Today, I sobbed so hard my teeth chattered. There are times in my life when grief has hit me powerfully hard, and this was one of them.
My legs actually gave away. I lost the strength to stand.
I thought that was the sort of thing that only happened in movies. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.
My husband was tired. I was tired. We had had a very long weekend, with a baby who still doesn’t sleep through the night. We weren’t at our best. And we had just spent 40 minutes trying to figure out whether we had enough energy to boil pasta or whether we should just give up and order in.
Food and eating has been a struggle through my cancer treatment, for a variety of different reasons. It has been a constant juggle between the priorities of healthiness, frugality, and energy conservation. (You generally have to choose two of the three, and it’s hard to know day to day which ones are the most important).
The dinner planning discussion was one of those nowhere debates that happen sometimes in marriages, where you find yourselves staring at each other dead-eyed and numb; trying to connect, but missing each other. (For some reason, it’s always over the stupid things, though this is the safest place for the bigger worries to come leaping out.)
Finally, my husband threw his hands up and walked into the kitchen to get a snack. (We were both also starving by this point).
And as he left the room, I thought: this is it. We’ve finally reached the place where he doesn’t love me anymore.
This may not have been entirely rational. But all I could see was his back as he walked away.
My biggest fear going into cancer treatment was not being there for Rosie. My second biggest was that we would cross the threshold where finally I became so unrecognisable or so difficult that Zach couldn’t love me as as a wife and partner anymore.
Despite all of his assurances to the contrary, I have had nightmares that there would be a point where this becomes true.
This, even though I cannot ever imagine a scenario where I would want to walk away from him if the shoe was on the other foot. Even though he surrounds me with love and makes me feel beautiful every time I look in his eyes and see his love reflected back. Even though it’s actually doesn’t do him credit for being the kind of husband he is by carrying these seeds of worry and doubt. Even though I worry that bu feeding those seeds with fantasies I cannot seem to turn off, that I will somehow make them true.
Many of us have fears that we are ‘too much’. Or we carry in our deepest roots a sense that love has to be earned – by good behaviour, achievement, or contribution to a relationship or a household (which might be financial provision, physical labour, or emotional support and connection).
Sometimes we provide those things out of love. And sometimes we do it out of fear that the people who care about us won’t love us if we stop ticking the boxes we have built our identity around.
Most days, I try to convince myself that existing is enough. And most days it works.
But other days, I ask myself – am I contributing enough?
These are thoughts I struggled with before cancer. But it has become so much harder.
I’m a playwright who hasn’t been able to work during my treatment. I’ve given up or outsourced almost all household duties during this time. While I am still a strong and loving presence, my husband has become the primary parent for our daughter Rose, with the help of our amazing nanny and some wonderful babysitters.
On top of this, I have lost my hair, my breasts, my appetite, my vision for my future, and other things I can’t begin to count.
Some of these things I will get back. (Probably.) Others are gone forever.
Over and over again, I ask myself, what do I have to offer? What makes me lovable? What gives me value and makes me worthy of love?
Some days I answer confidently and full of joy.
On tougher days, I struggle to find the answers.
That’s when I start to wonder – ‘am I worth it?’
Am I worth the time, money, effort, medical treatment, and support that is being poured into me? So often, it feels like nothing in return except for simply staying alive.
I never have these thoughts about other people. If a friend in my circumstances told me these things, I would say without a second thought ‘OF COURSE you are worth it’, and be able to give an enormous list of reasons why.
If my husband was in my position, I would be doing for him what he is doing for me (although possibly not as well). I would be encouraging him to heal, caring for him as much as I can, and believing wholeheartedly that a positive future awaits us.
I can see it for other people – both strangers and those closest to me – but I can’t find the life preserver for myself.
The main thing that gives me ballast during these dark moments is thinking about my daughter.
She just turned one. She’s a pretty bright, spunky little kid and she delights in doing things for herself. But she she needs help with almost everything. The same issues of dependency that I struggle with on a day to day basis are her everyday life.
What is she contributing? According to her paycheck, nothing. According to me, EVERYTHING. Even if she did nothing in this lifetime other than stay alive as long as possible, that would be enough. I hope she will enjoy her life. I hope she will find ways to do good. But it doesn’t matter.
Existing is enough.
It is easy to lose sight of this truth when we start to think of ourselves as machines, or quantify our contributions in hours spent or dollars earned.
People often tell me I am brave – and while it feels lovely, I can feel like a bit of an imposter accepting this praise. I am brave because so many people have picked me up, dusted me off, and kept me going during the hardest moments.
We all know some of the ways that cancer is physically hard. But dealing with the emotional component is a challenge of its own.
Being so completely and utterly dependent is humbling. And hard. And sad. And terrifying.
It is a rollercoaster of emotions, and they can change so quickly.
The joy I have had in my life during this time is genuine – and those are the moments I am always most keen to share. But these darker moments are equally part of the picture.
I think it’s important to be honest about this. Even though it feels a bit like walking outside in only underwear.
Being the person with a cancer diagnosis can feel a bit like being a Team Captain, if you’re lucky enough to have people supporting you. there is a huge desire to share positivity and hope with other people. In some ways, showing the underbelly feels like a betrayal of that ethos.
The longer my treatment drags on (hot on the heals of a difficult pregnancy and birth), the greater the fear becomes:
Have I asked too much? Are the people that I love finally fed up with this (and me)? Are they going to walk away?
Have I finally reached the limit where I am no longer worth the effort being put into me?
Have I finally reached the point where it is so overwhelming that it hasn’t left any room for love?
Then, the more I try to do to prove myself worthy of love, the more irrational I become. I spin my wheels, often trying to stretch myself in stupid and unhealthy ways. No matter how outlandish the plan or irrational the feelings, it comes from the same place – wanting to prove that I am worth all that has been invested in me.
I would suspect I am not the only person with caner / chronic illness / disability to have these feelings.
And yet, I think the clunking of these internal gears is often invisible to the people around us. They love us so much they would never imagine the questions of self-worth we are entertaining.
Back to the dinner discussion…
I took a moment to just let the tears pour – all the fear, sadness and feelings of unworthiness that were building up inside.
I went and found my husband in the kitchen. He put down the hummus. He was shocked to see me so upset. I told him what I was feeling. I told him how I was scared, and why.
It is terrifying to be so boldly honest and vulnerable, even with a partner who almost unfailingly responds with wisdom and kindness. But I shared those dark places, the fears this latest round of struggle and side effects had caused to surface. And he listened.
He gave me a big hug. He held me up as my legs gave way – both physically and metaphorically.
He still loved me.
There might be a day my marriage would end – life has no guarantees – but it was not this night. And as he told me, he was not going to let me go easy.
It wasn’t his words that told me this. (Although, as he has said time before, he comforted me with widsom and kindness.) I could feel it in that warm, steady grip. I could see it in his eyes.
Life tests us and our relationships to the fullest.
Somehow, our marriage keeps taking these knocks and bouncing back stronger. Our bond is being forged in the fire. This isn’t the first hard moment, it won’t be the last, but we still keep reaching for each other. That is a powerful thing.
I wish I could say the fear has gone. It hasn’t. Not if I’m really being honest.
It’s been put to bed for now, but it still lurks in the shadows. I still worry the moment will come when there won’t be any love left because it will have been squeezed out by other things.
I’m worried that the friends who have rallied around me will get tired and drop away. I’ve heard so many stories of people losing friends during cancer treatment. My experience has been the opposite, but I keep worrying this lonely fate awaits me.
It’s tough to manage this fear with all my relationships, but hardest in a marriage.
Still, I am lucky to feel love. And I am lucky to feel hope – that even if I never get to be truly healthy again, or to contribute as much to this world as I would like, that I will still be loved.
Our current reality is surrounded by moving boxes, and buried in to-do lists. But we tried to take a few moments to do something together that is actually fun, and had a lovely time watching a very strange anime series on Netflix.
We cuddled. And we laughed. The best kindling for love. Also the best medicine of all.
PS We ordered sushi.
Photo by Julia Forsman