This previously unpublished piece was written June 29, 2016 on a particularly hard day during a particularly hard time. I like it contrasted to the Best Day post because it’s amazing (and frightening) how we can bounce between loving life and being furious at it.
Last week I celebrated a grim milestone. While friends and co-workers around me celebrate births and marriages, I find myself, 30-years-old, in the yellow fluorescent lights of an office bathroom plucking grey hairs from my bangs. I’m only a few months into the break-up of my most recent relationship. I spend my days writing marketing copy and nights walking outdoors and listlessly scrolling through social media feeds.
How many of those brides and mothers have to ask themselves every day, “Is this what I survived for?” How many of the unemployed and divorced have to ask themselves “I was physically tortured for this?”
Last week marked five years since the day I ran into an emergency room with my mother, trying to convince the complacent staff that I needed immediate medical attention. “Do Not Pass Go” is what my family doctor said when I asked if I could change into yoga pants first. Five years later and I’m still waiting for my chance to stop and collect $200.
That day’s been running in my head on repeat every day for five years now. I remember the little black dress I wore to the office that morning and how the stiff fabric scratched against my skin as I received each piece of foreboding news. I remember not worrying about anything but my parents, who appeared to be doing enough worrying for all of Atlantic Canada. Even though I was the one on the stretcher, they were old and more prone to heart attacks.
Five years ago, two young men wheeled me into an oncology ward. While I can tell you exactly how many days I lived there, my brain… My brain is still in there. The sickly smell of flowers by the window and the dog-food stench of the day’s mystery meat for dinner. The face of every single roommate I had and how their skin took on this yellow-grey shade with each passing day. I barely recognized their pudgy, smiling, pixelated faces in the obituaries that followed.
I lost all sense of security and sense of self that day. Now, for five years, I’ve been waking up surprised to be awake again. Not dead. You would think I’d be more excited about mornings for someone who greets each one acutely aware that I am, yup, still not dead. The mild relief is instantly washed away with familiar panic. “Today I have to pretend that other things are more important than not being dead.” Pretending all day, every day, is exhausting. Spies and sociopaths out there, can you relate?
Five years ago, I lost all ownership of my body. I always thought being healthy was a choice. A choice to eat right, exercise and goshdarnit, have fun. Little did I know that my smug choices still couldn’t stop my body from eating itself inside out. I signed my body over to doctors and nurses who have since told me what to do with it and when. I look down at my scars and wonder who’s body I’m in, so I get tattoos to take control again. I’ve lost all sense of adventure–I’m scared to break my body more than it’s already been broken. For five years I’ve lived in fear of what my own body can do to me.
The superficial monotony of daily life is a hard contrast to the traumatic emergency that began unfolding five years ago. For moments at a time I forget who I am and actually care about what outfit I’m going to wear. I care because I want to impress people. Convince them I am a normal, functioning human who had nothing horrific happen five years ago. Just business as usual over here. The moments are fleeting as you can see. Everything in my new life leads back to that day five years ago when the world didn’t so much as crash, but smear and melt downwards like Munch’s painting “The Scream.” And I’ve been screaming alright. But it’s a dog-whistle scream that reverberates in tones only certain people can hear. Most of the time I can’t even hear it myself.
Five Years! What A Joy! To celebrate the worst day of my life! To be able to look back on all of the things I’ve accomplished. Like, showing up to appointments on time. Napping between infusions. Crying at inopportune moments. Laughing at even more inappropriate ones. It’s hard to distinguish between what features were caused by my being not dead or what was caused by having almost died. Which events gave me this perspective? Which ones gave me this dulled panic? Which ones gave me all this apathy for bullshit? I want to point my finger at cancer every time and say “You. You did this. You made me grey. You are why I fail at relationships. You.”
I stay up past my bedtime every night because staying awake is easier than waking up. For five years I’ve been awake in this day, pretending like I can focus on something beyond being “not dead.” It’s a tiring pursuit. For five years I’ve been counting sheep, willing this day to drift from my brain. But we can’t recognize the hypnagogia until we’re torn from it. So five years later I am still going through the motions, hopeful that I’ll eventually drift from being “not dead,” into being alive.