“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Early in my efforts to return to work after the onset of severe CIPN, I spent some time volunteering at a program for at risk youth in our school system. These kids were the “untouchables” of public education, beset by behavioural issues so severe that they were unable to cope in even our best alternative education settings. Mental health issues, personality disorders, and often a history of youth incarceration sat crowded into a small group of students. I spent a total of four hours working closely with one new student, a young man who’d registered that very morning. Normally, I jumped at the challenge of engaging such a learner, overcoming his reticence, building trust. If I’d been healthy, I would have gone home and created a curriculum just for him, using his interests and strengths to get him started. But after only a few hours? My body ached, from head to toe, and when I got home, I crawled into bed for a rest.
There was no way I was up to that particular challenge. I was forced, even in those early months following medical leave, to acknowledge that my physical limitations were changing me.
But the worst of it was this: that morning, I discovered that it was not just my body that wasn’t coping. My focus was gone, my memory too fuzzy, and I had zero emotional energy available to invest in another human being. The realization left me unsettled by a simple fact: it wasn’t just the pain that beset me.
Grief had changed me too.
I’d a lifetime of grief, but it was tucked away inside, in a place that was locked up and allowed me to function, to build a family, and a career. When I received that inevitable phone call – yes, it is cancer – I remember how my stomach sank. Time stopped, for just a moment, and I recognized that life was shifting in a direction that I did not choose nor control. But I did what I’d conditioned myself to do: internally, I filed away my feelings, squared my shoulders, and carried on. I focused on the tasks at hand – appointments, tests, meetings with doctors, signing off on the dotted line for life saving treatment, handing in my work keys and phone. Then I showed up for treatment, and tried to smile my way through it for the sake of those around me.
I was the very definition of stoicism, because the only thing I could control – my reaction to this news – was firmly in my grip. It wasn’t the first time that I’d been in a life threatening situation. In fact, this was the third time that I found myself in circumstances where my life hung in the balance. (More on that, later). Each time, I’d done the same thing: tuck away the emotional detritus – raw fear, deep anger, and a lonely sorrow – into a box buried inside my heart, and attend to the everyday demands before me.
Thus, when cancer knocked on the door of my life, I was already on a well worn path into the land of denial, paved by cheery conversations and reassurances, and unrealistic expectations for a full recovery.
But CIPN proved to be the one experience I could not file away, ignore, or brush off. The pain consumed too much, and this time my body insisted that I had to stop, to sit down, to face the new reality before me: I was broken, finally. All the habits I’d cultivated in my lifetime – the unflagging optimism, the work ethic, the stubbornness that had allowed me to fool myself for decades when faced with a problem – none of those things helped. In fact, those very tools prolonged my suffering by helping me avoid the wounds that needed healing.
My status as a survivor only complicated things. I’d lost a lot of people along my life’s journey – disease, accidents, suicides, and of course, old age had claimed quite a number of those I loved. And then, unlike so many of my fallen comrades, I’d survived cancer. But the cost of living was so terribly steep, that on days where I was incapacitated by the ensuing pain, I struggled at times to be thankful. It was a terrible, unspoken burden: I lived, wracked by constant pain, unable to do the many things that made life worthwhile. But I could not, in good conscience, complain out loud. Because I was alive – so who was I to whine when so many others had lost their lives in the same battle?
So I kept smiling, suffering silently, avoiding the internal work I had to embrace if I were to become whole again. Until, of course, I’d landed at the studio. Ever cerebral, the yoga enticed me to put my awareness outside of my head, and onto my body. The practice of movement without pain, breathing deeply, helped my mind to first see the physical wounds. And then, it came full circle, as the loss of my illusions about recovery unveiled the emotional trauma that accompanied an honest witnessing of the damage. Yoga was the pathway through the pain: it enabled me to first face my physical injuries, and then taught me to build enough space inside myself to tolerate the grief, too.
As I crawled down off that internal ledge, it meant I would have to face a long list of losses, the first of which was the death of my friend and colleague, Henni, who’d succumbed to breast cancer a year earlier.