All of us humans, at least those of us who value being functional, must figure out how to cope with our reality, which, if we all widened our aperture enough, is oftentimes utterly intolerable and soul crushing. How can we live in a world where children in Aleppo are killed and maimed by bombs day after day while we do nothing to stop it? How can we go on eating, drinking and being merry when a crazed gunman indiscriminately mows down innocent people at an airport baggage claim? How can we sleep at night knowing an unhinged, crotch-grabbing megalomaniac with a tweeting disorder is about to become the leader of the free world? We go on and we live our lives because we must, and we tell ourselves that no amount of good intentions and effort will ever stop bad things from happening in the world. Then we move on with the quotidian demands of living.
It becomes more challenging, however, when the terrifying, horrible things you would generally acknowledge then ignore strike within your household, or, say, within your own body. You no longer have the option of just turning off the news to save your sanity and your sense of hope. It’s always with you, and you have to deal with it head-on lest you let the “bad guys” win. That, in a nutshell, is what it feels like to be told you have a lethal and currently incurable cancer. At first your fight-or-flight response kicks in, and you’re ready to FIGHT! Fight these terrorist tumor assholes!
Then, after a few chemo treatments leave you a limp noodle on the couch for days, you begin to wonder about the “flight” option. Is there somewhere, anywhere, I can go where the cancer can’t find me? As ridiculous as it sounds, you find yourself contemplating this for far too long. After your sound mind returns, you realize there’s only one solution for making this situation bearable day after day with all of its unknowns, what ifs, and the giant existential elephant in the room–mortality.
What’s required is a carefully curated sense of oblivion, synchronized to suit your schedule and allow the requisite amount of functioning, but no more. There are times when I need to be fully aware and operational in cancerland. I need to be able to advocate for myself, understand my blood tests and CT scan results and parse through sometimes competing recommendations from doctors. I can’t –and won’t–outsource these things. I need to know the full menu of clinical trial options I may qualify for and ensure all of my records are on file at the National Cancer Institute for when the chemo stops working, which, it turns out is now. My latest scan after two rounds of chemo revealed the tumors have continued growing. This is the kind of reality face punch that requires immediate attention followed by a very concerted effort at inattention.
One can only dwell in cancerland for so long, so I’m upping my intake of blissful oblivion. This can take many forms, and I imagine everyone has their own version of delightful disengagement from reality. I was surprised to learn recently that working is now a form of escape. That’s when you know your world is seriously upside down. As I went from meeting to meeting on Capitol Hill this past week, I felt increasingly normal, like the old me–just skinnier.
My oblivion prescription is rounded out with mindless television (although I cannot bring myself to watch anything with a Kardashian involved) and celebrity gossip magazines (where it’s infinitely more difficult to avoid Kardashians). I know I should be doing more yoga and meditation, but frankly, I’m not looking to be “mindful.” I’m looking to be mindless for a few hours. I have sufficient chemical prescriptions to induce a near-constant state of total oblivion, but now doesn’t seem like an opportune time to add “addict” to my list of ailments. Not to mention pain pills will only serve to aid my other arch enemy, constipation, which already has an advantage over me with all the anti-nausea drugs that accompany chemo.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I thought I needed to make every moment more meaningful. But there is a danger in assigning too much meaning–and being in that meaning–every moment of every day. There are simply times when living in your present reality is too damn real too much of the time and certainly times when looking ahead feels too frightening. Now is one of those times. I’m acknowledging it. I’m taking concrete steps and making decisions about how to move forward. And then I’m going window shopping with my girlfriends and watching the Food Network before digging in to a stack of People and Us Weekly magazines.
This isn’t an advice column, but if it was, I’d recommend everyone figure out how to strategically check out during hard times. It’s a gift and a tool that can soothe and bring comfort during life’s harsher realities– and it doesn’t stop you up. What more can you ask for?