don’t feed the bad wolf

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This story is one that has resonated deeply with me throughout my journey thus far, and I’m sharing it in the hope that you’ll be able to draw strength and courage from it, too.  (Thank you so much, Katie H., for sharing!)

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life…

He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego.

The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”

The Elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

submerged

i was convinced that my next blog post was going to be so positive and upbeat.  i was going to talk about a whole set of firsts:

•  my first yoga class at the cancer support community:  a fellow participant who could have been my grandfather told me afterward, “great job!  you didn’t fall over!”  it’s true.  i didn’t.  success!

•  my first time back on the elliptical:  it went so smoothly, even my PT was impressed.  i apparently am gaining strength and function even within the context of this strange, three-steps-forward, one-step-back chemo dance i’ve been doing for some time now.

•  my first time seeing a therapist:  he works in the simms/mann center for integrative oncology at UCLA and has loads of experience helping young people who are coping with cancer…and life…at the same time.  it’s been great so far.  he hasn’t gotten a word in edgewise.  guess i have a lot on my mind.

•  my first time attending a support group:  it was for young adults and we all had very similar questions/problems/issues — work, finances, parents, friends, relationships.  how to handle all these oh-so-typical life matters while maintaining the seemingly full-time job of fighting cancer.  i left feeling uplifted and not quite so alone.

but then, before i could write that positive, upbeat blog post and be all positive and upbeat, chemo round numero ocho hit me smack upside the head.  it was not fun.  at all.

i think i might have jinxed myself.  a couple weeks ago, i was hanging out with my friend lauren, and i told her, “you know, chemo has been hard, really hard, but not unbearable.  in fact, i feel like, if things were to keep going the way they have been, i could do this for a long time.  indefinitely, if necessary.”  yeah.  i should have knocked on wood after that.

because this wasn’t any ol’ run-of-the-mill chemo round.  this was like chemo on steroids.  like chemo that’s been building up in my body for months on end.  like someone-must’ve-screwed-up-the-dosage-cause-this-just-don’t-feel-right chemo.

i keep telling people i wish i could describe the sensation better.  i’m good with words.  right?  i should be able to do this.  but the thing about using words to describe experiences is that the words are only as good as the common experiences they evoke.  no simile, no empathy.

so, i’ve tried comparisons like a hangover, perhaps.  or the flu.  but they don’t even come close.

this time, though, i think i might have found the right one.  this time, it was like being trapped underwater.  you know how it feels when you’re submerged and the sights and sounds from above the surface seem far away and otherworldly?  how at first it seems kind of ok and not that bothersome that your senses aren’t working the way they do on dry land?  how for a while you’re perfectly comfortable with the amount of air remaining in your lungs?  and then, when it does become bothersome and you’re not comfortable anymore, you simply pop to the surface, take a big gulp of air and become reacquainted with the feeling of the sun and the breeze on your face and the sounds of kids playing and the seagulls flying overhead?

but, this time, i felt trapped under there.  like all i wanted to do was come up for air, do a sensory check-in with the real world, and then i could go under again, if necessary.  but i couldn’t come up.  i was under too deep.  i couldn’t keep my eyes open; i couldn’t make sense of simple questions; i couldn’t read because the words just swam together on the page; i couldn’t sit outside because the sun was too bright; i couldn’t eat because the nausea was too bad.

so i was trapped, alone, in my head, with my muddled, frightened, incoherent thoughts.  and, finally, just about when i thought it was never going to end, it did.  and i got to take that gulp of air.  and the world stopped undulating.  and the nausea died down.  and i went to hear some live music through eardrums that had stopped being so hypersensitive.

and now, i feel less trapped and more alive.

but, somehow, in three weeks, i’ve got to figure out how to do it again, when, for the first time, this time, i thought, “i can’t.”

i and my thunderstorm

my friends have recently (and vehemently) (and unanimously) informed me that i’m not an extrovert.

i sort of thought i was.  i take initiative.  i hold my own in conversation.  i have interesting things to say.  people (mostly) listen when i talk.  in high school, college, i raised my hand in class more often than most.  i say my piece in meetings with everyone from executives to neurosurgeons.  i let myself be known.  right?

apparently not.  apparently extroverts do catlike cartwheels on camera in crowded cemeteries.  about five people reading this will catch that specific reference, but you get the picture:  if that’s the kind of person i’m being compared to, then i’m definitely not an extrovert.

introverts, on the other hand, do things like clam up in social situations where they don’t know many people (check); avoid making eye contact with strangers (check); fiercely guard their privacy from their neighbors (check).

hmm.  so maybe i’m not as extroverted as i thought.  and maybe, just maybe, i don’t let myself be known as much as i thought, either.  am i an enigma?  are there parts of myself that i hide from other people?  and, if so, how much of that is a good thing?  i mean, everyone has to have some secrets, right?  keep some things close to their chest?  not air their dirty laundry to the world?

how much authenticity and vulnerability is the right amount?  for me?  at this time in my life?

i think the answer is more.

so far through this process, there have been very few people i’ve been truly authentic and vulnerable with.  i’ve sobbed uncontrollably with them.  i’ve thrown things across the room with them.  i’ve despaired with them.  i’ve talked about hopelessness and death and fear and anger and guilt and resentment and envy with them.

i’ve been consoled by them.

and in some cases (though not all), i’ve had to teach them how to console me.  i’ve had to tell this handful of trusted ones not to try to fix things, not to try to cheer me up, not to tell me everything will be ok, not to ask me to look on the bright side.

because i already know about the bright side.  and, believe me, i try my damndest to spend as much time on the bright side as i possibly can.  i like the bright side.  the bright side is good to me.

but then there’s the dark side.  the dark side sneaks up on me suddenly like a thunderstorm in the southwest.  take yesterday, for example, when i was blow-drying my hair and picturing my life in a few years — done with chemo, healthy, happy, vibrant, impassioned.  and then…BAM.  i die.  just like that.  or maybe it’s not quite so sudden.  maybe i lose more motor function and end up in a wheelchair.  maybe i lose my ability to speak, my cognitive reasoning, my memory.

and yeah, yeah, i know all the standard responses:  “it’s not worth dwelling on the what-ifs.”  “it’s about living life to the fullest while there’s still life to live.”  “any one of us could get hit by a car tomorrow while crossing the street.”  “life is inherently uncertain.”

i know all these things.  i do.

but what i want you to know about me is that sometimes i’m really, really sad.  sometimes i can’t stop crying.  sometimes it seems hopeless.  sometimes i want to give up.

so, in a small gesture of extroversion (and authenticity) (and vulnerability), i’m asking you, when i and my thunderstorm come to seek comfort, just to hug me.  and let me cry until i’m too tired to cry anymore.  and tell me that you know it’s hard.  and that you care.

because there’s nothing else to do.  i’m not going to be ok.  i have a chronic illness that will kill me unless something else does first — or they find a cure.  and most of the time i accept that and i’m ok with it.  but, sometimes, i don’t and i’m not.