When I set out to write this blog one of the most important things I wanted to do was write about the aspect of cancer that no-one wants to talk about. No, not bowel movements - mental health. It still feels like depression and anxiety are dirty words that shouldn't be discussed in polite company and I find this unrealistic and damaging. And I don't think that I should get a hall pass to write about mental illness because I have cancer, it should be just as respected as a physical illness for everybody because its effect is just as real.
I preface this with the fact that for the first 26 years of my life I had an insanely healthy mind. I was a goal obsessed optimist, always looking ahead and I hadn't experienced any real adversity. When people talked about anxiety and depression i thought it was feeling stressed or sad - I had no reference point to the mind altering, locked in state of these illnesses. It was like discovering the world in fact has 4 dimensions and not 3 and I was blind to one of them my whole life.Except one of the dimensions is a nightmare realm. For the first 6 months of my diagnosis I seemed unaffected by what had happened and maintained this healthy mind. Then things started to go pear shaped. As my health declined during a hard time I started dreading leaving my room. The action of getting up and dressing felt herculean and sometimes midway through dressing I'd just stop, sit and stare into oblivion. Something wasn't right. I felt a deep loneliness as the breakup finally caught up with me and I was single for the first time in around ten years. I also felt isolated from my family due to misunderstandings around my expectation of them. Instead of solving the problem with communication I withdrew further into myself and started to mistrust the intentions of family and close friends. I felt like all the joy I normally felt in life had been hidden behind a screen and I just couldn't access it anymore. I started to take more pain killers than i needed, trying to solve mental pain with physical solutions. This came to a head one morning when in a reckless pit of despair I took double of a long release old painkiller I found in my medical supplies on top of my already mounting pain killers. As I left my house to go to work reality distorted and things looked too bright and I started yawning uncontrollably. I had overdosed and I needed to get to hospital so I didn't fall asleep and stop breathing. This recognition that I had played with fire to feel something was a turning point. I'd been slowly becoming more and more reckless with the drug Fentanyl, which is a pain killer not to be toyed with. I needed to take my mental health seriously, respect my medication and respect my life and safety. I had gotten to a point where 'nodding off and not waking up' which is the risk with fentanyl didn't scare me, and that was a problem. I started seeing a psychiatrist who put me on medication that had me functioning and lifted out of the bleak hole I was in, I communicated better with my family and stopped being paranoid and suspicious and I started trying different psychologists. I only recently found one that works for me who practices Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The style of someone just sitting and listening to your problems that my previous psychologist favoured didn't feel helpful. My new psychologist pushes me to be an active participant in my treatment, as a big problem was feeling like I had no control over my life and treatment. Sometimes I compare my situation to being given the supplies to build your dream house, which is a metaphor for your dream life in your twenties at the peak of your life, then having someone come and knock it down midway through building it, then leaving you with drastically less resources and telling you to build it again, then repeat ten times until you're building with popsicle sticks and tape. That is life with cancer and it has been hard to stay positive while living in fear that my modified life will get washed away again by my health problems.
The condition I haven't got properly under control yet is anxiety. My psychologist said that to try to manage it away is pointless and I need to accept that it has come with the cancer and learn to work with it instead of against it. I'm still figuring it out and an episode of anxiety can leave me scared to leave my room, with a burning up my arms and feelings of limb weakness. It drives me back to my parents' home and robs me of all my hard won confidence. It's like I doubt one decision I made, then from there I begin to doubt my ability to even move or walk or do a simple task. It feels completely insane and is completely debilitating. Once I didn't trust my ability to get the bus, do my job and even understand what people meant when they spoke to me. Its's like all the connections you make when people speak went missing and I couldn't understand what was happening around me. I spent a week at my parent's house trying to pull through and it was the most terrifying experience of my life. I was genuinely afraid I would be put into an institution if I didn't pull myself out of it and half had myself convinced that I couldn't look after myself anymore and that was where I belonged. It was like being trapped in a dark horrible world where my mind and heart raced and I couldn't get a moment's peace from my mental anguish. I lost faith in myself slowly piece by piece until I was a useless blob. I've never had a bout that bad again, but I have had some nasty recurrences triggered by fear over travelling overseas. I plan to continue working with my team of specialists to get a bit more control over the anxiety so that I can live without fear of it striking me down whenever life throws something at me.
I think that pretending that I never experienced any of this wouldn't be right. Yes, I stay positive and yes I generally manage to stay upbeat and power through the days of this condition but I'm not ashamed to admit that when I've stumbled I've stumbled hard and with very real problems. I feel so grateful to have access to a mental health plan and constant psychiatric appointments so that I never feel alone again like that dark morning I yawned my way into the hospital emergency room.
If any of this has resonated with you, go to a GP and get a mental health plan. It's free for ten sessions which can then be extended. I've also called Beyond Blue in moments where I've been afraid to leave the house and they are a great service to help with micro steps in a crisis.