under the stream of the shower, in the woods at the edge of the park. I let go.

But there, at the back of my mind, were still uncomfortable feelings. Guilt, for taking days off when work was busy. For having the privilege to do so, when so many people cannot afford that. Uneasiness, for making people uncomfortable when telling them what was wrong. Anger, anger at myself for not being strong enough to keep pretending and live a normal life. Shame at not being a functional human being. Shame, shame, shame.

Two days. That is how long I allowed myself to let go for. And then I picked up the pieces of myself and put them in a suitcase and a backpack, and dragged them over the border to France.

One Year On: We Are in the Clear

If I had any energy left after my one-year follow-up appointment this afternoon, I would probably blow up some balloons and put them up in my flat.

It was hard. My eyes are raw from crying. I used about two boxes of tissues – one in the waiting room and one in the exam room.

I cried in front of the receptionist. I cried in front of the nurse who checked my height and weight. I cried in front of the doctor, and I cried in front of the cancer nurse specialist.

Follow-up appointments are rough. You can go about your life for months, but you know that everything could change in a matter of seconds, in that same room where you first got the news. The. Exact. Same. Room.

I had a new doctor again, who asked me plenty of questions about how I was diagnosed, how it came to be, what tests were done, how thick the lining of my uterus had been on the MRI scan (I have no idea). As I was battling my way through my tears, she told me it was ok to cry. It was ok to be overwhelmed, to be traumatised. She told me that I had gone through a lot for someone so young – terribly young, and she could say that because we were exactly the same age.

I do not know why that comment struck me as odd. Why of all the things she said, that is the one that stayed with me.

But it is all said and done now. A quick exam, a lot of background info, a chat about any symptoms I could have had, an inventory of the medication I am on, and I have been declared cancer-free, until my next appointment in four months.

I will have more to say in the coming days. About how they told me if things remained the same, I would be discharged after one more year, instead of four. About how my dedicated nurse was self-isolating so I was not able to speak to her, but arranged a phone catch-up in a couple of weeks to discuss my ongoing mental health problems.

For now though, I will crawl under the covers, put a good audiobook on and try and get some much needed rest. I may order a celebratory takeaway later, making up for the fact I have had maybe 4 meals in the last 6 days. I will make myself a hot chocolate and put the Christmas lights on.

In the wise words of Adore Delano – Party.

Talking About Cancer – Making Light of It

Today marks exactly one year since the day my operation was first scheduled. It is also six days until my next check-up at the hospital, for the dreaded one-year mark (or as close as we could get without having me go for a check-up at Christmas).

At the moment, it is impossible for me to spend any length of time during the day not thinking about cancer. It permeates everything, it colours every feeling, every decision I make. It makes me cry, it makes me sick with worry, it makes me crumble to the floor in the shower until the water goes cold, it makes me forget how to breathe in the middle of my morning walk, and fall over in the park.

Because cancer is all-consuming, it is almost impossible to push it to the back of your mind, and not think about it at all. You need to find other ways to cope. Ways to tame cancer, to make it less of a threat, make it into a subject you can discuss, something that can make you laugh as well as cry.

I have found that making light of cancer helps. Making jokes, bringing it up in an unexpected way and observing people’s reactions can be priceless. When you make fun of it, for a few seconds, it no longer is the big C, or the other C-word. It is cancer, and it is something you can bring up without fear, something you have earned the right to laugh about.

I have always loved dry humour. Saying something unexpected, sometimes a bit dark but that will bring a laugh upon someone’s lips – or a shocked gasp, depending on who my audience is.

Just this week, even though I am battling one of the darkest weeks I have had all year, I made two of my ‘cancer jokes’, and it felt amazing. They were awkward, they were uncomfortable. They were not necessarily funny – I definitely will not be quitting my day job to start a career as a comedian – but they did make me feel more in control. For a few precious seconds, it felt like cancer was mine to beat, mine to laugh at. If I can laugh about it, surely it cannot hurt me anymore.

I was on the phone with a friend at the weekend, and we were talking about how I have been having a lot of mood swings and have been feeling very tearful lately – even more so than usual. My friend was asking whether I thought it might be hormone-related, or could it be an issue with my antidepressants maybe? In a deadpan, slow voice, I interrupted her and said ‘God, I hope I’m not pregnant’. A couple of seconds of silence, and an awkward laugh followed. Sorry to have made you uncomfortable – personally, I think that has been the highlight of my week so far.

The other joke I made was during a group video call, with a lot more people than I am usually comfortable with. I had not spoken to some of them since the summer of 2019, before it all happened, but they all knew, either because they had been told by other people or they saw something on social media, or read this blog. We were talking about how long it had been since we last saw each other, and I said ‘well, it’s been a while. Last time we spoke, I still had a uterus’. Some faces looked shocked. There were a couple of laughs, a few shaking heads and one amused ‘Can’t argue with that’.

I have been using humour to cope for months now. Earlier this year, I uploaded a selfie on social media, showcasing my brand new short hair and using a caption that would have made my mum cringe: ‘Getting rid of my hair like I got rid of that cancer – #snipsnip’. I felt so powerful in that moment. Cancer was nothing more than a punchline. Snip snip, my hair. Snip snip, cancer.

I understand these comments might make people uncomfortable. Not everyone is happy to have a laugh about something so serious. But for me, it is a way of getting over it, of proving that cancer is not as threatening as it looks, of feeling like I have the upper hand for once.

I think it is also important to show people that I can laugh about it. If I can make jokes, if I can make light of a terrible situation, maybe people will start feeling comfortable around me and my issues. Maybe they can make their own jokes, and I will laugh at them – no puns though, nothing make me cringe more than a bad pun.

I have earned the right to make those jokes, and to laugh when you make one. Not everyone with cancer will see it that way, and for some people cancer will always stay off-limits. For me, making light of cancer is proof that it has not taken over my sense of humour. I can still be hysterical.

Well. Not etymologically.

The Post That Started It All

Although I have always loved writing, I had never thought of writing a blog to share my experience. One the eve of the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I decided I wanted to share my experience with people, and wrote and shared a long facebook post. The response I received was overwhelming. People reaching out, comments about how much they related, how much they appreciated that I had shared that with them. I realised that not only had sharing this post lifted a weight off my chest, but it had helped others as well. And overnight, the idea to start a blog came to me, and I decided to make the jump. The post below is taken from the message I wrote on that night, the 14th of October 2020.

If you know me, you probably know I am not a fan of feelings.

They are unpredictable, they are messy, they make you vulnerable, they are overwhelming. I am uncomfortable experiencing them, let alone talking about them or sharing them on facebook.

I have been thinking about it a lot this past year.

A year ago, if you had asked me where I would be in a year, I probably would have given you some positive, commonplace and deliberately hopeful answer, like ‘oh, I hope I have my life together, a good job, a boyfriend, maybe a new flat, I will have made some progress with my writing, started a small calligraphy business, who knows.’

Well, let’s be honest, it turned out slightly differently.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up and it will have been a year since I was given a diagnosis of cancer. A year since I first cried in front of friends, family, and strangers (I will make an exception for all those times I cried when I was drunk before – it does not count), and since I started doing it most days, because it is often the easiest answer to the question ‘how are you doing?’. Crying is not a feeling, and it is all my feelings at once.

I truly thought that when the dreaded one year mark would come up, I would be feeling all positive, ready to put it all behind me. After all, the prognosis was extremely good, the operation went well, I am expected to make a full recovery, recurrence is fairly unlikely.

But then, cancer had been very unlikely too.

A year is the perfect moment to turn the page on everything that has happened. A new chapter, a new beginning, that is what everyone has been saying, and I have too. Only, I have been lying.

I still cry every day, and that is not likely to magically change from tomorrow. I think about it every day, I think about the exact moment, at 9.10 in the morning, when I saw the first of scores of doctors. I cannot remember the name of the surgeon who operated on me, or the nurse who chatted to me whilst I was recovering, but I can remember the name of the doctor who gave me the news, telling me he was not supposed to be the one to tell me, as he had no interest in oncology, that it should have been done differently, not at a routine appointment, that he wished he was not the one delivering these news, that they should have asked for someone to come with me, that they did not because they did not expect it, that they did not even have a specialist nurse available.

I did not cry, even as he explained what the treatment would involve, and what it meant for the rest of my life. I asked if I could call someone. I had no idea who I was going to call. I could not even think straight, but I was obsessed with the idea that I had to save face, that I would not cry in front of him. They set me up in a quiet room with a cup of tea – even asked me what kind of tea I wanted. I took out my phone and without hesitating, I called my mum.

And then I started crying.

I have not stopped. I cry in the mornings, I cry when I make a cup of tea, I cry when I look at my scars, I cry when I think about the plans I had a year ago.

I am not turning the page, I am continuing to write on a scroll that only gets longer and longer, and that is ok too.

I have had the best support over the past year. Friends, family, colleagues, housemates, Macmillan nurses, everyone has been fantastic.

I still do not like feelings. I do not talk about them, but I have started writing them down, in the hope that in the future, I will be able to make sense of them, and help someone else like people have helped me.

I will continue saying I am fine when you ask me how I am doing.

And one day, it will be true.