On my last day of cancer treatment, I felt disoriented in the same way a person might after falling down a flight of stairs: the world had stopped spinning, but I still hadn't figured out which way was up or taken an inventory of injuries. I walked gingerly through the radiation hallway, into the oncology waiting room, and out into the Florida sun. As I stopped there on the sidewalk to catch my breath, I was underwhelmed by the immensity of this moment I'd been living for. I'd never worked so hard for anything, let alone something so anticlimactic. Didn't the universe owe me some kind of parade or fireworks show? A talking horse, or even the appearance of a unicorn, would have been an acceptable down payment toward compensating me for my troubles.
Instead, the door opened behind me with a blast of cold air. "Excuse me," a voice said tentatively, "I couldn't help but notice that... you look like you've had chemo." Immediately wary, I turned toward a young man and wondered what he was selling: Miracle Juice? Ionized water? With guarded eyes, I gave only the slightest nod of affirmation, thinking I'm only buying if he's selling unicorns.
"Can you... would you mind telling me... that is..." Here he took a deep breath and quietly asked: "Is it supposed to hurt this bad?" My suspicion collapsed. "Chemotherapy?" It was his turn to nod. "What are they giving you?"
"Bleomycin. It feels like I've been beaten everywhere; it hurts to breathe." In his eyes I saw a desperation that mirrored my own -- not for relief from pain, but for the comfort of reassurance. He could deal with the pain if only he knew it was the right kind of pain. So I told him.
"Yeah. That's pretty much what it feels like. I'm sorry." His face immediately relaxed. As he turned to go back inside, he thanked me for confirming the only thing he needed to know in that moment -- that he was normal. I climbed into my car, put the keys in the ignition, and waited for the joy that was certain to follow -- after so many disappointments, the day had finally arrived. I'd be able to walk unaided; I'd be able to breathe. Strangers would stop addressing me as "sir."
Instead of joy, I spent the next 30 minutes crying effortlessly into my steering wheel. That was when I knew: I'd lost it. What person with even a shred of understanding would act this way? Who responds to the conclusion of an active fight against death with increasing levels of depression, anxiety and grief? Well... I did.
Looking back now, I wish someone had been there to answer that question for me in the coming days and months. Is this normal? Am I losing my mind? How can I be grateful and yet still be so miserable? I didn't know what a panic attack was, how to deal with my own angry outbursts or the inability to remember my uncle's name. I didn't know how hard it would be to get out of bed every day, or that I'd count the minutes until my next fake bathroom trip so my coworkers wouldn't see me cry. The resentment I felt every time someone introduced me as "a miracle." How to wade through the guilt of my own survival as friend after friend passed away. Above all, the sheer exhaustion of alienation, of no longer belonging in my own skin, of building a new self while mourning the loss of the life I had loved and wanted.
No one tells you what you're going to feel like as you walk away from the doctor's office to face autonomy for the first time in months or even years. Perhaps if someone had, it wouldn't have taken me so long to get help in the struggle I had self-diagnosed as the harbinger of insanity.
A friend came over for dinner last week. No one at her new job knows about the three surgeries and chemo that concluded two weeks ago. Her coworkers complain about the lackadaisical attitude of the IT staff; she weeps in her car during lunch break. They don't know she's bald; she doesn't know how she's going to make it through the next hour. She feels like a horrible person for thinking people don't know how easy they have it.
"My family and friends talk about what an inspiration I am. They claim some kind of responsibility for getting me through this because they said a prayer and sent a mass email. But I cry myself to sleep every night. I can't stop crying. It's over, but it isn't over."
So before she could ask, I told her. I don't know if it's supposed to hurt this bad, but sometimes it does. If anyone tells you otherwise, just go ahead and assume the universe has bribed them with unicorns, fireworks, and a brand new brain.