Another birthday has just gone by. The next one will be one of the big 0’s which, a few years back, I really did not expect to see. So, perhaps this is a good time to look back on who I was, and who I am now.
Depression, anxiety, and the feeling that “I ought to be able to do better” were my constant companions for many years. Coping with them was something I just did: it’s just who I was. The past looked pretty good, the present tolerable, and the future positively frightening. Was I good enough to get a job? To keep it? Would I spend my life lonely? Were we all going to die in some horrible catastrophe – war, plague, famine, or whatever? What would happen if I had a debilitating accident or contracted some nasty disease? I spent many hours with counselors and friends looking for ways to help myself. Perhaps more exercise would help: jogging, biking, hiking, dancing, sailing; or maybe a dose of self-confidence and focus a la Tony Robbins; a more solid relationship, or a new girlfriend; a more rational working environment. I tried all of these and none brought more than temporary relief. Eventually the lead-booted feeling of depression and inadequacy and the fear of total failure would return. Medication eventually prevented the worst of the lows, but life was always an effort. There were times when I felt really happy where I was, but it always seemed as though something beyond my control would happen to spoil it. Needless to say, this fed back into the feelings of depression, anxiety, and inadequacy.
When P first suggested that we could afford to retire early I felt euphoric. I would be able to get away from all the crazy work stress and devote my time to my own agenda: putting effort into something really worthwhile, relaxing, catching up on my reading list, spending time with the family. Just what I needed! Everything would be OK when I could get away from all the things that were bugging me. This idea sustained my last few working years while we socked away our salaries and planned The Big Move to a quiet, semi-rural area by the sea.
The year of The Big Move was probably the most stressful of my life. We disposed of huge amounts of possessions (although not nearly enough, as it turned out), bought a small, temporary home near where we hoped to build, packed up, and moved several thousand kilometres away from our friends and family. Settling ourselves in was a major task. Settling P‘s mum and my dad in was pretty much impossible. The arrangements we made for them were always an awkward compromise for all concerned. Tempers frayed and happiness was, once more, elusive. It was with very mixed feelings that I watched my father die about 8 months later.
There followed a very tiring year as we got the new (bigger) house built. With the help of a wonderful contractor and a lot of very competent trades people, the edifice gradually rose from the ground. It felt wonderful to climb the ladder to an upper storey and bask in the beautiful view. Such basking was rare, however. Most days were filled with all the minutiae of house construction and finishing. We constantly seemed to be driving into the city to buy materials or fittings, or run after our parents. Of course, A was in school and had her own requirements for living. Soon, I promised myself, things would improve. Everything would come together into some sort of idyllic existence.
Just about the time we were getting ready for our second move in two years (from the small house to the newly built one) I got the diagnosis of melanoma. This, of course, scored 11/10 on my personal catastrophe meter. I was just about to be supremely happy in my new existence when events beyond my control screwed me over – again. I had a very possibly fatal disease that might be quite uncomfortable and might require a lot of support from friends (absent) and family (overwhelmed). I had absolutely no idea how I was going to cope and on several occasions seriously looked into the possibility of assisted death or suicide as being the least bad option. My life and my state of mind hit an all-time low.
In spite of all that, here I sit, six years later, feeling as fulfilled and content with my life as I ever have: a whole new person, you might almost say. Wassup with that?
Firstly, of course, the six years did not turn out anywhere near as badly as I thought they would. I did not die (in case you were wondering), and apart from the ongoing melanoma treatments I live a fairly normal, retired life. P assures me that we are pretty secure financially, and A is all grown up and at university 2000Km away. Our parents are now both dead. All these factors have removed quite a load from the minus side of the scales. On the plus side, we are well-established in our new (well, “nearly new” by now) home, we have good friends nearby, toys to play with, and fulfilling activities to make up for the lack of work.
Mostly, though, I think my outlook on life is radically different. My sense of “self” is much more flexible now. I no longer feel the need for some kind of future guarantee of happiness, or the need to make that guarantee for anyone else. Everything I really wanted to prove in life has been proved or abandoned. I still have quite strong opinions on various topics, but I am not as emotionally invested as I would have been in olden days, and (this is a biggie) I have learned not to spend as much time judging the opinions and actions of others. This allows life to be a lot calmer, more mellow. The really big single breakthrough was when I understood my fear of fear, and accepted that there will be times when I will be afraid or outright terrified. Now I can wait, calmly, for the anvil to fall on me. When it does I will perform my best Wiley Coyote impression and try to bounce back. As I have stated many times, the mindfulness meditation has helped enormously by giving me many of the tools I need to watch my own craziness in action, and to devise strategies to keep it down to a dull roar. Life is good. I would like everyone to have this experience.
One person who is almost certainly not having a good time right now is Adrienne, whose blog I have just added to the blogroll. She left a comment on my previous posting describing her ongoing two year fight against stage IV melanoma. Hers seems to be much more aggressive than mine, and less amenable to the treatments they have tried. I encourage you to read her blog, watch her video updates, and to send any positive vibes you can generate in her direction.
My every-few-week injection routine continues, although there have been rather more lumps popping up in recent months. A punch-biopsy of a suspicious lump on my right breastbone is still awaiting the pathologist’s verdict, which is mildly alarming; two years ago it would have been petrifying. I am scheduled for another CT scan, and there is talk of starting me on a systemic treatment using yervoy (aka ipilimumab). I was a little nervous when this was first mooted but I now feel almost excited to try something new. About 25% of recipients have a “durable response”, which basically means that they are cured. Wouldn’t that be nice? One way or another it looks as though I have a good shot at the next big birthday. I’m looking forward to it.
It may be laid back where I am, but the rest of the world seems to be churning along fast and furious. Without much commentary, here are the main points of the news.
Other Cancer Stuff