I accepted that cancer was going to be a solitary experience.
Despite my friends and family wanting to be there for me, I came to realize that it was impossible for them to come along. Even by doing all the right things, like sending flowers and notes, it was impossible for them to feel what this felt like. They couldn’t know the gravitational lurch in my stomach when those first handfuls of hair lay limp in my palm, and they couldn’t know what it felt like to plead with a God as the scanning machine orbited around me, or know the burning acidic difference between the red chemo drip and the blue one. They couldn’t know what it felt like for me to watch my whole world shift and sink around me while I clung onto the fraying rope of normalcy in an attempt to keep from going under.
As the infusions went on, and the more I retreated into isolation, I struggled with my relationship with the world, specifically acknowledging and accepting the support around me.
How I related to my world had changed in one fell swoop with the cancer diagnosis, and I was unsure how to interact with it anymore. In one camp, I didn’t want to pick up the phone and talk about how I was feeling. In the other, I didn’t want to be alone. This dichotomy was mirrored in those around me. Some friends didn’t call, couldn’t call. They didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. I knew it was scary for them too, and I knew they were unable to be there for me.
Other friends would encourage me to go to support groups and they would connect me with their other ”cancer friends” so we could “share experiences” and “talk.” This sounded terrible to me. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than hashing out chemotherapy with a stranger.
So further and further, I repelled into my own little universe.
I tried not to think about how different my life was before the diagnosis. I tried not to feel displaced and forgotten as I scrolled through rows of smiling, laughing faces tossing around their full heads of hair on Instagram. I tried to remind myself that my treatment would be over soon and that I would be able to get back to normal again. I would get my body back again. This became less and less believable the farther I sank into treatment.
Cancer patients struggle with the feeling of isolation. For me, in dealing with cancer at a young age, it was feeling that life was going on without me that was the worst part.
While no one knows exactly what to say or what to do when someone they love is in the middle of cancer hell, I found comfort and support in little pieces of normal. I saw the gifts in the seemingly mundane.
The best phone calls were when Hallie was walking home from work and wanted to tell me about her day. The best emails came randomly and described a morning, a thought, a memory. Sometimes these had nothing to do with anything, but were just people giving me a little piece of themselves. The best texts never demanded a response, but just told me that someone was thinking of me, or that they had laughed when they were reminded of one of our adventures together.
It was the simple, little pieces of normal that made me feel less lost, less alone, more loved, and more included.
On top of this growing sense of isolation, my own self-acceptance was sinking fast as I continued through treatment, as if into a bubbling, consuming pit of quicksand. This made me want to hide even more, because I didn’t see myself as myself. This wasn’t me, but a someone else. A temporary, someone else.
I rejected the new form that I was taking.
Not only did I feel isolated and separate from the world, but I was a bald, tired, aching, seemingly crippled version of myself. Going outside of my apartment to get a manicure was considered a big day. Just putting pants on was a workout that required a gasping rest on the corner of the bed. My days had me moving from my bedroom to the living room and back again. Ordinarily I went no further.
I watched as my veins started to turn bluer and bluer through my increasingly translucent skin. And with each passing infusion, I got more and more exhausted. I don’t mean “go take a nap” exhausted, I mean that I could feel my body getting tired. Tired of it all. Tired of feeling. Tired of being scared. Tired of being too weak to move. Tired of struggling for life. It was telling me to stop. I could hear it.
I was retreating deeper into a strange alternate universe that I carved out for myself, separate and isolated from the world that buzzed beneath my apartment window. One night, about halfway through treatment, I found myself alone in the apartment and restless. Matt was working late, and I had the apartment to myself. I was in Matt’s oversized college sweatshirt and sweatpants, shuffling around the apartment in my socks, while carrying around a half a glass of red wine, the one I had been milking for hours. I found myself pacing from room to room, moving from bedroom to living room and back again. This is where 600-square-foot apartment gets problematic. Had I been in a large house, the pacing would have been classified as wandering, but since I was lapping my route every ten seconds, it made me feel even more uneasy. I felt lost and desolate.
With each step, I blamed cancer for taking my life away from me. I felt sorry for myself that I wasn’t out with my friends but alone in the apartment, in an oversized sweatsuit and socks. I felt angry that I didn’t recognize my reflection in the dark windows. I felt angry that cancer kept me here in this cage, angry that it had put everything on hold, worried that it all wouldn’t be there when I got back.
Cancer and chemo had stolen my hair, my energy, my job, my dreams, my purpose, and my sense of self, and had given me this in return.
I felt robbed and victimized. It only took a couple more laps for the anger, the sadness, the fear, and the resentment to blend into numbness. I was tired of feeling.
I gravitated to my bedroom, like a mechanical android, as New York City pulsed beneath me. I opened my closet and stared at the clothes hanging. I started taking everything out, slowly and calmly. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to do, but I did it methodically, like I was opening the drawers up for the first time. One by one, I pulled out every tee shirt, every dress, every sweater, and every pair of pants. One by one, I tried them on and stared in the mirror. I just couldn’t stand to see a sick person anymore. Looking back at myself, I squinted, searching for something else to see, other than a cancer patient.
I slowly went from shirt to shirt, changing out pants, slipping into my tallest heels. Each time I faced the mirror, I looked at my bald head, my thinning face, the dullness in my cheeks. To me, I was unrecognizable. An unearthly version of myself. As I folded back the cuff on my sleeve, I looked at the bright blue veins in my arm.
My whole life I have had the ability to create my own reality. I realized this power when I was eight, while I was playing tag with my friends during recess in third grade. I had gotten bored with the game and was trying to find other ways to stay engaged and involved. Not wanting to just quit the game and stop playing, I thought of a better version, for just myself to play. I switched from being a little girl in a tunic uniform and penny loafers to being a velociraptor. Different from the original, boring game where we were just regular humans, I imagined I was running around with a bunch of dinosaurs instead. This was much more fun.
I made sure not to make my dinosaur-like movements too obvious, to still blend in with my friends and not give myself and my secret game away. However, when the game ended, and we were called back to our desks, my friend Amy leaned over to me and said, “This is really weird, but has anyone ever told you that run like a velociraptor? Like in Jurassic Park? It’s really cool. I wish I could run like that.”
I quietly shrugged it off and thanked her for her compliment, but inside I was reeling with excitement.
I had discovered my very own superpower. The imagination.
As I stood in front of the mirror, dressed in all black, my figure stretched up from the floor of the mirror frame to the very top of it. The light was behind me and left shadows on my face.
And I began to see something else. Instead of being sick, I was bold. Instead of being weak, I was brave.
It was as if I was slowly placing panel after panel, plate after plate, around me, protecting myself from sickness, and cancer, and chemo. With each plate, I took myself out of my body and turned myself into the mechanical android that I needed to be.
The blue in my wrists and the matte of my skin showed me something else to see. But most of all, the panels and plates protected from feeling. No more drips, no more loneliness, no more fear, no more anger. I wanted just to let there be nothing. I wanted to go numb and give in to what was happening to me. I wanted to give in to the tide. No more fighting. Let it take me. Take me out of this body.
Take me out of this body. Make me into something else. Ex corpus.
By the time Matt came home, I had already fallen asleep. I felt him crawl into bed next to me and reach for my arm as he usually did. And I remember that I moved away from him, so that he couldn’t reach me.
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