It’s now 6 months since I had my tumour removed. I’m two thirds of the way through chemotherapy, which isn’t too bad except the fatigue is kicking in more, and gets complicated by worsened ME/CFS and a deteriorating right hip, which severely limits my walking ability but can’t be remedied until the cancer stuff is sorted.
All in all it’s not a bad life. It’s restful. I read a lot of books, spend a lot of time on Facebook, and if I wake in the the morning not feeling like I want to do anything difficult, like getting up, I don’t. No-one cares if I’ve washed my hair or put on clean clothes, because no-one knows. If I have to go out to the shops, there’s dry shampoo and deodorant to tide me over. I’ve friends I can call on if I need to for shopping or more books or general cheering up. And if I don’t contact them, they’re not offended. Cancer really does give you a “get out of jail free” card. And I’ve got a Blue Badge.
But, I’ve spent the last six months or more trying, in the odd moment of clarity, to do more. Trying to be more mindful, to do just that little bit more, to derive just a smidgeon more meaning from my day. It’s how all the advice goes. Try to get dressed every day and lie on the sofa instead of in bed. You’ll feel better in yourself. The chemo fatigue will be better if you take a little more exercise every day. Stay positive. I’ve tried. Tried to build healing practices into my daily routine. Made myself get out of bed. Looked for how I could deal with it all just a little bit better.
Then just this week, on about the third day in bed without making myself get up, get dressed, etc, I thought, sod it, no. I’ve only another two months of this to go before things – hopefully – start picking up again. Maybe I’ll just give in to how I feel. Actually, I’m really happy lying in bed with a hottie and a good book. So long as I keep my benefits correspondence under control, and roll up at the hospital every three weeks for my new supply of drugs, not much else matters that can’t wait til a day when I feel up to confronting it. If I drift away too far into the parallel universe of my cancer bubble, sooner or later someone will notice and call me back. You could call it mindfulness, being immersed in the present moment, not striving to achieve something “better”.
This is so much at odds with all the advice we receive. However ill you are, there’s always something you should be doing to make things a bit better. Eat more vegetables. Do something rather than nothing. I once had a horrific experience with an endoscopy, which revealed nothing more than a hiatus hernia – not good news, but not exactly calamitous. Following which the kind, caring nurse insisted that I would feel better if I lost weight. Would this treat the hernia? No, it would make no difference at all. But I would feel better in myself. She was a fat as me, so maybe this was just her own issues, but it was as if she needed to offer me something I could do, rather than just acknowledge how I was feeling.
This goes back to the old theory of illusions of control. Ages ago (it wouldn’t exactly be allowed now) there was a psychology experiment where they gave a series of mild electric shocks to volunteers, and asked them to rate each one for how painful it was. In the control group they just got the shocks. In the experimental group, they were given a button they could press to stop the shock if it became unbearable, though they were asked not to use it, as doing so would mess up the whole experiment. None of them did press it, which is fortunate since it was actually just a dummy button, connected to nothing. But, in rating the painfulness of the shocks, the experimental group perceived them as significantly less painful than the control group did. Why? Because if you think you have control over something, it’s not as bad as having no control. Women who have been raped have this tendency to blame themselves – it was my fault, I shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt, I shouldn’t have walked down that dark alley, I should have seen it coming. This is society’s conditioning of course, but it also has a strong element of, if it was my fault it happened, then I can prevent it happening again. Illusions of control.
I think this happens with illness. People want for there to be something they can do, you can do. They will constantly offer you solutions – avoid gluten, buy crystals, don’t use microwaves, Lemsip “sorts the men from the boys” – rather than sitting with the truth that illness happens, it’s a part of how things are. There may, of course, be things you can do to help your recovery, but there’s also a stress involved in always thinking, however ill you are, that’s there’s just something more you could, and should, be doing.
So I’m practising giving up control. Giving up trying to “do” my illness better. Giving up trying to analyse which of my medical conditions is giving me which problem. Giving in to idleness and comfort and not caring too much, not thinking too much, not pressurising myself. Enjoying what pleasures there are to be had. Just being me as I am now.