Episode 21: The Boiling Pot

Hey fellow quarantined friends! I haven’t felt the desire to share for a while, but lately as this quarantine has continued to drag on, some interesting things have risen up in my heart. It’s the same with all of us. We’re essentially living in a pot of boiling water, and quarantine put the lid on real tight. It’s only a matter of time before things start to boil up and spill over. Usually it’s the things that were already existing in our hearts to begin with, but it took a pandemic to bring them up to the surface.

I’m imagining that you, like me, have had moments of anxiety, stress, sadness etc., but beyond that there are likely things that have crossed your mind these last two months that you hadn’t given much thought to pre-pandemic. That is precisely where I found myself, dwelling on a short season of my life that I hadn’t really thought about. It’s the part I haven’t shared too much with all of you: the part of my life after cancer – the present.  I started laughing the other day because I realized that everyone wants you to survive cancer, but nobody prepares you for survival. Ironic, no? All of the focus goes into ‘getting you through’, and supporting you in the midst of it.

Nobody told me that my last chemo session would end and I would feel like an underprepared kid again; getting pushed out into the real world with a whack load more anxiety than ever before and an edge of panic whenever I felt slightly overtired. Honestly, in some ways it reminded me of leaving high school – there is no real preparation for the astounding leap into University. Suddenly, my new normal was gone. All of the people who understood what I was going through and had been constants in my life: my Doctors, my nurses, and even some the friends who sat with me for three-hour treatment sessions – I rarely saw them now. (*Not a slam on my amazing friends – it’s just we got busy, I left the country, then Covid-19 happened). But life was busy again, and I was ‘fine now,’ so why should it bother me? Of course I didn’t want to hang out with my Doctor; I was overjoyed to never have to see the Tom Baker Cancer center again. I never anticipated feeling off kilter.

I never imagined that I would have developed a comfort zone within the most uncomfortable place I have ever spent time.

I guess I wanted to write this because maybe there are other survivors like me, who felt wholly unprepared to be cured. Or maybe it’s because we are all living in our own personal season of chemotherapy right now. A pandemic has brought with it all the lovely social side effects of cancer: an unasked-for few months of forced slowness, a ‘new normal’, and a deviation from all the old ways we viewed successful days or weeks.

I guess I’m writing because it’s imperative that we don’t stop dreaming. It’s crucial that we don’t throw our whole selves into simply surviving what is now – but also allow ourselves the freedom to think of what’s to come. I need to talk about that for a minute. It’s one thing to dream; it’s a whole other concept to dream when your circumstances don’t cooperate with you. Dreaming doesn’t always feel ‘fun’ in painful seasons. Those times where it doesn’t seem like the dream will ever come true – those are the times that dreaming actually becomes a practice; it becomes a discipline. If I didn’t intentionally dream of better things coming at the end of my treatments, I don’t believe my mental health would have stayed as resolute as it did. Dreaming kept me hopeful; it kept me fighting. There is a beautiful balance between living in the now and looking optimistically towards the future; and this pandemic requires that we find that fine line and walk it, daily.

Okay, I digress. The last (and main thing) I wanted to say is that once this does end, (and it will) we must allow ourselves grace for the future. My greatest fear is that lockdown will end, and society will swiftly and efficiently launch itself back onto the very same treadmill we were on before all of this happened, learning nothing in the process. It’s my fear because it’s exactly what I did to myself after I was declared cancer free. I walked out of my final chemotherapy appointment and I couldn’t wait to get ‘back to normal.’ (Which is totally understandable, by the way).  I was sick of giving myself grace, sick of letting myself ‘do life’ slowly, and sick of all the things we generally associate with sickness. I threw myself into two jobs, made plans to travel again, and I adamantly avoided anything that caused me to pause, check in with myself, and take a deep breath.  

I haven’t talked much about my last few months, mostly because they weren’t the greatest of months. I felt weird because I was given so much grace in chemotherapy that I honestly felt like I was thriving. I wasn’t lying when I posted positive photos or encouraging updates, that was truly my reality. But then the cancer left, the chemo ended, and I felt unsteady. I felt embarrassed, at that point, to be struggling. What do I have to complain about, now?

I forced myself back into all my old routines, not stopping to question whether or not they were the right routines for me anymore.

I’ve come to realize how silly this is – the way we structure our lives after trauma or redirection. It’s like we’re driving a car and we know where we want to go now…. But instead of building a road that takes us in the correct direction, we follow some arbitrary instructions for how to pave a road. We end up building this stupid 4 lane freeway that needs like 8 overpasses and 3 merge lanes, simply because we were told at some point that would be ‘the most effective’ type of road to build. Maybe all we needed was a simple dirt road going one direction, but we ignore our own intuition in lieu of the road we feel pressured to build. The road we are encouraged will be the best one for us (as if anyone else could truly know the roadmap that only we can see, in our head).

My point is that we are really good at taking advice and direction from others, and the temptation only gets stronger when you are recovering after a time where you feel like you lost your footing.

I resorted back to what I knew would keep me afloat: stay busy, have a steady job,  fill your social calendar… etc. etc. But I didn’t feel like me anymore. I felt overwhelmed at the amount of work I had taken on – the amount I used to be able to complete. I felt exhausted by multiple social plans in a week – the same amount that used to make me thrive. And I felt unable to connect with myself or with God in the same ways as before.

This is why I’m grateful for Covid-19. I recognize many of you may not enjoy that wording – and trust me there are days I roll my eyes at it as well. I recognize there are heavy, hard things that have happened as a result of this pandemic, and my heart breaks for those who are in the midst of grief. But, for the overwhelming majority of us, there are also things being brought to the surface of our boiling pots. I am grateful for lockdown because it stopped me in my tracks. It prevented me from continuing on in a way of living that wasn’t effective. It wasn’t joy-filled. It wasn’t the life I really want.

This time can do the same for all of us. It could be small, subtle shifts, or it could result in a complete overhaul of your ‘old normal.’  Either way, this is a time to re-imagine how we structure our lives. It’s a time to question everything and re-define priorities, especially the ones we have just been told to we need to prioritize.

I saw a quote the other day, and it went something like: “Pay attention to the things that make you feel the most like you.”

This is a time to wake up, step off the treadmill, and decide if we really want to get back on.