Tag Archives: depression

In our time (at our age): Facts & Figures

1. “During 2002-2006, women aged 20-24 had the lowest incidence rate, 1.4 cases per 100,000 women.”

2. “The 5-year relative survival rate is slightly lower among women diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40 (83%) compared to women diagnosed at ages 40 or older (90%). This may be due to tumors diagnosed at younger ages being more aggressive and less responsive to treatment.”

3. “Women with breast cancer also are at risk for developing a second primary cancer. There is a strong relationship between younger age at diagnosis of the primary breast cancer and risk of subsequent cancer. Women diagnosed with early-onset breast cancer (age <40) have almost a 3-fold increased risk of any subsequent cancer, with a 4.5-fold increased risk of subsequent breast cancer.”

Source: American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Facts and Figures, 2009-2010.

The oncologist has spoken to the gynecologist re: me.

Oncologist: the gynecologist thinks you’re depressed. Are you?

Is it any wonder?

She writes me a prescription for an antidepressant that causes headaches and tremors and hands me a radiology requisition for a chest x-ray as I’ve been complaining of chest/rib pain. I walk down to Radiology, then turn and walk out of the hospital. I tucked the x-ray requisition, along with the antidepressant prescription, into a copy of Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, where both have remained since.

I’m tired of tests and drugs.

My problem, I told her, is not a seratonin imbalance or a residual, inexplicable melancholy. My problem is cancer.

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11 August 2009: my worst self

Finally the sun attempts to break through this cloud cover. I’ve been feeling as if I’ve been trapped in some horrible globe with an unreal atmosphere. And all the time there is this tension between us, everything so diseased, so unwell. Nothing is lonelier than lying beside him in bed crying while he does nothing, says nothing. Silence. Nothing lonelier, of course, but for actually being alone–imagining that dreaded future certainty, the day he puts me on a plane.

Sun’s gone again. What does it matter? I am so regretful; how can I be so regretful at this age, so prematurely aged? I want to go back to Vassar from the start and live the last seven years of my life over again, without being so simperingly hateful to myself.

Maybe I make it all worse in my imagination than it actually is. This dreadful waiting, this sick desperation.

If I could be granted any wish right now I could not say what it is I want. There is no one thing that could possibly supply remedy to this restlessness and self-hatred. What I want, at the bottom of it all I suppose, is to exchange this self for another. To be motivated and inspired and optimistic, to feel something other than this nothing, this gnawing awful emptiness. And here again is the question I perpetually ask: how do you become someone other than your sad, sick self?

A thought exercise, perhaps; a “visualization.” (As when I pretended my utmost to imagine that communion wine would cure me–yes, how well that worked). That the removal of my breast will be in fact the removal of the worst of me, the insidious negative energy which is itself a cancer–or, as some would have, the cause of it. The tumor a manifestation, metaphorically if not literally, of my worst self.

How I wish it could be that simple. But to imagine oneself created anew after surgery’s as superficial, after all, as figuring a new haircut creates you a new personality. I’m afraid I’ll only change if I can persuade them to schedule me a lobotomy alongside my mastectomy.

Mastectomy. A horrible word; a word for shrivelled women who have no claim on life.

–meant facetiously, of course–because what claim have I?

All this writing coinciding with the sun’s tentative emergence. A pathetic fallacy, that I could write the sun out of the sky.

What is wrong with me? My slow mind, my utter numbness, my self-created tragedy. I feel the impetus to “make the most of” the time before the awful operation, but have no idea with what to fill it that would possibly appease or distract me. So time creeps by anyway, dully, lacking any meaning, and disappoints me with its emptiness, its ordinariness.

Is it a function of depression, which may possibly pass, to feel/fear you have no real thoughts or emotions–your mind a mire, your humanity barren? Or is this the way I actually am, what I have become?

I say I love him, because I am sure that somewhere, in the recesses of myself, I do. Still, it’s a wholly intellectual utterance, a statement of fact. When I am like this, in this self-enforced slough of despond, I love no one. All I feel is a dulled, subtle sense of alarm at my own lack of feeling. The numbness allows me to behave shamefully; I feel no shame in it.

How did I become a person so cripplingly lacking in confidence, so over-endowed with a system of self-defense as to mistrust and shut out almost all forms of human comfort and interaction? Can it all really be bred of the small tragedies of junior high school? As much as I try to reason and intellectualize it away, I cannot escape my own paranoia over the world’s wide-ranging conspiracy against me. The world is made a middle school lunchroom, populated by mockers. I must prove myself better than this, but all the evidence is imagined.

I almost see the upcoming week in the hospital as a kind of horrible experiment–granted all this time to be shut in with myself, to burrow around inside my mind and discover what’s to find there. The worst thing, of course, would be nothing–to stare at the sterile walls and ceiling and remain painfully aware of each hour’s passing.

Tomorrow afternoon I find out the results of the biopsy, and whether or not this nightmare will be prolonged.

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9 July 2009: Why is there not a discovery in life?

Another bout of this, a day wasted, hours and hours in bed, wet pillowcase. Pain in my armpit. The inability to do anything–and those horrible lines from Love Story, a movie I haven’t even seen, but which has somehow pervaded our culture like cancer itself: “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?”

What can you say? Nothing. Nobody’s wife or mother, mother of no ill-formed offspring of feeble brain. And yet you can say a hell of a lot more about the twenty-five year old girl who died than the twenty-five year old girl who lived, surely. Because death is infinitely more interesting, published in the pack of lies that accompany it. It makes me sick.

K. is embarrassed by how I snapped at him in the meeting with the surgeon. I snap beause no one listens–talk and talk and nothing happens; no one listens.

I feel imprisoned here (West Hendred’s a prison; then is the world one). It’s of my own making. It would be a wonderful place to write, were I not losing my mind. Holing up here by myself in bed. The hours, the emptiness, the dust and clutter. Wanting to be left alone, and yet terribly afraid of that condition at the same time.

I imagined of course that coming back from France everything would be “different.” That I would feel energized and inspired and finally feel the impetus to make something of all of the time. Instead, lying across the bed watching Woody Allen films and crying.

— 

Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say ‘This is it’? My depression is a harassed feeling. I’m looking: but that’s not it—that’s not it. What is it? And shall I die before I find it?

-Virginia Woolf, Diary, Saturday 27 February 1926 

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6 May 2009: some infinite thing

Told, at the hospital, as expected but still shocked into despair, that there’s been no response to the chemotherapy. All these months for nothing–the cancer in there, ‘no response,’ like an obstinant child. Ineffective drugs–the equivalent of having done nothing at all. It hurts all the time now, a dull strong ache, heavy and poisonous, this albatross organ of sex and life I’m forced to carry around, this growing embodiment of hate & pain & evil inside me. And I’m full of hate as it poisons me–looking vengefully at everyone on the street, wondering why they don’t have cancer. Willing it on them, even. Perfect strangers. At the beginning of the illness I felt instilled in me an awkward, cautious respect for strangers–thinking that if I could be living this awful painful dream of a life beneath my subway-face, what could their lives hold, their faces hide–what were their realities?

And now I feel my own death pressing on me from the inside and I want to drag down the scenery-people with me as I go.

Purposeless.

Back to the hospital tomorrow to start all again. A new drug now: Taxotere. Not stronger, she says, just different. Her responses are all patronizing and evasive–as if she doesn’t know the answers to the questions, or just doesn’t see the use in bothering to give them. The kind of voice that says Oh No It Was Just a Bad Dream, when you can see for yourself how the world is crumbling outside the window. Made to feel crazy and impudent for knowing you are awake. “We’re hopeful.” Hopeful is a word for a greeting card. For the impotent relatives who say they’re praying. For those praying and knowing underneath its utter ineffectiveness, but what else can you say but I’ll pray for you and mumble some slapdash please to Jesus. I want something more than crossed fingers from the people meant to be treating me.

So I look up the drug online once we’re back and read: 30-60% effectiveness.

Multiply that by the chance of not having responded to the FEC, by the chances of getting cancer in your twenties by–

these sick incalculable equations.

Purposeless.

Updike:  “Is it just these people I’m outside or is it all America?” Rabbit Angstrom’s runaway query resonates. And for me it transcends America; am I outside all the world? There is not one person in this world yet with whom I feel I have achieved “communication.” At odds with everyone out of jealousy, out of timidity, out of sheer incomprehensibility. Loving K & knowing he loves me and yet the sad fact of his inability to understand me always apparent. And should I settle for that as the apex of human interaction because it just might be possible that no one will ever understand–how adolescent, to say “no one understands me.” Boo, oh boo hoo hoo. But honest I am as baffled by “connection” as I was as an adolescent. Thinking if I could just get out of Erie, the world would open up to me. Well, the world opened but the the people were the same. And all the possibly-important people of my life are those I haven’t spoken to because of the fear of their brilliance. Those shadow-people who will perhaps become characters so I can create fictional dialogue-relationships with them based purely on conjecture and regret.

I am ashamed of myself for my fear of people and my hatred of them, at finding so frighteningly difficult what should come naturally as a member of the species, using language and having empathy, even a hello-how-are-you kind of language and empathy. I operate on, as David Foster Wallace said, “the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate moods and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”

In this commencement address, published ironically posthumously, he professes life’s “about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” And he was 45 and he was dead. Hung himself at home and sparked that brief literary twitter of ohnowhatashame and so young and possible, so F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon.

Reading this inappropriate manifesto days after his death, I was alarmed in that best-writing way: that someone has articulated something you’d previously believed to be inarticulable, unique to you. Yes, how he feels the same depression and despair that I do–and in supermarkets too–“at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line.”

It’s that tangible, well-worded depression I identify with too readily. The same adolescent affinity I always felt for Plath’s journals. But the differences between them–DFW & SP et. al.–and me are myriad; why should depression and arrogance and selfishness make us kindred? 1. They were spectacular, and I am not. 2. They sought death, and I do not.

What scares me most is not losing the time to produce, but realizing that no matter how miuch time I had, I never could. Like that joke–“I’m older than I ever intended to be.” Only it’s not just that–it’s that I am more dull and ordinary, more purposeless, less driven, less spectacular and brilliant than I ever intended to be.

That’s what kills me. Not the cancer. Or maybe the cancer is somehow made of it–a symbol, a metaphor, and a bad one. Like how as a child I always imagined my life as a novel, Jane-Eyre-ish, Dear Reader peeping in, interested. Only narrated always in the third person; even I couldn’t communicate with me, my split-self, writing/living and being read. And at some point I stopped because I realized there was no Dear Reader.

Worse is: what if there’s nothing to express in the first place?

DFW: “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Or: the constant gnawing sense of having (still) never found some infinite thing?

Every day I feel some touch of that recalcitrant, Hamletesque melancholy: “I do not set my life at a pin’s fee.”

I just wish someone did. That belief in me, that sincere estimation of my goodness & potential. Recognition of my value not as a lover or daughter, automatically and unquestioningly, but seeking someone who disinterestedly believes that I have even a “pin’s fee” in me to contribute to the world. Someone to advocate against my death sentence.

So yes, the desperate project of my life is to make it to “30, perhaps 50”–to do something with the time too.

I feel the tumor pressing painfully inside me. No longer something foreign and separable-seeming, but part of me. No matter what they do some ghost of it, some remembered part, will always be there, hurting me.

And it’s much too close to my heart. My God — my heart.

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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still looks like cancer: or, reality bites

A confession:

I really love this movie.

I used to so adore and identify with Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and her angsty smart girl Big Gulp post-college existence. But now it’s Vickie (Janeane Garofolo) with whom I identify, or this part of her character anyway:

“It’s like I’m on Melrose Place and I’m the AIDS character and I teach everyone it’s all right to talk to me or touch me and then I die and everyone goes to my funeral wearing halter-tops and chokers.”

Substitute something vaguely 21st century for the mid-90s cultural references and cancer for AIDS and this is so apt. It’s what I feel I’ve become to most everyone I know: the “cancer character.” People who had no interest or investment in me suddenly came out of the woodwork when they heard I had cancer–even my “best” friends, whom I’d emailed a week previously with good news about my Ph.D; I heard nothing from them until the C-word. Part of it is genuine concern, but, however cynical it seems, I believe there is the thrill of the exotic in it: being able to say ‘My Friend Who Has Cancer.’

Kind of like My Gay Friend, but harder to come by.

And I’m tired of playing the cancer character, even though the whole project of this blog is doing precisely that it’s ok to talk to me, it’s ok to touch me kind of thing. Trying to de-mystify and synthesize the experience of having this disease.

But it’s all a sham, or most of it is anyway. Because what I feel a lot of the time is sheer panic and terror and a loss of the will to live, and you can’t de-mystify or synthesize any of it in handy blog posts for people you don’t even know to peep in on.

So,  

A confession, pt. 2:

No matter how much I tell anyone I’m okay, I am not okay.

None of this is okay.

And I know I’ve been in denial about my level of okay because of the way things have been breaking to the psychological surface.  

Like the other day, after coming across this–Kylie Minogue: Still Looks Like Cancer–I just lost it, and hacked off all the hair I’d regrown in the past several months with a pair of blunt scissors, leaving a sinkful of coarse curls and the remainder a shorn, uneven crop peppered with bald patches.

And it wasn’t that some jackass who writes a stupid celebrity hairstyle blog had really gotten to me, but that I needed a catalyst to act out something irreparably psychologically fucked-up in myself (like cutting your wrists, but with ugliness instead of endorphins), something I have to spend every day repressing and ignoring and pushing away so that I can get out of bed, go to my stupid hateful mindless job, and exist.

Merely exist.

And then the other night I dreamt of the surgery–of the whole thing repeated, for the left side, with a smattering of cruel and unhelpful hospital staff, and awoke so traumatized–not from the dream, but from the reminder that these things had actually happened to me, and I haven’t processed or made peace with them.

I’m getting to feel like Elwood P. Dowd, and my health is like Harvey. I’ve wrestled with reality for twenty-five years, and I’m happy to say I’ve finally won out over it.

I haven’t won yet, but when I sense reality getting ready to rear its ugly head I have to slam it in some drawer or another. Sometimes literally; I found I can’t wear the pajamas I wore when I was in the hospital. Even seeing them, I start to panic. So they’re stuffed to the back of a bottom drawer. I can’t toss them out any more than I can toss out the cancer.

After all, I “still look like cancer.”

But I can’t deal with it.

Because doing so would probably involve turning my life, for whoknowshowlong, into a vortex wherein I would not be able to function–to get up, get dressed, take my Tamoxifen, spend all day moving Microsoft’s data from one place to another, and come home to no one.

So maybe–what’s the point of functioning at all, if that’s what you do?

I think: what would happen if I died now? And the answer is: some of Microsoft’s files would be delayed getting down to archives, and the temp agency would send someone else immediately.


This summer, someone asked me, How are you coping? How are you getting up, walking around?

I admitted it was with a generous dose of denial–but then I had England; then I had K.

Now the only answer I can supply besides denial is

I don’t know what else to do

or–I know what else I can do, and am scared to.

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Your next bold move

Last night I cried myself to sleep for the first time since I’ve been home, which is pretty good, I think, considering I’ve been home almost eight weeks.

What was partly a blessing but now seems the biggest curse about this cancer is that it occurred precisely at a moment when I was loosening my grip on everything in my life. I was getting ready to leave the country, to start all over again, ie. to do what I have always wanted to do.

Except now I am left without a single thing of my past life to cling to–no relationship, no job, no friends. I am thousands of miles away from the one I love and will remain so for good; I have become a person I do not know how to explain, and find myself desposited in a place I no longer recognize.

For awhile I was cultivating this grand fantasy of progression, of forward motion, of being in a place where I feel alive, of salvaging friendship, of working and feeling purposeful and better for once. Instead, an impossible stasis. And it is a shame because I believe I am smart and capable and could be useful to the world in some way, and instead am stuck here doing stupid things like crying myself to sleep.

In other circumstances, one could afford this–that a few months in painful transition would seem a paltry blip in comparison to the rest of one’s life. But I’m no longer in a position to compare things to “the rest of my life.”

I can’t express what I intend; I keep writing the words and deleting them because no matter how I put it, it is morbid. It is not a death wish, but everything I have to live for is hypothetical.  

I listen to this song a lot. For me, trying to navigate my way out of this cancer nightmare is exactly this: “your next bold move…the next thing you’re gonna need to prove / to yourself.”

Except that as hard as I try, it turns out I’m not moving anywhere.

ani difranco, “your next bold move”

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