The black dogs came for me again last night; I wasn't prepared for them. They clawed, scratched and bit at my tired out brain, relentlessly gnawing until I gave in and listened. They always demand surrender.
Since being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in November 2014 I have had the phrase think yourself lucky thrown at me over and over again. You only have to have one breast removed? Think yourself lucky. You've only got to have six sessions of chemo? Think yourself lucky. Radiotherapy is a walk in the park. Think yourself lucky. Being bald suits you. Think yourself lucky.
I know I sound mean, ungrateful even, but my experience with cancer hasn't been something I've enjoyed, treasured or ever felt lucky to be enduring. I think I'm expected to feel fortunate because I haven't died. I'm supposed to toe the party line and fit the bill of thriving survivor with a smile on my face and a glint in my eye and pink ribbons in my crew cut. I did, for a bit, kind of.
When you're in it you find reserves you never knew you had, when you're out of it there's nothing left to buoy you and you slowly start to sink. This took me by surprise; I've always been of relatively sane mind - strong willed and determined to boot - so I didn't notice the first signs of anxiety and paranoia beginning to take their toll. My husband suggested I might need to go to the doctor. He cited my moodiness, tendency toward sobbing and obsessive cleaning. The latter was enough to make me realise something was up; I hate cleaning.
That was a couple of months ago, since then I've been touched by most of the traits that accompany the brain of someone with severe mental health issues; dreadful anxiety, debilitating paranoia, raging moods, sleeplessness, worthlessness and crippling hopelessness; which brings me to the place I am today, sitting in my car at Chew Valley Lake wondering what it might be like to step into the freezing water until it covers my head.
I won't do it, of course, that would be selfish. That would be me not thinking myself lucky; that would be me wasting all the money the NHS has spent on keeping me alive. That would be folly. But you see, right now, in my head it feels like a viable way to make the unbearable struggle of being me go away. I imagine the water seeping through my skin and into my blood, eventually running its icy course round every vein - a bit like the chemo did but with different side effects. I imagine the gradual shut down of my thought processes, the last beat of my heart and my eyes closing sleepily. It's romantic, I know, but that makes up for the countless times I've imagined myself dying horribly and painfully from cancer, one has to have at least one pretty death hope doesn't one?
I can't say I ever had the joy of euphoria from an all clear. Breast cancer isn't as simple as that; in fact I'm not sure any cancer is. It is common, though, that we cancer survivors tend to dip into a depression a little while after treatment is finished. It's fairly standard stuff, I'm not special, there are loads of us out there managing our day to day with apparent gusto and a back to reality attitude towards our lives - lives that will never be the same again.
We know we're supposed to be all singing all dancing adverts for a battle won against the common enemy but it really isn't as simple as that. Cancer's emotional legacy is cruel and harsh and doesn't go away the moment we are declared better. But we aren't meant to say this stuff, we're just meant to be grateful we're not dead. So we don't talk about it, we don't tell our friends or partners because after months or years of putting up with our cancer who the hell wants to put up with our ailing mental health as well? And besides, it's embarrassing. It's not like I left work today saying 'Oh I'm just off to Chew Valley Lake to have a think about chucking myself in' - I'd end up in the nut house. Yet, sometimes, that's exactly where I'd like to be because at least then I wouldn't have to keep putting the thriving survivor face on; it's becoming an increasingly difficult fit.
Today I will not walk into the water; I will not curl up in the embrace of oblivion. I will go home and on the way I shall pick up my boys from school and I shall be grateful. Until the black dogs come again.
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