Learning to Swim

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

–Vicki Harrison

My world felt very strange in the aftermath of the letter. I ping ponged between immense relief and happy disbelief, and then spiralled into moments of disorientation and unnamed loss. The phrase “totally disabled” did not roll off my tongue at first. Part of me vehemently objected to this concept. In fact, I was convinced that the insurance company had somehow made a mistake, and that with enough time, I would heal up and return to life as I knew it. Wouldn’t I?

Thus I trudged back to the yoga studio, after having taken a few days off to digest this news. My plan was to carry on, using the expanded time frame, to achieve the same goal: I wanted my life back.

Mike greeted the class with a statement acknowledging that a few of us had had a very tough week. I nodded in response, seeing he was looking directly at me as he spoke.  It began to register with me, as I worked through each sequence of postures, that I was quite unsettled and emotion was just beneath the surface. But I smiled anyways, thinking I could manage this. In an effort to encourage me, Mike reminded everyone that I’d “kicked cancer’s ass!” (which of course everyone already knew as I had shared my story earlier in the season).

My mind and heart had a visceral reaction to that: I hadn’t done anything of the kind. I’d survived, yes, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Cancer had not taken my life, but it had killed all my hopes and dreams, and destroyed the sense of myself that I had built over the years. It had left me in a state of misery, wrangling with pain and medication that made me ill, and talking to doctors who were tone deaf to my suffering. It seemed to me that cancer had kicked my ass even though I had outlived its attempts on my life.

In that moment, grief welled up and broke me.

I had cried once during cancer treatment. At home, alone, and in the tub as I considered the possibility I might not survive. Now, I’d lost it a second time in front of virtual strangers, because I had won the battle, but at a huge cost. The very things that made me feel like myself – my independence, the fulfillment I found in my career, the network of relationships that enriched my world, and that sense of purpose for each day – those things had been ripped away. In its wake was a life of pain management and total disability.

I quite bravely fled to the washroom, and cried for a few minutes. (OK maybe more than a few minutes, but I did not come out until meditation began. I was mortified that I’d broken down in public and exposed everyone to my tears). I hoped to sneak out unseen in the darkened studio to make my escape.

It was not to be. I was met by a concerned fellow student and Mike who settled me onto the mat in a cocoon of pillows and bolsters for meditation. I lay there, a forlorn heap of silent tears, and when it was over I got up, apologized to Mike and left the studio. His words followed me out the door: “You’re going to be alright. Everything will be alright. You’ll see.”

That night, the process of seeing things with a new set of eyes began. I saw that I had to let go of the hope of a full recovery. If I was to start over again, I knew I’d have to embrace a more honest yoga practice and stop fooling myself. I went home, and composed an email that I hoped would achieve those things.

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Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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