Friday, November 4, 2011


Round one, day 2, chemo vs cancer, FIGHT!

I feel better than I did yesterday, even after my second dose of chemo.  My right kneecap hurts a little bit, which is something I got the first time around too, nothing to worry about.  Energy levels and appetite are fine.  Last night I got a bit of a mild headache as the day drew on, which isn't too unusual as I'm getting over a cold and my forehead was pretty warm.  Still something I'll need to keep an eye on.  If I'm still getting headaches in two days I'll give my doctor a call and see what he thinks, but the MRI from last Wednesday didn't look like the cancer was big enough to cause that kind of symptom. 

I'm no psychologist so forgive me if I'm using these terms incorrectly, but today I'd like to talk about denial, suppression, and repression.  I define denial as refusing to believe something, suppression as refusing to feel it, and repression as no longer recognizing that there's anything to feel.  Some people call that "bottling up," the military calls it "compartmentalization," but either way it's yielding control of an emotional subject to a dispassionate logical side.  So far, that's how I've dealt with my cancer.  The first time my therapist met me, she said that I seemed like I was much further along in the process of acceptance than some of her other patients, who've known about their cancer for years.  Of course that's because I'd skipped over some steps.  Painful, but important steps.  I never felt anger or grief.  I've never cried over my fate or fortune.  Some people mistake this, too, for bravery.  It's not.  It's numbness.

But it isn't denial, either.  I know exactly what's happening to me, in clinical detail.  Even before my diagnosis I've always been fascinated in biology.  My average in my high school Human Anatomy course was 104%.  During study sessions my classmates would sit around me, tossing me their questions, which I could answer effortlessly in full detail, as though I'd memorized the text book.  During one session I noticed them looking at me like I was some kind of alien.  So yeah, I really understood what I was reading (internalized it, if you will), and there was a time when I was thinking of becoming a doctor.  I managed to convince myself not to, through my favorite passtime: self-doubt.

The problem is that I can only view myself clinically, in that way.  I see a process that's occurring in a patient, and I know that patient is me, but for some reason I can't feel that.  That's why I first went to see my therapist.  Not because I was so distraught I couldn't get on with my life, but because I wondering why I wasn't distraught.  I worried that eventually those emotions would catch up with me, and that I'd suffer emotionally like most cancer patients.  I wanted to confront those feelings, and deal with them on my own terms.

Except I can't.  Not because of the cancer, but because of the way I grew up.  My parents are deeply supportive of me, and have been great during this entire ordeal (for the most part).  They do love me.  Even so, they are human and are not perfect.  Same with me.

When I was very young, my mother was in a car accident.  She survived, but it did have an impact on her, mentally and physically.  She works full time and earned her Master's degree after this accident so it didn't cripple her, but it did change her.  From that point forward, my father treated her like a queen.  She could do no wrong.  Her opinions dictated reality: if Mom says black is white, black is white, and don't you dare correct her.  I was expected to be a part of this, a member of her entourage, placing her happiness above my own.  Over time that came to mean that certain opinions, certain statements, and certain concepts that upset her became forbidden.

I had, without anyone's intent or awareness, been taught not to express my emotions.  The easiest way for me to do that was to suppress everything.  Eventually I got so good at suppression, I no longer even noticed the burden of those emotions left unfelt.  I forgot they were there.  I repressed them.  All except for anger.  That, I can feel quite easily, along with a certain degree of resentment.  The only problem - other than being angry, which isn't terribly pleasant - was that I wasn't sure where the anger came from, or how to resolve it.  I've snapped at people, though never with any violence, not physically against an individual or their property.  I have said things I've deeply regretted.  Made some self-destructive choices.  Though I am typically painfully polite even to complete strangers, there are people out there whose only experience of me is as a magnificent asshole.  A mixture of drugs (taken as prescribed by a doctor) and therapy helped me get that under control, and more recently, identify its source.

I still don't know what to do about it.  I don't feel that this is the time to antagonize my parents, even if I am justified in doing so.  Even if I were to resolve things with them, that only takes care of one part of the problem.  My shell is still so old I don't feel its weight.  It's still so thick I can't penetrate it.  Not even a diagnosis of brain cancer can do that.  I've grown into it, and cannot get out, no matter how much I want to.  But it is there, as are the feelings it contains.  Old wounds that I can think about without flinching, I can speak only with shaking words and choked breath.  Emotions that I cannot feel show upon my face.  I keep chipping at the shell best I can, but remember why I want it gone in the first place: so that I may feel one of the greatest traumas that our world can provide.

It's frightening.  Every chip, every crack, I'm getting closer to a cascade of pain that is not merely a consequence, but my very objective.  It's like walking to a gallows.  I don't want to feel that pain. 

Except part of me does.  Part of me, buried deep within, locked within a prison of my own making.  And so I have a choice to make.  Do I want to suffer that agony and then let it go, or do I want to carry this burden for the rest of my life?

I honestly don't know.  My therapist does not call this sort of shell a "defense," but rather a "creative adaptation."  She once said to me something that has really stuck with me, and something that has helped others as I've passed it on:

"Normal to you, is normal."

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