Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One year later

An hour ago I was thinking about how my 'cancerversary' is coming up - the anniversary of the moment when I found out I had thyroid cancer. I was trying to figure out how many days away it was, so that I could think about whether I wanted to mark the day in some way, to sort of assess my feelings.

I realized with a start that it's tomorrow.

Ever since a year ago, I do this. I know some emotional date is coming and in my head, it is far away. When I think about it, starting to wrap my mind around it, I realize that it's tomorrow and I feel terribly cheated in my chance to prepare, wrap my mind around it, think about what it all means. I'm an analyzer, it's what I do.

So one year ago today, I was hovering between the worlds of biopsy and results, knowing I wouldn't have them until tomorrow, a quiet unknowing in my heart. Looking back does not feel like a wistful celebration, it feels dense and bitter in many ways.

"Ever since you've had cancer, you've changed. You're more harsh than you used to be, there's an edge to you now." A friend said this to me not long after my surgery, and it has proven increasingly true over the last year. I was really angry when she said it, I can't say I'm not still angry sometimes, but mostly because it's true. Also, because life changes us, and not always in ways we like. I am harsher, and I spend a lot less time now crafting what I hope are the perfectly tended words to get my points across. I'm not as delicate in my language, I don't tiptoe gently behind someone's defenses to be heard.

Conversely, I have a whole new vocabulary for what it means to go through, survive, and be reborn by a trauma. This is not a bad or sad thing- life is full of traumas and we discover who we are, who we are capable of becoming, in the face of them. We are swept off our feet by the flash floods of life and must find new ground, testing for stability, trusting our hand holds. It's hard work, and it requires us to stay in the moment in order to survive.

I found out that I was capable of facing down cancer but not in a fight, but in a dance. I never would have imagined it until I was in the moment! All my pre-cancer life, I imagined that cancer was a fight, a battle, a war - you win, you lose, you conquer or surrender. I discovered that cancer could be a gift, a great expansion of ones-self.  I found a great, deep intimacy with a friend who also had cancer- something that people who haven't had a serious illness can ever truly understand, because their bodies were not assaulted by the word Cancer, and by cancer treatment, and by the emotional battery of it all. It is a private, exquisite experience that defies words, and it broke open my ability to feel compassion greatly.

I've learned that it feels really weird, almost selfish and embarrassing, to announce that you have cancer on Facebook, even after all those important calls are made. I learned there's no easy way to tell people who love you that you have cancer, and that I still couldn't help but be the 'strong' one in that moment. I laughed, I joked, I tried to put people at ease, and days later I lost my shit driving down the highway and almost drove myself to the crazy hospital because I thought I was going insane. It passed. I was going insane, but not the quick kind of crazy people want to give you meds for- the slow kind that everyone else is suffering, too.

I learned that a lot more can forge a marriage together than fights that are behind you, adventures you've had together, parenting children into hopefully healthy adulthoods- and that not all of the crises of cancer needed discussion. Sometimes I just needed to look at his face and know that absolutely no matter what, he was there for me, that he would witness and hold, and encourage and be the space where I could fall apart, and never ask a single thing for himself, even when I begged for him to. I saw a strength in my husband I had seen glimpses of over our 20+ year friendship, but this took us to a place of revelation I don't know that much else could have accomplished. He is truly the best man I have ever known, in ways that words can never capture. I limit him when I try.

I learned that I can love myself a lot, and still not like parts of myself that grow like weeds in the garden I thought I'd so carefully cultivated. Tenacious things, I pull at these parts of myself and they come back thicker and deeper until I relent, and make room for them. It's a hard lesson, to accept things about yourself that are not who you knew yourself to be.  "I see that you love yourself, but that you don't like parts of yourself. I see that." Another friend reflected to me recently after I raged about my new impatience with things, my intolerance for 'bullshit'. I don't want to accomodate little things anymore, I don't want to do the dances I once was so fluent in. I don't want to baby a situation. I make harsh faces now, where I used to be softer. I don't want to be touched like I once did. I feel more masculine in many ways.
Decline of Empathy to Appease Serenity,
by Nigel Sade

I was at ComiCon this year and met this amazing artist. Looking through his work I felt things, and I came across this one. I don't love this painting, it doesn't necessarily appeal to my eye. However, if my heart was cut out and flayed open, this is what it would look like. The person is flipping off the butterflies, the empathy - for the sake of peace, the shadow ahead saying, "FUCK YOU". I get it. I truly get it.  I bought it and it sits right in front of me now, where I can look at it often and ask myself, "Am I still there?" Yes, I am. I don't have time for empathy anymore, I need serenity, I can't take care of you, because I have to take care of me. I have to let go, I'll be there when you fall but I won't be your cushion anymore.

It's a weird, strange, powerful, dark, masculine, wonderful, liberating place to be.

"What does the anniversary mean to you? Why do you mark it?" I really had to think about it when my friend asked me this recently, when I told her that May 23rd was coming, and that I was feeling tender and easily bruised. She was curious, not judging, and I had no answer.

I realized today as I made my bed and tried not to cry that the anniversary marks that I have lived for 365 days past an event. I grew up thinking I wouldn't grow up- I have had an entire adulthood never imagining growing old, anticipating that I would die at any moment, rather than that I would live a long time. I still don't think forward from now. Rather, I take a curiosity stance- I wonder if I'll see that baby born? I wonder if I'll actually get into midwifery school? I wonder if I'll actually see the ribbon cutting of this business I'm in? I wonder if I'll see my oldest graduate, or my youngest get married? I don't know. I don't assume so. I just hope for it, and wait to see what happens in between.

How does any one event change you? It's impossible to know, because it happens immediately AND over time- it touches every event in your life directly following it, and those change you too, so you can't possibly tease out what one thing caused, versus another. I try to unravel who I was before I had cancer, before my mother died, and I find myself shocked that as I think about facing tomorrow, I am wishing my mother was alive so that we could talk about it. I have not felt that since her death. I don't want her to be alive, but I wish that of all people, I could visit this milestone in my life with the woman who brought me forth - learn how it touched her, too.

The last thing I'll say is that my cancer gave me the gift of anger. I used to say that if I ever let myself feel the full spectrum of anger that I had tidied into little boxes in my self-awareness-defense-mechanism, that someone would literally extinguish from the earth. I'm pretty sure that on the other side of cancer, I began to feel the anger- not that I had cancer, but just at the helplessness, at the painful experiences, at the fear in the eyes of people I loved, at the minimization of my experience as 'just' thyroid cancer, at the desire to make it bigger than it really was because it felt enormous to me, even if the world said it was small. Small cracks began to appear and vents formed- I started speaking honestly about feeling angry and stopped feeling that I needed to apologize for it. Rather, I just stopped giving a flying fuck what anyone thought about my feelings because damnit, they were mine, and i had a right to them, and I earned them, and therefore protected and defended them. I don't have to explain to anyone what cancer meant to me, I don't have to dial it back or feel less intensely because it made other people uncomfortable. That was an incredibly powerful discovery - that I can feel the full range of emotions, stretch into the full skin of who I am, and that no one would leave me, no one would cease to exist in the way I had always thought.

In some ways I am still in between the worlds, still grieving the loss and death of who I was Before Cancer. There are things I know now that cost me, but many things I've learned that I waited a life time to know. You can't have one without the other, and that's one of the more profound lessons, I think.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How are you doing?

My Sister-in-healing, Leah, asks me how I'm doing. We keep running into each other around town and when I see her face, the way she stands with one shoulder down and both kind of rolled forward, the smile cracking across her face but not fully, it's like seeing myself in another body, another time, another cancer. We see each other and we both laugh because we always circle unknowingly around each other, we keep bumping into each other, and the timing is always just right.

"My cancer-versary is coming up." I am standing in the middle of the Olympic College student center and I start to cry, even though I never cry. Crying is hard, but somehow with Leah it never fails to be easy. "I don't know how I am."

It's so much more than just that I'm about to reach one year of knowing I had cancer, the day that this blog started unfolding, the day that I died right on the spot and have had to be reborn anew, over and over ever since. It's so much more than that.

I go back and forth between wondering if I'm broken, unfixable, if I'm different now from who I was and if I will ever know that girl again. She feels young and naive to me, the Before-Cancer-Kristina, and far away and in a way, fictional. Today I feel darker, grittier, like I am holding on with my teeth and swinging with my fists. Sometimes I feel like I am lost in the Underworld and will never find my way back out, and other times I revel that this is the new normal and that maybe this normal can be as delightful as the old one was.

These last few days, I feel that the layers of myself are being peeled back by an invisible hand. I spent the weekend with people for whom I care very much at the Oregon coast. The raw beach landscape covered with basalt, ancient lava flows that carve and shape the edge of the world. In a way I feel that this is a physical manifestation of me, something that will be strong enough to hold, but will cut you at the same time, with the never ending facelift the ocean provides so that I am always renewed, dead and reborn. There was a moment when I had about 45 minutes alone and I realized how taxed I'd felt, pouring out energy all weekend long. I realized how much I wanted to climb back into myself, into quiet and safety and retreat, and that startled me.

Ever since I notice how much less I want to talk, and how much less I want to be around the energy of others. I find myself turning inward like an introvert, a word I'd never dreamed would ever, ever be associated with me, and yet here it is. Groups tax me. Intimate interactions require a lot of me. My dream life is vivid and intense. I want to be in the woods with the quiet strength of the trees and I fear if I cry that someone might hear me and step in. I want to be able to say that I'm going crazy without someone saying, "Oh no, you are not crazy." I am crazy, which isn't a bad thing, but it's true.

I look around and I realize I do not know myself, I do not recognize this person who is more masculine, who angers easily, who grows irritated with people and situations for reasons I can't figure out no matter how hard I try, who doesn't over think nearly as much and figures that people will either get me or they won't, and that it's their job to pursue clarity, not mine to preemptively offer it. It's like I've been flipped inside out in a way.

Whenever I think about a situation in a new way, a post-2012 kind of way, it makes me angry for a while. Who is this person, this new Kristina? I still don't know. I still have familiar traits but I wonder what the people around me who have known me on either side of last year truly think about who I am now. Do they grieve who I was the way I do? Do I seem overly distracted with this? Do they think I'm being dramatic or silly or making a mountain out of a molehill? And do I fucking care? Actually.. not really.

As every day passes I am not actually thinking too much about May 23rd. Its sort of hovering around my tender edges. When I talk about things, I go instantly to the heart and I cry, right in the restaurants I'm sitting in. Today I talked about how I know I need to get help taking care of myself, because we aren't meant to take care of ourselves alone, and I started to cry because I don't know how to do anything but that. I don't know how to let other people in their skills care for me. I don't know how to lay on a table, vulnerable, and trust someone to touch my body in a healing way, to be in my space. It terrifies me and makes me feel like I will come apart at the seams, or disassociate, or break, and that it will be too much for me, and for them. I justify staying ill (in my head, in my body) because it's too scary to get well. It's scary to lose weight. It's scary to see my body change, to let go of the insulation that this body provides me from the emotions of others, and from being as big outside as I feel inside.

In a way I knew that if I ever felt the anger that was inside, if I ever let it out, someone would literally cease to exist, they would blink out of this life. The Universe could not hold my anger without a cost. That proved to be true, but in reverse- the life was taken and the the anger came, and I can't stop it. It has left me rough around my edges, people bump up against me and walk away bruised and cut sometimes, and I can be indifferent to that because in some way, this is life. It hurts. Maybe I am one of those things, where I never was before, that leaves a mark and challenges your coping skills, or maybe I am broken in half and you slide between my sharp edges. I don't know.

I just know that it still feels like it's awkward to talk about it all. It feels hard to reach out to someone who could actually probably really help me. It feels terrifying to think about healing, because it's a place I don't know and I'm just starting to get my bearings here.

How am I doing? I'm doing. That's all I know.