Cancer

I was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and have been clear since surgery and six weeks of radiation therapy.

My feelings about breast cancer at the time were an absolute eye opener for me and now, with time I am still amazed that I could feel the way I did.  I have never discussed this with anyone because I think its bizarre.

I was called back following a mammogram and told that I required a core biopsy. Now, this was not the first time I had been called back for further examinations and until they said the word biopsy, I had been quite flippant about it. The medical staff had several attempts to obtain appropriate material for the biopsy and then indicated that I would have to come back in four to six weeks for another attempt. I started to get a little upset about this time. When I asked what happened if they could not get diagnostic material next time, they said they would treat me based on what they believed without the biopsy results. Clearly at that stage, I was pretty sure that I had breast cancer

The interim period between this day and diagnosis was approximately 5 weeks and my head reeled with it. I remember trying to concentrate on anything at all and my mind would just be saying over and over – cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer…

Now none of this is probably surprising. What absolutely floored me was that I thought I deserved cancer. Then I would think that if I had a ‘real’ or ‘acceptable’ illness, I would get the support I craved. I also felt a sense of relief that someone else would handle the things in my life that I found stressful. My depression has always been much more a matter of stress building and building until it just boiled over. I thought that others would stop piling things onto me if I had a legitimate illness.

Everyone in my life was very supportive or would have been had I let them. I kept most people at arms distance. I insisted on working right through my radiation despite overwhelming tiredness. I manage a team of 30 at work and I believed that I would be weak if I couldn’t keep going. I still am eternally grateful to my team who walked on egg-shells around me for that time and came out of it supporting me in spite of it all. When I saw my oncologist on the last day of my treatment, she asked how much time I’d had off. When I said, proudly, stoically that I had worked right through, she handed me a medical certificate for three weeks and said, “Take my advice and take this.” I did and I think I slept almost solidly for the whole time.

If I could say one thing to anyone going through the cancer experience, it would be, “Be kind to yourself.” Since adopting an attitude of acceptance of myself, I have to say, being kind to me comes much easier. I would still never take a day off work just because I felt like it (I actually never have, not once) but I am much, much kinder to myself.

I felt cheated after my cancer experience that nothing life changing had happened to me. I now realise that I had to orchestrate that change and am proud to say that I have come out of the fog, into the light with an absolute gratitude for every aspect of life.

Worthy

A turning point in my recovery was a realisation that I am worthy of the air that I breathe. That sounds dramatic but it takes an acceptance at that very basic level of self-worth to move forward and feel worthy of health, fitness and ultimately happiness.

I look back now and realise that a feeling of self-worth was probably always lacking in my life. As a very small child I was painfully shy and relied heavily on my mother to protect me from the world. When I was a little older, at around 6 or 7 years, mum decided that tap dancing would improve my confidence and I embarked on what was for me a horrendous experience. I was extremely tall and equally as uncoordinated. I was always stood at the back and given the minimal as far as participation was concerned. I have vivid memories of forgetting a tap dance solo and having to go back on stage three times at an eistedford until I finally got all the way through my performance. I got loud applause, I thought because the audience wouldn’t have to endure another attempt.

Fortunately at about age 10 or 11, I started swimming and turned out to be quite good at it, never a superstar but certainly not the big girl in the back row. I was also academically good at school. Despite this I never felt my parent’s pride or approval. They were supportive and certainly attended swimming meetings, were time keepers, I just do not ever remember them saying, “Well done,” or “We are proud of you.” They were both quite reserved people and, looking back, their attendance was probably high level support for them.

My father died when I was 21. I don’t ever remember telling him that I loved him or him telling me that he loved me. That hurt in the time following his death but at that time, you did not really talk about things like that. After dad’s death, I ensured that mum knew that she was loved and I have no doubt that she loved me too.

I remember thinking that I was terribly ugly as a teenager. My picture of beauty always had long straight, preferably blond hair. Mine was short, dark and curly. Looking back at photos of myself in my late teens, early 20s I can’t believe I was so hard on myself. I look in the mirror now and grey hair, wrinkles and all, I say, “Not too damn bad!” and I genuinely like what I see.

Perfectionism is a significant contributor to my feelings of lacking in self-worth. I have to be able to see a positive outcome before I undertake anything in life. I have recently embraced breaking any challenge down into bite sized pieces so that tasks are not so daunting and success can be frequently acknowledged and celebrated.  I remember when I started putting on weight that I thought I may as well keep going because I didn’t look ‘perfect’ any more.

Similarly with alcohol, once I started I had admitted that the day had defeated me and that I might as well keep on drinking.

As I write this, it is so flawed and conflicted.  I cannot believe that I allowed imagined sleights from my childhood to colour my self-perception as an adult to the extent that it did.  There is no doubt that I was loved, nurtured and well cared for. I guess that I was just very needy. I have always craved positive feedback and assumed that, if there was none, I was not doing well enough to warrant it.

I am now able to tell myself that I am doing well, that I am worthy and believe it.

Blame and Responsibility

For many of the last 15 years I have looked for reasons within my life, my family or my upbringing to attribute blame for my depression, addiction and obesity. It was not until I convinced myself that attempting to apportion blame was not only futile but also highly, highly destructive. That last statement is I consider, the pivotal point in turning around my relationship with myself.

For a number of years I had known that there were ‘secrets’ lurking in the closets of my family history.  I did not know enough details to be able to make an informed decision about those secrets and tried desperately to unravel them enough so that I would find something to blame for how I felt. I don’t really remember my young childhood and I was quite sure that I would unearth something cataclysmic and be able to categorically state that I had found the root of my evil. I found nothing and have now left that search behind me.

Hello?? Whether it is genetic or chemical or none of the above, you have to be pre-disposed to depression (and probably addiction). There are clearly life events that can precipitate overwhelming sadness, even short term depression but I have to say that I just shake my head when I read that this sportsman or celebrity has fallen into a deep depression and clawed their way out, all within a period of weeks. I don’t dispute that what people experience under those circumstances is very real and can be momentarily debilitating, I just sometimes wish it carried a different label. It leaves people like me thinking that they beat it, why can’t I?

My diagnosis was major depression. I have spent 15 years on anti-depressants and although I have quartered my dose and feel incredible clarity for that decrease, I am not ready to stop all together. Depression has been described as a black dog and several other metaphors. I think of mine as a fog and look at my internal weather forecast to determine whether I will need wet weather gear on a particular day. At times my fog was pea soup with an intense feeling of being weighed down, of having to physically push the fog aside to move through the day. These days were exhausting.

I used to wonder why it was that people I knew could breeze (or struggle) through life without the visible ups and downs that I experienced. As our children went through adolescence, my friend J was amazing, her life was unimaginably stressful, the experiences with one of her children was beyond anything imaginable and I marvelled at how she managed. I am guessing now that she used no energy on asking why and instead spent her time and energy getting through. She is truly one of the most inspiring and strong people I have ever met.

I am responsible for my own happiness and gladly accept that responsibility!

Next to blame, perfectionism or believing that if something could not be done to perfection, it should not be done at all was probably my most destructive belief.  But now, I am on my way out to challenge my resolve again by joining a group celebration. I am looking forward to it!

Journey of a Life Time

I have absolutely no doubt that addiction and depression are lifelong conditions. At best we can control them. For me, writing puts it in a box. Putting it in a box, gives it boundaries beyond which it cannot pass without my permission. That is, I choose whether to open the box. All I ask is that I can be strong enough that no matter what life throws my way, the box stays shut.

I went out to dinner with L and two friends last night, the first time since I gave up drinking that I have been out socialising. I thought I would be envious of the alcohol. I felt nothing, no desire, no envy definitely no sense of missing out. It was just something that I didn’t do. Very, very cognisant that this is early days but I felt I definite level of pride in myself.

Addiction

I have long recognised my addictive personality. Some perspectives of addiction make me the brunt of my family’s humour. Over the past few years I have mastered Angry Birds in record time, had the best farm ever seen on Farmville and I am currently rocketing through Candy Crush.

Once I go past these addictions, things start to get ugly. One of my strongly held misconceptions was that ‘having = happy’. I shopped. I had an awesome wardrobe and most else of what I could have wanted. But I didn’t have happy. I now have a wardrobe full of clothes that no longer fit and I have ‘happy’. I really don’t need too much else.

I think that it may be easier to wear the label alcoholic than to tell my friends and acquaintances that I am choosing to no longer drink. To the statement, “I have given up alcohol for ever”, I get the response, “How long is forever?”, “How long will that last?” or “You just need to drink more slowly.” I can stand back from most people and allow them to say what they like. They cannot hurt me as I do not respect their opinions when it comes to my alcohol consumption but when G said, “You just need to drink more slowly,” I replied, “If you sabotage me in any way, I will leave you.” G and I have been (mostly) happily married for more than 31 years and leaving has never been an option for either of us. I doubt that we will have the conversation again.

I am happy to sit at a table with drinkers, happy for G to enjoy a good bottle of red or to join friends in celebratory champagne while I drink soda water. The only ask I have of my family is that until I am stronger, I don’t want open bottles left in the house after others have left.

To some that I socialise with, the admission of an issue would be a surprise. What they didn’t know was that when I came home I drank more. Sometimes I would fall asleep (in bed) with a glass of wine in my hand.

Another of my health issues was obesity and that is closely linked to both my depression and my alcohol consumption. Obesity does not sit well with me, either on my lips or on my hips. It is such an ugly word. One time when I was with my doctor, I read her computer screen with my notes, “Obese lady….” I remember being incensed. Then, when the anger dissipated, I believed that I was not worthy of any other label and I started to think of myself as ‘that obese woman.’

Along with obesity came pain, painful joints, painful muscles and a feeling that I was fast approaching very old. As the intensity of the pain increased I became more depressed and slept more. Some weekend days I would spend six to eight hours up and the rest of the time in bed. When I was at work I threw myself into it. I would come home exhausted and collapse in a heap. I was very tired and very disillusioned.

I have to say that in accepting awesome, I first dealt with depression, then obesity, then alcohol. I guess that there can be complex conversation around what came first, the chicken or the egg – obesity, alcoholism or depression. For me, no doubt depression, though I never had, right from my teenage years, a healthy relationship with alcohol.

As a teenager, alcohol allowed me to be someone that I thought I wanted to be. That is best explored when I tell you about my upbringing and by upbringing I mean by how I reacted to my upbringing because quite honestly my upbringing was filled with love and compassion. There was a fair dose of denial and secrecy in there but certainly no horror that some would associate with depression.

I am a perfectionist (wow, another topic) and am stubborn enough to believe that I can do anything. Rather than take on things that are achievable, I take on the hardest, most challenging tasks I can and then beat myself up because I don’t get the fairy tale ending.

The first time in my life that I recognised depression was 1998. Looking back, I also had a significant bout in 1980. The 1980 bout, though initially surrounding the temporary removal of G from my life, also coincided with the death of my father. I will talk more about dad, but long story short, I idolised him. He was an absolute gentleman with a depth of empathy and compassion that I would be proud to emulate.

1998 and the stars that collided were the slow and traumatic death of my mother after a significant battle with ovarian cancer and my children’s adolescence smacking me in the face. Their stories are not mine to tell but depression, bullying, exclusion and bad choices were the ‘highlights’. My children grew through adolescence to be awesome and I grew bigger and sadder and sadder and bigger. They moved on but I was crippled by a sense of failure. I believed that I had a fairy tale upbringing and they deserved nothing less from me.  If mum had lived, I believe that we may have rationalised my childhood memories and I may have accepted that I was doing the best I could. It’s very recent that I can see that.

I can’t remember when alcohol became the problem that it has until recently been. Certainly for the last couple of years I’ve rarely gone a night without consuming a whole bottle of wine. I’d give up for a few days and then start again. Interestingly, one night recently my daughter, L and I sat down to dinner and polished off more than two bottles of wine. I looked into the face of one of the most important people in my world and said to myself, “Enough! I have taught her everything I know about everything I don’t wish for her.” The next day I gave up and will not go back. I don’t need to.

Depression

Depression does not come in a ‘one size fits all’ version. In fact its manifestations are probably as varied as the number of people who suffer from it. After 15 years of living with depression, my depression radar is probably as highly tuned as anyone’s.

The first type of people are easy to pick and everyone knows one. They are the depressive souls who can see the negative in any situation. They can turn any situation around to be about them, their issues, their hangups, their negativity. Some time ago I made a conscious effort to remove these people from my life. At the time I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer and did not want any negativity in my life.

The second type are closed and private people, certainly more challenging to identify and unlikely to have shared their story. I don’t pretend to understand depression in this form. I have always been open about my journey with depression. I am aware of a few people who I have helped along the way, I am aware of others who cannot comprehend my approach or my acceptance of my depression.

The third type are the people who outwardly are very positive, in my case, sometimes over the top with positivity and take great delight in making others happy. I think for me that I always thought that if I could contribute to somebody else’s happiness that it might rub off on me. As I look back on the last 15 years, I know that there are many thought processes that should have been questioned, some that are at best quirky and some, I don’t know how any sensible person could have come to the conclusions I did. I’ll explore that more later.

As a depressive person my moods went almost in a sine wave. I would be lulled into a sense of security by a period when things seemed to be OK, and then I would plummet again. I did a lot of work with my mental health professional, S1, and attribute the knowledge and understanding I took from her and a few very close friends with my recovery. And I guess I say recovery tongue in cheek (my glass is always half full) as it will be a long time before I will consider myself forever cured.

I have to mention one other person, my husband G, who has never understood my depression. He does not need to understand it. He is my rock, my ballast and without him counter-balancing my sine waves, I would certainly not be where I am today and may not even still be alive.

I have never been suicidal with depression but certainly have gone to bed hoping not to wake up the next morning. That fact now is very confronting and one of the 501 reasons why I don’t want to go back there. Between being obese, abusing alcohol a dose of breast cancer and high blood pressure, there were a number of reasons why waking up in the morning may not have happened. In addition to the above, I was in constant pain. Every joint and muscle in my body ached. I blamed arthritis (my mum had it), tiredness, working too hard, anything but the choices that I was making for myself. I have a lot more to write about blame and responsibility, but that will come later as my story unfolds.

I have so many thoughts about what I need to share. I am primarily doing this for myself. Questioning my own thought processes is the way I have healed myself. Replacing my self-depreciating beliefs with belief in myself, an acceptance and love of myself and my circumstances has turned my life around. When I talk about how I felt, what I believed then and what I believe now, it sounds ridiculous that I was ever where I was in my mind before. By writing about it, it sounds even more ridiculous. I say ridiculous but that is the tip of the iceberg of emotions. Certainly confronting, sometimes frightening and sometimes just very, very sad that I could ever have thought that way.

I think that’s enough for one day. There will be a few more background posts ( a very brief history of my life, my relationship with alcohol and obesity and my experiences with breast cancer) and then I will move onto some more specifics and personal perspectives of my journey through depression.

The Present

Over a period of approximately 15 years, depression had become almost a way of life.  Every aspect of life was shrouded in a pervading  fog. I could be outwardly happy but always there lingered a sadness, sometimes a niggle, sometimes a tidal wave.  Earlier this year I retracted the permission I had given myself to remain depressed. Although this sounds so simple in writing, in fact it has been the greatest challenge of my life and amongst my proudest achievements. It has been a very personal achievement and a very significant battle. My short answer to how is that I accepted contentment and that I am worthy of happiness. When I write that it sounds so simple! This is my story.