Episode 19: Little Up, Little Down

It’s been a while. Mostly because for the longest time I figured that if I didn’t write about cancer… why bother writing? Now I realize that the phase I’ve been in, the treatments I’ve been experiencing, even the fears I walked through during diagnosis… all those experiences and moments will come out in time. The time that they need to, not when I think they need to. So, for the time being, I’m going to write about the parts that what I want to (which may or may not include cancer). This part does.

One of the most difficult parts about being sick for me has been wanting to know where my life is going. For most of the fall, I couldn’t focus on ‘getting well’ because I was too busy stressing myself out over stuff I couldn’t control. It may not be cancer related in your case, but I know most of us can relate.

I wanted clear, precise directions and answers. What would my body look and feel like at the end of these 6 months? What jobs could or should I consider as I transitioned out of treatment back into ‘real life’? Where would I live? How much should I baby myself? And how much should I jump and dance and plan all the trips and do crazy things because I survived cancer? Was I supposed to have had this spiritual awakening that would change everything from here on out? What should I do with my life, now? (You know, the little questions).

I literally got myself significantly more sick one week after chemo, purely from stress. Because guess what – if you wait to make all those decisions until you know what’s coming… you’ll be waiting forever. Likely in a state of perpetual anxiety, too. So I sat around, unable to do much, stressing myself out about things outside my control. Sounds like fun, hey? It also sounds like how a lot of us live our lives on a daily basis.

“What do you want to do?”

That was the question that stopped me in my tracks. Amidst the never-ending barrage of overwhelming stress, illness, mindless comparison, and overthinking… that one simple question did it in the end. (I never promised this blog was full of hard-hitting stuff, guys).  

“What do you want to do?”

What makes my heart come alive? What causes so much thrilling excitement at the chance of success that the fear of failure shrivels away?

For me, the answer was freelance ghostwriting. But the fears connected to that also wanted to speak their mind. I had to sit down and wonder aloud why I would dare hold myself back from pursuing the very dream I claimed to desire most of all. There were many reasons. Money was a big one, fear of the unknown (a popular one from my past) also wanted to pop in and say hey… but I think the biggest fear I had to finally acknowledge was sliding backwards.

I realized that most of my pictures of success, failure, and dreaming still come from Hollywood. This beautiful, picturesque bubble where the moments of failure and shortcoming are predominately reduced into a pain-free 40-second montage. Where there is always, for the most part, a happy ending. Where the heroine doesn’t end up lying flat on her face after giving it her best damn shot. I didn’t want to risk because life hasn’t given me the same guarantee of success I saw in the movies. Cynical, sad, misguided-Hollywood-dreamer Amy would say: “I mean, look at last year! I tried my hardest, pursued my dreams…and I ended up with cancer. What’s the point?”

But what if life isn’t intended to simply keep going up and up and up? What if we’ve all been roped into a wrong idea of success? As I started writing this, I flashed back to one of the most annoying and memorable travel moments I’ve ever experienced.  I was trekking the Himalayas, days-deep in seemingly never-ending stone staircases with a small group of friends. The longer the hiking day wore on, the more desperate some of our party was to know when the end was coming. Anxiously, someone would shout out to David, our local guide: “Is it all uphill?” or “How much farther?”

Without fail, David, a little 5’6 man with a cartoonish backpack larger than his body, would shrug it father up his shoulders, spin around, and with all the joy in the world announce: “Not much father! Little up, little down!”

This continued for at least six hours.

It was all uphill.

At the end of the day as we trudged into our tea-house for the evening and massaged our sore feet, most of the group was more than a little frustrated with David. Why would he have promised, ‘little up, little down,’ when it was all up? Why couldn’t he have just warned us that today was going to be the most brutally challenging of all our days on the Anna Purna Circuit? Honestly, who knows. (Most likely due to a combination of his level of English proficiency and an extremely misguided sense of humor). But I also think it’s because he knew we would work harder if we had the promise of success.

What if you asked someone the same questions about your career? Or relationships? Or health? “How much farther?” “Is it all going to be uphill?” “Is it worth it?”

How much effort would you put forth if you knew there would be downhills and uphills coming? Would you work harder, sacrifice more, and smile through the hard times if you knew they were all going to end up at some beautiful mountain vista? It’s hard to brag during the downhills. It’s hard to post a pretty Instagram when you’re fighting the urge to sit down and quit. And it’s really, really hard to reconcile that Hollywood has sold us a lie. What if there is no mountain vista at the end of all this?

I think that’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with when it comes to cancer. I’m a people pleaser at heart, and I want so desperately to be able to tell people I’m doing great! There’s no nausea, there’s no pain, and my mental health is A+. For the most part that has been true; in fact I’ve had some borderline miraculous chemo treatments where I literally slip back into regular life the day after. Go for a jog, attend a party, hike a mountain… I’ve done it all. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely grateful for those days). But if I brag on that, I also have to say there are weeks I sleep till noon every day after chemo. My hands and arms ache so bad I can’t fall asleep at night. My stomach never quite settles, no matter how much ginger tea I drink. My hair continues to thin. And the nasty taste of metal lingers in my throat days after the drugs have left my system.

Why is it so hard to say that? Because in my mind, my ‘battle’ with cancer isn’t nearly as victorious if I include the downhills. If I have to admit that in my Hollywood movie, the montage isn’t all glamour shots of me getting progressively stronger and healthier. I’ve had to recognize that very nature of chemotherapy treatment is ups and downs. You start feeling good, gather strength, tip-toe your way back into normal life and then BAM, you get treatment again. It’s like getting hit with the world’s worst flu, every two weeks on the dot. You’re zapped of energy, your immune system tanks, and suddenly you feel like you’ve fallen backwards.

My point is this, despite the way it looks to the casual observer; all of my ups and my downs are equally a part of my healing.

It has taken chemo to teach me that growth, wholeness, and healing aren’t measured linearly; success isn’t a one-way growth chart.

The downhills are just as crucial as the ups. What if the things we glean in the seasons of slowness are the real gems? The times when I had to sit still this summer, let chemo do its thing, and be ok with stillness. Those times have sucked, to be perfectly honest. But those moments were also when I came face to face with my own shit. My desire for success, for approval, and my need for constant uphills. The realization that I wouldn’t actually risk something unless I had a guarantee of a positive outcome. And yes, you’re correct, that takes the entire idea of risk out of risk.

I want to throw away my messed up concept of success. I would really love to celebrate, both in my life and in the lives of those around me, the moments that aren’t so glamorous.

In a physical way, I’ve been thinking about how we observe the healing of someone’s scar as a measure of their improved health. From a young age I remember growing up liking scars. Every time I gained a new one, it seemed like every adult in my life wanted to offer me some sort of magical scar-removal cream. I would smile, nod, and intentionally not use it. I remember thinking my scars were so cool! They were memories; why would someone want to remove them? I still feel the same way. This summer I gained a pretty cool scar on my neck. And while to some it may be big, ugly, or odd.. to me it reminds me of everything I’ve been healed from. I often look at it and think about how my new, scarred skin is actually stronger than it was before.

Now, I’m not advocating that scars shouldn’t heal. But I think scars, much like success, shouldn’t look perfect. They should shock people, they should look out of place, and they should act as a very physical reminder of the downhills in life.

Why try to hide them? Why try to forget them?

If success is not a linear chart to the mythical, magical, ‘top’… but rather a serious of ups, downs, re-routing, and lessons along the way… then scars should serve as memories of that journey. Instead of hoping they fade away, let’s reveal them proudly. Let’s allow ‘success stories’ to actually be stories; with all the necessary ups, downs, twists and turns. In doing so, we’ll actually invite other people into our messy journey as we go.

There is no clear or easy path; it’s all a little up, little down.

“There are not good or bad days. There are days of grace; grace to enjoy and grace to endure.” -Graham Cooke