I've been thinking a lot about my dual diseases - alcoholism and cancer. For lack of better terminology, I'll say I'm a survivor of both, at the moment.
The anxiety I have been grappling with since my last post is reminiscent of early sobriety in so many ways, not just the physical symptoms (racing heart, difficulty breathing, racing thoughts, feelings of impending doom) but the emotional symptoms as well.
As an alcoholic, especially one in early recovery, I fought these bad feelings hard. I'm sober now, this should be gone, I shouldn't feel this way, maybe I'll always feel this way, what if this never goes away. The harder I fought the feelings, the louder and more powerful they became.
It has been the same with the cancer anxiety. I keep thinking I shouldn't be feeling this way, I'm in remission, I should be on-my-knees-grateful all the time. I'm pushing and pushing at the panic and anxiety, feeling guilty that I have them at all, because for the moment I'm okay.
Because I'm hard-headed, stubborn and like to think my way out of problems, it took me falling off a cliff in a heap before I applied the same things I did in early sobriety to my current problem with anxiety/panic. I finally picked up the phone and asked for help. I talked to other cancer survivors. I joined a cancer patient/survivor group. I joined a yoga class for cancer survivors. I'm doing a lot of reading of stories of others that have gone before me. And I'm going to see a professional oncology psychiatrist as well.
When I met with the cancer survivor counselor, he helped me see how I was trying to push the fear away, how hard I was working to avert my eyes.
"I'm afraid of a cancer support group," I told him. "It makes me feel afraid to think of sitting in a circle with other women whose cancer has come back, or who aren't going to survive their disease, because that could be me some day."
"Yes, it could," he replied. "You have a choice. You can keep averting your eyes, keep pushing it away, or you can face it. Embrace the fear. Lean into it. And give yourself some time. It can take a year or more to get over the daily fear of the cancer returning, and you HAVE to talk about it."
This is when the bell went off, when I thought about early recovery and how hard I pushed to keep the fear at bay, to push away thoughts of a drink, to think I should just be better already. And how it wasn't until I opened my stubborn mouth and told a roomful of strangers who totally understood how I felt, that I started to get better.
Anxiety and fear are my biggest triggers. Thoughts of a drink pop into my head with regularity these days. I find myself thinking "I HATE this. I should be beyond this. Why am I thinking this way?"
Of course I'm thinking about a drink. I'm an alcoholic who doesn't like emotional pain, and I'd much, much rather go around it than sit through it or talk about it. I am prideful and want to be strong enough to manage it on my own. I finally realized that the core of my suffering lies in this prideful unwillingness to face fear.
So I'm talking more. I'm trying to pick up the phone and call people when I feel itchy, but I'm still terrible at that (I don't want to interrupt them, what if they tell me they can't talk, I don't want to impose) but I'm working on it. I'm meditating again. This morning I got up at 5:30am (the house is so peaceful, beautiful and quiet at this hour) and meditated for half an hour - just watched my thoughts go by. What I observed were a lot of thoughts about my treatment, how scary it was, and I realized I have to give my mind space to process these things, but without fear or judgement.
I'm reading a lot of Buddhist literature, learning about meditation techniques and accepting, even embracing fear and panic.
It's all helping, little by little, but I know it will take time. As I was walking the dog this morning I realized it took months for the thoughts to calm when I got sober, for me to accept, and it's going to take months again. And that I can fight it, or accept it. And get help.
As I meditated this morning it also occurred to me that with alcoholism, in recovery we get a daily reprieve. All I have to do is not drink, for one day, and I get a reprieve from my disease. I started thinking about being a cancer survivor the same way - as a daily reprieve. I'm here now. I'm healthy now. If I can stay in today, like I learned to do in recovery, and be grateful for my daily reprieve from cancer, maybe the peace of mind and gratitude will replace the fear with time.
It's hard to admit vulnerability. I write about it all the time, and it does help me feel better, but I realize that writing about it isn't enough. I have to put into practice these private actions - like counseling, yoga, support groups and intimate conversations with trusted friends.
For a while I thought I had to stop the blog; that it was too ego-driven, too externally focused, and that it was endangering my peace of mind. But now I'm not so sure, although I'm still open to the idea that maybe the blog is too much and I'll have to give it a rest at some point.
I think, though, that if I can maintain a balance between the writing and the private, soulful things I do to care for myself - put my own oxygen mask on first - that the two can coexist.
I guess we'll see.