The Birthday

Tomorrow is my birthday and I should be busy thinking about what fun things I want to do. Instead, I’m having an anxiety attack of epic proportions and can’t see clearly enough to work out why. These are the times I find writing usually helps. It forces me to organise my thoughts and work out where things belong in the thick fog of my mind.
On one hand, a birthday is a celebration of life. Marking 34 years on this earth. Hooray!
On the other, I think of how close I came to not seeing this day.
I generally don’t get bogged down by the ‘what if’s’ but there’s something about an anniversary that brings it all to the surface. Maybe it’s a bit self indulgent but I think we’re allowed a bit of that every now and again. (Singing ‘it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to’ in my head now. Bugger…. Never getting that song out of my mind.)

This time last year I had just come to the end of my active treatment, my hair was just starting to grow and I was trying to look ahead to how much better things would be by my following birthday. Now I’m here and I’m sobbing so much my dog looks genuinely uncomfortable.
Last year’s Deanna would call me an ungrateful cow and tell me to man up.

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So what’s making me feel so lost and sad?

Actually, a bunch of things. Here’s the top 5:

1. I’m nowhere near being ‘back to normal’.
2. I’ve realised there’s no going back.
3. I’m angry about feeling so old and broken at such a young age.
4. My friends and family have suffered enough and the very least they deserve is to see me happy and not a snotty, crying mess.
5. I lost a friend a few months ago and I miss her horribly. If she was here she’d say something wise and funny. Then we’d eat cake.

I often inadvertently censor what I say or write in an attempt to shelter people from the reality that, sometimes, life is hard and sad and cruel. And, that cancer is anything other than an absolute bastard.
I wrap things up in humour and sarcasm and that’s unfair of me. It’d be a lie to say that I don’t still have dark days and it would be a discredit to this ‘truthful’ blog.

So, the truth is, I AM STRUGGLING.
Not always, or even a lot, but I am and it’s important to admit it.
It’s important because if you’re reading this, you’re life has probably been touched by cancer and I don’t want you to think that finding things hard is singular to you or something to feel ashamed of. It’s not. It’s necessary.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. You deserve some cake X

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The depression

This is a bit of a tricky subject to talk about but in the interest of giving an accurate account of my cancer experience, I feel I should. So…. Let’s talk a bit about depression and anxiety.

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I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety several times in my adult life. My first experience was after graduation. I had utterly invested myself in my last year of uni and ate, breathed and slept Clothing Design & Manufacture (BSc). Once I’d achieved my dream of getting a 1st Class honours degree, I expected to be thrilled. Well, I was, for about a week. Then the reality of being out of the institution of learning and having to find a job hit me like a tone of bricks. That was when I first experienced a panic attack and bouts of hopelessness, insomnia and anxiety. This lasted around a year or so and after some counselling and finding the right medication, I was set on the right track. I don’t mean to trivialise it, it wasn’t as easy as that but I’m just setting up the background of my previous brush with mental health issues.

Fast forward a few (ahem… maybe more than a few) years and I find myself at the end of active cancer treatment. I should be elated it’s over but instead, I’m right back in that familiar and wholly unwelcome void of panic, fear and overwhelming sadness.

I sometimes think cancer treatment was the easy part. It was very regimented and I always had one drama or another to keep myself occupied. I had one job: to get to the end of treatment.
Once I was there, I didn’t really know what was going to happen next.

I was surrounded by unbelievably positive people who were all fit to burst with excitement for me and all I wanted to do was hide under my duvet and cry.

There’s a lot of talk on the forums about how to move on but I just didn’t feel I could. I decided I needed to talk to my doctor.
He prescribed me with some antidepressants and booked me in for a ‘chat’ with a psychologist.
I’m still undecided in the whole counselling thing. Mine was a bit of a softly spoken, head tilter. I felt immediately awkward in her company and spent my entire first session looking at my hands and giving weird, disjointed, fear filled answers.
She asked me to list my main fears, that’s quite an extensive list but the main ones were:
1. Fear of cancer spreading and becoming incurable and leading to my dying.
2. Fear of recurrence and having to go through primary treatment again.
3. Fear that Steph will not be able to cope with how much I’ve changed and leave me.
4. Fear of never being able to have a family.
5. Fear of my Mum and Sister facing a cancer diagnosis.
6. Fear of any of my chemo buddies getting ill again.

How do you begin to deal with these fears when they the odds haven’t exactly worked in your favour to date?

Being ill has defined me for such a long time, I was genuinely frightened of joining the real world again.
I knew I’d have to find a job eventually, start going on nights out with my friends, do the weekly shop without my Mum taking me.
I was angry at myself for allowing these trivial things worry me but felt as though I was no longer capable of controlling my reactions.

So how am I doing now?
This is a question I’m asked a lot and one that’s usually met with a bit of a white lie as a reply. “Fine thanks” or “not too bad” are the go-to answers. Mostly because ‘how are you’ isn’t usually meant as a question with any depth. It’s meant as a social greeting and the polite thing to do is give a positive response.

The real answer to that question is long and involved. It requires a cup of tea and a piece of cake at the very least.

Its starts by explaining that, like everyone, I have good and bad days. It’s not all doom and gloom. I enjoy seeing my friends, going for walks, watching tv. Every day stuff!
I also have some unexplainably awful days. Sometimes it’s the grief I feel at what’s happened and how much I’ve lost. Other times, I’m overcome with anger. I’ve nicknamed this ‘the why me’s’. Seriously though, why me??!!. I had a good life, I’m well educated, I’m caring, I work hard and I never punch anyone, even when I really want to!

I suppose the idea of an existence based on karma isn’t how life works. It’d be nice though wouldn’t it?

My advice for anyone who has a depressed/anxious loved one:

1. Don’t expect them to ‘cheer up’. They are not just sad.

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2. Ask them to talk to you and don’t try to make them see the bright side. Just allow them the chance to talk things through (or just do the hiccuping cry thing). If they don’t want to talk or cry, just be there with them. It does help.

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3. Try not to be offended if they get angry or upset. Remember, this is a chemical imbalance and is sometimes impossible to control.

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So, the moving on and getting better bit. That’s a tough one. I’ve continued to go to counselling, I also talk to people in the Maggie’s Centre, I keep taking my medication and every day, try to remind myself why I went through all of this. I have a lot to live for and people I love dearly.
I am trying to develop the patience and strength to adapt to this new way of life and not beat myself (or anyone else) up during the tough days.

I hope this hasn’t made any of you feel bad. I am an expert at being ‘Fine thanks’ and, until now, didn’t feel ready to speak out about the link between my physical and mental health. I’m glad I did.

Hey! I think I just moved on a tiny bit xxx