Over the next week, I’m going to share a chapter of my book Life, Lemons and Melons. Since October, I have been pouring my heart and my soul into a Scrivener document covering the last three years of my life. I’ve written about infertility, self confidence, chemotherapy, my exploding breast, notes from a mixed up mind and tonnes more. Earlier this week, I also saw the illustrations that my exceptionally talented friend Georgia is rustling up to be printed in the book and let me tell you, I cannot wait for you to see them. But without further ado – here’s a chapter of Life, Lemons and Melons. Pre-order your copy by dropping me an email here and read part one here.
That’s not to say that choosing to take medication has been a fix-all for me, or that it was an easy process to begin. I felt like hell on earth for the first two weeks on my “happy pills”. It was a while ago now and I’ve had chemotherapy since then so my memory is a bit mushy but I vividly remember feeling like the whole world was falling down around me in those early days. There was a day when Chris wouldn’t leave the house because I had woken up crying and couldn’t stop. At the time, I thought he just felt bad leaving me because I was in such a state, but I know now that he felt like he couldn’t leave because he wasn’t sure if I was a danger to myself. I have no idea if I was a danger to myself but I felt like I my chest had been ripped open and I didn’t know how to stem the intense emotion that was bleeding out of it. When I wasn’t crying, I was lethargic, confused and numb. Without a doubt, the antidepressants initially worsened my symptoms before they made them better. But I was lucky. I had a long-suffering partner who was able to support me as I found my feet and I was well cared for by a stretched but determined primary care system where I had appointments every two weeks in the early days, and every month thereafter until I had settled into the medication.
Not only that, but before I said yes to medication, I said yes to talking therapies. After a few weeks on a waiting list for CBT, I found myself at a session with an incredible specialist called Steve. Together, we began trying to unravel my thought patterns and determine what made my brain tick in the destructive way it did. I began to learn how to combat the voice that told me I was a failure, the one that convinced me I was useless and would never amount to anything. I began to question whether my brain was serving me a thought or a fact. When I told myself that I was worthless, I began to weigh up whether there was any evidence to back up that accusation. Could I, in fact, prove that I was worthless? Or was that just the bully in my brain talking smack? Unless I could provide evidentiary proof, that would stand up in a court of law, I was able to tell myself these weren’t hard facts and I started to pay less attention to them, when I could.
Much like medication, CBT doesn’t work for everyone, but I was so lucky that I was able to go and see a practitioner in the flesh so we could not just talk about strategies for keeping depression and anxiety at bay, but to discuss the things that were on my mind. The human interaction of my CBT was hugely beneficial to me. My therapist never made me feel like I was an inconvenience or a fraud or I was wasting his time – all things I had convinced myself he would. And as I moved through the process and learned more techniques and got used to the medication I was on, I slowly started to feel more human. I was finally figuring out who I was with depression and how I could deal with it so it didn’t impact my life too much. I had begun to recognise the signals, my triggers, the little notes I left myself to suggest that a dark wave was on its way. But then, to quote Joan Didion, life changes in an instant.
It was just as I was finishing my CBT that I found out I had breast cancer. In fact, I went along to my final CBT session two days after I’d been told. At the start of every session, I’d sit down with my therapist and he’d ask me that open-ended question “How are you?”. And his asking of this question was not the perfunctory greeting we so often offer up to those we meet. It was more loaded, a “how are you – really? How is your brain? How is your mood? Have you thought about killing yourself this week? Have you thought about hurting yourself this week? Have you felt at risk at all this week?”
And for the first time, I didn’t answer him with a breakdown of what had affected my mood or exacerbated my depression that week. We didn’t break down, day by day, things that may have triggered a feeling of lowness. I told him what had happened two days previously.
“Well, Steve, I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer”.
That was not what he was expecting to hear, but then again, neither was it what I was expecting I was going to need to say.
From there, it became a whole other ball game. I dread to think what kind of position I would have found myself in after hearing the words “you have” and “cancer” in the same sentence and relating to me. If I hadn’t had that CBT and if I hadn’t already been on those antidepressants, I genuinely believe that my depression at that moment would have been a bigger threat to my existence than the cancerous tumour growing within my breast.
What was going on in my brain quickly began playing second fiddle to the things I needed to do to prevent the cancer from getting any worse. I quickly slipped into cancer mode and everything I learned about maintaining my own mental health fell into a massive ditch at the side of the treatment road I was hurtling down at alarming speed. I no longer had time to think about the shitty things my brain was telling me, because it was full up with cancer-related thoughts. Was I going to die? Was the cancer going to spread? Should I have a mastectomy? Can they take both my breasts off? Am I a carrier of the BRCA gene? What will that mean for my family if I am? Am I going to die and leave Chris on his own? How will chemotherapy make me feel? What is going to happen?
Before I really knew what was happening, everything I’d learned in CBT evaporated. It was no longer a priority. My focus swiftly shifted to surviving. The self-care of checking my thoughts and their patterns felt superfluous when I had something actively trying to kill me growing in my body. For a while there I didn’t give my brain anywhere near enough of the attention it needed, when it probably needed it most. I went from combining talking therapies with medication to relying solely on my medication to keep my brain in check. About half way through treatment I found myself really struggling. Christmas 2015 saw me undergo my fourth chemotherapy session. I was exhausted in a way I can’t even begin to explain to you. My spirit was broken and I felt like I was losing myself. It was during this period that I hit below rock bottom. I hit sub-zero. I got so low, I could practically feel the heat of the earth’s core licking at my feet. I had, as I think most cancer patients do, been questioning whether the treatment I was undergoing was worth it. I wondered if it was worth losing my breast and losing my hair and feeling like hell and being poisoned. But for me, there was something else too. I’d gradually gained a grip on my depression as I worked through my CBT and cancer had made me forget what I had to do to stay alive. What I had to do to make sure my negative thoughts didn’t consume me, didn’t take over my life and begin to dominate my waking thoughts. It’s something that I hate thinking about now, but at the time I remember wondering, not only was it all worth it, but did I really want to live in a world after cancer? On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, “If only I had left that lump for longer. If only I hadn’t been in the habit of checking myself, then perhaps it would have spread, and perhaps I wouldn’t be forced to deal with the complex aftermath of surviving this disease”. I hate that I thought that. I hate that there are still times when I think about it.
Because I have wanted to die in the past, and now, post-cancer there is a reason why I might. Sometimes now, I don’t think about killing myself, I think about cancer coming back and doing the job for me.
Next part of the chapter coming later this week!