I had a dream the other night. I have two types of anxiety dreams: One where I’m about to go on stage in a play and I haven’t learned my lines (“Why didn’t I rehearse more?” I always scold myself) and the other where my legs are made of concrete. This was of the concrete leg variety. My wedding day had arrived and I had used some kind of a hair dye (which is hilarious and rule #1 about wedding days, right? Don’t do anything new!) and the sides of my blonde hair were black and I had a huge bump on my head and in the middle of it all I asked my Mom, “Did we hire somebody to do our hair?” and we hadn’t and as I rushed back to my room (wherever we were) to take a shower and find some way to salvage what seemed to be the biggest problem in the world, all of a sudden I couldn’t move. Well, that’s not entirely true, I could move, but so slowly it was like I was taking a month-long trip through a sea of molasses. I was trying to get past chairs being set up where my guests were seated and there were bombs going off in the background (so easy to analyze that one, right?) and my legs just wouldn’t.move. I hate these dreams, where I’m stuck in some kind of anxiety conundrum and then feel physically stuck in a jar of honey. I woke up with sweat pouring down my back.
I wasn’t surprised to be having dreams riddled with anxiety, and I knew that my mind was working overtime trying to sort things out after my recent surgery.
A few days later out of the blue I wrote down this: “Something just clicked. When I go back and retrace my steps and try to figure out what happened to give me this soulful “aha moment,” I have no idea how I got here (but then again I have no idea how I got here, either). At some point I just realized that you have to step off of the ledge and see if you can fly; otherwise you risk the possibility of just standing there bearing witness as the world goes by, but no longer a part of it. I imagined myself falling like Peter Brennan in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall, off that cliff in Hawaii, and getting stuck on the side of the rocks and realizing that if he didn’t propel himself away from the rocks just right he would hit his head and that would be it. I hope that if I jump, a feather finds me. I realized today that it’s about trusting the universe, trusting g-d, and maybe most importantly, trusting ourselves.”
Out for a walk the other day I burst into tears as I realized that’s not maybe it, that’s exactly it: OMG Sam. Where have you been?
Almost every morning since my surgery 12 days ago, it’s been a chore to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s even taken me hours and sometimes I get out of bed, do one or two things, and then return to sleep. Everything has just felt so hard; like my toothbrush weighs fifty pounds when I hold it, that kind of hard. I just wondered what it was all for.
After my liver ablation surgery, after all of the positivity and love and prayers and support and comfort and wishes and soothing, I just hadn’t expected to hear my doctor say that they had gotten some of the cancer, but not all. That they had missed one lesion (because it is so small, that is a good thing) but that there were some new ones, too. How could this be, I thought? Hadn’t I meditated them away? Where was the golden glowing light inside my body? I felt certain that my doctor was going to get in there and tell me that he almost couldn’t do the surgery because the light was so blinding. But then after a 3am MRI at the hospital (after vomiting from eating one bite of toast with jelly and carefully avoiding bandages every which way and being on pain meds and all of that other icky hospital stuff, including that awful Johnny that you wear and yes that goes on the list, it’s that awful!)–that’s not what he said. More importantly than the anesthesia wearing off or not liking my outfit, another surgery was what he said. He felt confident that he could still get them all. And so did we.
But then I came home from the hospital, and I just felt as though I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get out of bed. When SHL would go to work my Mom would come over and I didn’t want her to see me like this (I don’t know why it’s OK to have our spouses or partners see us like this but not our parents), so I put on clothes and we went for walks. I didn’t want my Mom to see me still in my pj’s at noon but part of me also felt determined as soon as I heard that I needed another surgery to get my body ready for the next one. It was the first question that I had asked my nurse after the fellow left my room with the news: How can I get my body prepared for the next one? I knew that I couldn’t fall back into nothingness; that now was not the time for Ben and Jerry’s and TV. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it was: I wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep until the next surgery day arrived, and yet I also knew that in the long run that wouldn’t serve me well (a couple of days is OK, but we were starting to border on scary). My therapist had to remind me that the “stability” (and I put that in quotes because it was as much stability as is possible while living with cancer) had been snatched away from me with these newest scans and treatment and I was dipping my toes so slowly into the water every day. What could I manage? And then when I’d had enough, back to bed I would go (retreating). It all made so much more sense once she put it like that.
So we walked. And I drank green juice. And I physically healed much quicker than I had expected. But emotionally—well, emotionally, I was a landmine. Step on me and be blasted to bits. Irritable, angry, sad, scared, maybe joyful for a few moments here and there, and then back to wondering how I was going to get on with my life. I was irrationally angry with everybody and it felt so good to complain to my Mom about all of the wrongdoings that had been done in the world and in my own life and how stupid people can be and I felt like I could have gone on forever complaining about everybody else. She listened patiently, completely understanding that really, I was just aching and this is how it showed up.
Then on this walk by myself a few days ago, through those tears, I realized what it was that had been gnawing at me: I had lost faith. Not just that, I had lost faith in myself. It was as if after the surgery I blamed myself. My body had failed me. Or had I failed my body? Either way, I didn’t feel brave or strong or any of the other things that people say when they try to uplift you. I felt lost, not because I was crying or angry, I knew that was beyond normal. No, it was more because I overlooked the fact that I had my own back. I forgot that though I wouldn’t give up SHL or my parents or brother or family or friends for anything in the whole wide world, if you forget about yourself, if you lose trust in you, then there really is nothing left. Not the love from the most important person in the world in your life can actually give you what it is that you sometimes need the most– that inner trust that you will never give up on yourself. OK, you’re pissed. You can’t even find a word for just how you feel , but guess what? Anger can be mobilizing! (In the “fight” or “flight” scenario, sometimes we flee to the warm covers and sometimes we get mad at anything and everything. Both are part of the authentic cancer journey, I think). And just because you’re angry or upset doesn’t mean that the gratitude has vanished– you can actually have both at once (I had feared that my gratitude got lost in the hospital somewhere and was desperately searching for me, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why I went into a little cocoon. Without that, who am I?). It is only now that I understand that gratitude, hope and optimism live within me, at my core, but right now not at the surface. Right now the emotions winning out are anger and fear. Remember the movie Inside Out? You can’t have joy without sadness.
I understand that this is tough for many in my life; lots of you are used to seeing Sam pretty cheery, optimistic, hopeful, and not sad, weepy, negative, scared or angry. But listen up my friends, because this is an important one: This is my head space right now. If you can bear witness to it and sit with me through it, that’s lovely and I honor you for being able to stand with me in this uncomfortable part of life. If you can’t, that’s OK, too. It would never diminish our love for each other and I won’t judge you for it, just like you have never judged me. I know that you’ll be there when you can. And just because I’m angry and scared doesn’t mean that I’ll end up here; it does not mean that I have given up. It’s just where I am today.
Through the haze of a life that seems to have turned upside down on me, I still think to myself: You’ve got this, Sam. Don’t abandon yourself when the chips are down. It’s what I realized I had been doing all week long, leaving myself in the dust. I had been meditating and drinking green juice and resting and taking walks outside (and yes, pulling the covers up over my head when I got too overwhelmed) but I was doing those things as if I was someone else, not in my own body, and frankly, not being very kind to myself mentally (there wasn’t a day that went by that I felt guilty about sleeping too much or not exercising enough). I know that at the core of it so many things are going to help me keep fighting, but here was the one thing that I just couldn’t seem to remember up until now: 1) I trust myself. And whether you live with cancer or some other kind of trauma, pain, grief, or heck, just the ups and downs of life, remember this: The most important relationship that you’ll ever have in this lifetime is the one that you have with yourself. The effort that you put in taking care of your partner, children, parents, friends, etc. is time equally as important spent on yourself.
I realize now that I’ve shed more tears these last two weeks than I have maybe all together since being diagnosed 2 + years ago. Something in me cracked wide open and I haven’t been able to shut it again, and perhaps I’m not supposed to, at least until I can hold onto the fact that we all need to trust in things. I renew my faith in g-d, my faith in the universe, and mostly, in myself. That is how I will put one foot in front of the other and keep going.