"Healing Physically, Yet Still Not Whole"

Prostate cancer survivor Dana Jennings opens his fantastic NY Times essay as follows:

Still haunted and chastened by the Puritan work ethic, our culture doesn’t much believe in convalescing, in full recovery. No matter what happens in our lives — a grave illness, a wrenching divorce, a death in the family — the unspoken understanding is that we should want to rush back into the game. Like an old-time quarterback who has had one concussion too many, we are expected to stagger back onto the field no matter what.

These words got to the heart of what I am feeling right now, which is a tremendous guilt at being physically okay but still not "whole." I still get fatigued rather easily. I still get overwhelmed by the littlest things. I still cannot fathom exactly how to go about eating three meals and 2-3 snacks every day, of deciding what to have, preparing it, and cleaning up afterwards. I still have days when I want to ask "Remind me again why I'm doing this?"

And then I snuggle with my kitty and I remember, for a while at least.

It's hard for outsiders to understand just how much fighting a life-threatening illness can take out of you. It often seems that the world is out there, tapping its foot, and impatiently demanding "Aren't you better yet?"

No. No, I'm not.

Maybe I need to think of this time of decreased demands as a kind-of Gift From The Universe. I'm lucky to be able to get by on the occasional freelance writing job thrown my way, to not have to worry about the intricacies of food prep and bill paying. In the end, Jennings says it best:

Recuperation is just physical. The claw of the surgical incision relaxes its grip on your gut. You graduate from catheter to man-diapers to man-pads to, finally, your very own comfy boxers. Energy seeps back into your body after the radiation and the hormone therapy cease.

But recovery means wholeness: mind, body and spirit. And I reached a point last summer and fall when I realized that even though I was back at work, once again juking and stutter-stepping my way through the streets of Manhattan, I hadn’t recovered at all.

I thought I had weathered the trauma of diagnosis and treatment, thought I was ready to focus on the future. But my body disagreed.

Physically, I was game, but I soon realized I was going through the motions as I became more and more tired. I felt like a spinning quarter about to nod to gravity and wobble to the tabletop. Mentally, I couldn’t focus: I became shawled in the monochromes of depression. And spiritually, I wasn’t angry — I did want to know what this cancer could teach me — but just right then I couldn’t make sense of my cancer-blasted interior landscape.

...After surgery and treatment, my 21st-century synapses and neurons wanted to believe that the cancer had been no more than a bump in the road toward a bright future — just a particularly nasty frost heave.

But the deepest analog part of me understood that having cancer was a life-changing event. As much as I thought I wanted to forge ahead, surge into the whirlwind of dailiness, I needed to slow way down.

The scar on my gut might have faded a bit — I had indeed recuperated — but I still needed to recover.

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Cathy (UK) said...

Wow, Carrie, this post meant such a lot to me...

It is 8 pm in the UK and I have had a difficult day.

In fact, I have had a difficult 3+ weeks (since Xmas). I had flu followed by pneumonia and didn't leave the house for 3 weeks.

And, in fact, I have had a difficult 32 years: 28 years of continuous anorexia nervosa (AN) followed by 4 years in recovery. My immune system is totally shot from my history of AN.

So today was difficult because I was 'beating myself up' - for not being as able as most other women of my age (44 yrs). If I were 'normal' I would perhaps be living a life comprising continuous multitasking. I'd have a couple of (teenage) kids. I'd have a fantastic social life. Instead, the best I can do (on a bad day) is to get up and potter about the house.

I get fatigued really easily. I get sick a lot. I have anxiety and depression. I didn't 'choose' any of these things. Perhaps I should be grateful that I am still alive, rather than be criticising myself for being a failure?

Anonymous said...

I, too, recognized much of my own experience in this article. I read it this morning, with tears in my eyes, as Dana described feelings that I wouldn't have known how to name. Physically, I'm growing stronger every day, but as I do, I also become more aware of other vulnerabilities-- ones I've kept hidden for so long. Accepting and honoring those messy feelings as part of my recovery is my current challenge.

Katie said...

Thank you so much for posting this Carrie. I have trouble remembering this as well. I keep getting so frustrated that I can't do what I think I should be able to do, when I look and feel physically healthy. I still get overwhelmed by the smallest things as well. If anything I am finding this a more difficult phase of recovery than weight restoration, because at least then I had a clear goal and an obvious reason for finding things difficult. It's good to know I'm not alone :) good luck with your own attempts at getting back out into the world.

Abby said...

"It's hard for outsiders to understand just how much fighting a life-threatening illness can take out of you. It often seems that the world is out there, tapping its foot, and impatiently demanding 'Aren't you better yet?'"

Phenominal post. I'm not "recovered" yet, but I often beat myself up thinking I shouldn't be tired if nothing is "technically" wrong with me (see your last ednos post...). I won't ramble, but just know this post was very pertinant and meaningful, if only to once again remind me I'm not nuts.

Lou Lou said...

This post really hit home for me. I have had a really hard few days, and I am finding the motivation for my recovery through the writings of you and others on my blogroll. I lost sight of what the hell I was doing. Thank you

Katie Goode said...

Just had a conversation with a client's mom and this is perfect timing for them... She reached her weight goal and expected everything to fall into place as soon as she did. It's important to give yourself permission to take the time you need to heal - however long that might be... Healing is just one of those things that can't be rushed no matter how much effort we put into it (or sometimes the amount of effort causes healing to take even longer).

Thanks for another great post, Carrie!

Green Tea said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carrie Arnold said...

Wow, weight loss ads on a blog post about how hard it is to recover from an eating disorder?

That's Klassy with a capital "K".

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About Me

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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