I’ve been subscribing to Elana Miller’s blog, Zen Psychiatry since Jan. 18, 2014. I wrote here about her book, Shit You’ve got Cancer: A Quick-Start guide, which is a free download. The small type at the bottom of each e-mail post says, “As a subscriber, you will get a new article every Tuesday.”
But I realized a few days ago–headslap–that I haven’t gotten one in a great many Tuesdays. Too many. I looked it up.
November 16, 2015. Nearly four months!!
And instantly I got worried, because you see Elana Miller is a young psychiatrist who also has Stage IV Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. She writes elegantly about her life and the world and other things and I looked forward to her Tuesday letters.
And clearly she is very sick. I know what Stage IV means. My mother died of lymphoma. And so I poked around online, checked out her site to see if there was any news. I made a plan to write her a card or a supportive email. And then…
It’s Tuesday and here in my inbox is a lovely letter from a friend I haven’t actually met.:
“It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, “My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a God?”
“No,” said the Buddha.
“Well, then, are you some sort of magician or wizard?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No.”
“Are you a man?”
“Well my friend, what are you then?”
“I am awake.”
– Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom
About a year before I got lymphoma, I had a strange dream. In this dream I became sick with a terminal illness and had only a short period of time before I was going to die (incidentally I wrote about this experience only a few months before I was diagnosed). As the end approached I went from feeling incredulous, to terrified, to inconsolably sad.
Much of my life for these last few years has been like this dream. On December 17, 2013 I fell asleep in one world when I walked into the ER at UCLA, and when I left a few hours later with the diagnosis of cancer I had opened my eyes in an entirely different one.
Since then I have done the best I could to adjust to my new reality (some days more successfully than others). But there has always been a part of me that didn’t believe it was real—a part of me that thought at any moment I might wake up from the nightmare. Some days I would press my eyes closed as tight as I could, and I would put my hands on my chest, and I would whisper, Go away tumor. You are not wanted here.
I said it quietly, but with such force of conviction I would be confused when I opened my eyes and it was still there. There were moments I wanted to be better so badly I was surprised I could not cure my cancer with the sheer force of my will. It was utter humbling to want something like that with every fiber of my being and not be able to have it.
When effort didn’t cure me, I started to bargain. I promised myself that if it ended I would never make another mistake, I would never again be unkind, I would never again fail to appreciate the simple pleasures I so arrogantly took for granted before.
When that didn’t work, and I became desperate enough, I started to wonder whom I would give my burden to if it were possible for someone else to carry it—a stranger? A friend? My own family? (After a certain point, the answer was anyone—I would have given my illness to anyone if it would have given me even one moment of relief). And when those fantasies passed, I settled into a routine of learned hopelessness and despair. There was nothing left to believe but that the problem was me, because how could the universe give such suffering to a person—with no remedy or escape—unless she caused it, unless she deserved it?
The problem these last few months has not been the depth of the pain, but rather its persistence. When you feel so bad for so long, you start to wonder if you ever felt differently. My past life felt like such a distant memory I started to doubt I had ever felt well. I worried I was holding onto a fantasy. All I could remember was the dream.
But then… miracle of miracles! For no overt reason I can understand, last week I woke up and for the first time in months felt like a relatively normal human being. The dense fog in my brain had lifted. The fatigue and pain in my body had almost disappeared. My eyes sharpened into focus. I had woken up.
I share this with you partially for selfish reasons—I’ll be on maintenance chemotherapy for the rest of this year, and I suspect I’ll soon start feeling sick again and once more forget it’s possible to feel as good as I do now, and when that happens, I hope you will remind me.
But I also tell this story to reassure you that no bad thing will last forever. There are many days I’ve wanted to hurl myself off the nearest building rather than live one more day feeling so utterly trapped. But truthfully, while I hope the worst is over, I would do it again if I could know with certainty there was a light at then end of the tunnel as bright as the one I see now.
(It is the contrast between these inevitable highs and lows that makes life so interesting, anyway).
When I had that dream I was dying, I will never forget how I felt when I reached the end. Suddenly I no longer felt sad or scared—I was curious. I was about to come out of the tunnel and see the light.
In that last moment, I lied down and felt the energy drain out of my body. I signed out my last breath. My eyes fluttered closed. I felt a sense of total peace; there was no reason left to be afraid.
Then, suddenly, my eyes snapped open. I blinked a few times, confused. I gripped the sheets and sucked in a breath of air. For a moment I was not sure where I was or what had happened. Then the room sharpened into focus. I had woken up.
Right now, I feel like I did when I emerged from that dream.
The feeling will probably be brief, and any day, I may slip into the dream again. But at this moment, I will tell you, I am here, and I am alive. I am awake. And it feels really fucking good.