Bowie really did say it best, "turn to face the strain." There's been a lot of that this year. It's been an emotional and psychological journey as much, actually more, than a physical one. Learning how to sit with unhappy emotions and thoughts; breathing through the difficult moments; allowing myself the space to be wherever I am at that time. These are the sorts of mental issues that a lot of us struggle with already. One of my first thoughts on the day of diagnosis was "thank god I already have a therapist I like." Her and I had already been working on helping me to slow down mentally and to allow myself space. Funny how some of my 'problems' kind of fixed themselves with my new cancer perspective. Not sweating the small stuff becomes awfully small potatoes when your first counter thought is "at least it's not cancer."
An early lesson learned was the power to say No. The fact is, I'm a pleaser. I didn't feel comfortable telling people No or not having the answer they were looking for. But those first weeks I had too many directions to go and knew that first priority had to be my health, or else. I created the 'Ass Pass,' an all-purpose sense that was 'get out of jail free' and 'I can do what I want' rolled into one. I'm too stressed out to take another phone call tonight - Ass Pass. I just want to eat dessert for dinner - Ass Pass. Your party invitation on top of the four doctors appointments and full time work this week - Ass Pass. So I cut things back, and I chose not to feel bad about it. And I did things that just flat out made me feel better for a moment, and chose not to feel guilty about it. It was rather liberating. There was a particular glint in my eye and positive energy every time I allowed for Ass Pass. It helped me to learn balance. Now I consider a question well before I answer yes or no, I take myself into the consideration, and my answer is the best one for me in that moment.
Leaving the work environment was a challenge to this first lesson. I struggled with guilt and concern over leaving a new employee in the lurch, as well as in the critical time before fund drive. The idea of missing a fund drive, in which I considered myself the ultimate conductor, was unthinkable. Looking back now, I don't know how I possibly handled it all. If you've gone through cancer or another major illness, you know that it is a full time job all on its own in the early weeks. And yet there I was putting in as close to forty hours as I could while juggling a break for daily radiation, 1-3 doctors appointments per week (sometimes in Ypsi), database training our new amazing employee, training my accounting replacement, preparing for fund drive mailings, making office hour personal phone calls for doctors and insurance... and all this with a chemo pump strapped to my hip for 5 days a week. It's exhausting just to read that, much less to have been doing it all somehow. I showed up early, I skipped lunch for an entire month, I stayed late, I came in on Saturday. I knew I was doing the best I could and that prepping to leave was the best decision. But that Working American part of my mind still didn't really believe it. After all, how would I feel any sense of accomplishment at the end of the day if I wasn't working my job and was just 'wasting' my time every day at home? Our culture prides itself on a strong work ethic; we define ourselves with our job titles. What was I to become outside of work, how to define myself now - cancer girl, lazy girl? I stopped working, and one week later my bloodwork showed a precipitous jump in my white blood cell count. That was what finally really convinced me that I had made the right decision. Clearly my body needed the rest, needed to focus on healing itself; recovery was my new full time job. When I made myself stop and think about it, it made sense. After all, five days out of the week my body was getting poisoned and radiated. Isn't just getting through that enough to ask? And I became okay with telling people I wasn't working a job, that I was working on healing. It is amazing sometimes what the rest of the world will perfectly accept that you yourself cannot. Everyone else was giving me my Ass Pass, so I took it.
One of my favorite exercises from my therapist is to stop and ask yourself "what can I do now," then quietly wait for the answer, do it, then stop and ask it again. Sometimes it will be "I can do the dishes," or "I can fill out this pile of paperwork," and sometimes it is "I can take a nap." The answer is always okay, this is the real lesson. Your Self knows what it needs. You just have to learn how to hear Her voice, and then accept what She has to say. Stop, listen, accept. The stopping part was tough for me. My speeds are typically GO!GO!GO! or Asleep. I was almost always on to the next thing before the door was even closed on the one before. That doesn't allow much space for a small voice to seep through and guide. That doesn't allow much space for enjoying the doing. There is a LOT more space in my life now. Part of that is that I'm not working, part of it is that I just physically can't do a lot right now, but the biggest part of it is that I've allowed for space. I give everything some breathing room. I no longer let myself jump up at every slight provocation. I make moments to enjoy whatever it is that is happening right now. I try to stay aware and mindful. This is its own job, and it brings a sincere sense of accomplishment.