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It is back there somewhere in the morass of it all; the decision I made to just walk away and abandon life as I knew it for a year. There was no deferred salary arrangement with my employer, no years of careful planning and no great ambition for world travel. There was just me, thick with the layers of all those years.
That disease that could have killed me back in 2010 had not; but oooh, breast cancer can whoop one but good. And while they save you with their chemotherapy, their surgery and their radiation, it is far from the end. For years after, they continue to slice and dice, taking every last womanly piece – all of it gone in the name of prevention – and you watch the body and face in the mirror morph into that of a stranger. Thirty extra pounds and ribbons of scars; a highway toward a lost self.
Silent battles begin, fights with things not spoken: early menopause, infertility, depression.
A small rectangular box now looms on your counter: medication to be taken for five years “after treatment” to help save your life long term, they tell you. It is exhaustion packaged in a small white pill. Your muscles stiffen into painful throbbing things. And here you had assumed the worst of “treatment” was over.
One day, you notice that your house isn’t clean; that you, once so immaculate and caring, really don’t care much any more. And that walking the dog is too much effort. That dinner is a bag of chips or red licorice. You lie on the couch. You stop showing up.
There are amazing people put on this planet. You call some of these people friends. But, because of geography and circumstances, you end up going through some very difficult times alone.
Eventually, you are given back some of what was taken. They reconstruct part of you, and you are grateful – delighted, in fact – rejoicing in that feeling of fullness. But beneath it, that persistent strange sense of “lack,” of something still missing, remains.
One night, you list out the whole damn thing in a journal and realize there is probably a good reason you are exhausted; you have been clawed at for so long that you don’t know how to put the pieces of your shredded self together. You don’t even have the energy to pick up the first piece. And you have forgotten the feeling of spontaneous joy or excitement, what it is like to go through a day without it all feeling forced.
And you’re guilty for feeling anything like this when you are “lucky to be alive,” right? Sometimes you think of the pregnant woman who was getting chemo in the chair next to you, how the two of you laughed: black humour to fight the disease that wanted to take you. And then you hear three years later that she didn’t make it. The child has no mother. Who are you to complain, really?
You know, now, that we are all one heartbeat or wayward cell away from the whole thing going to hell in a hand basket. You are at your desk, in your car, at the grocery store, and you forget to breathe.
The therapist crosses her legs and listens.
And then, one day it comes, the troubling realization that you may, in fact, still be harbouring a killer – one that has nothing to do with flesh and bone but that has, ever so slowly, crept into your soul. That somehow, through the course of it all, you have become so worn down and so depleted that you risk losing yourself forever. That you’ve drifted away from your ambition, your potential, your drive, your dreams and the things you know you need to make you happy. That saving yourself takes more than the poison they put through your veins.
It isn’t over. Not yet.
So, you head to your core. You haven’t lost that yet. You call it different names: God, the knower, the gut. It is the place where the still, small voice lives. You lend it your ear, you dig deep. Remember how you sat on the chair the day they diagnosed you? The doctor scribbling on the paper covering the examining table – drawing it all out, giving shape to the hungry monster inside you. Remember what you thought? Will I die? Will my hair fall out? And then, I can’t die. There are stories in me I need to tell, that one in New York …
That’s when you know it is time to pack it all up, rent a storage unit and walk away.
You have savings for what people save for, a place of brick and mortar, wood and stone, but it won’t be a home anyway if there isn’t a healthy, happy person to put inside it.
And so, on the second floor in one of the largest cities in the world, it smells like coffee and lemon furniture polish. You had promised a blog somewhere back there before you left; to write about the subway, the brownstones, the people, all those evenings running in Prospect Park, pounding out the past, moving toward the future. Instead, you collapse, you deflate and you sleep. For a time there is no one. No audience. No voices. You surround yourself with the beautiful and the eccentric: the alive.
And eventually you begin to work on that thing, the thing that came from the deep place: the response to some long-ignored primal creative urge. The portal to help you find your way again.
Sonja Koenig lives in Yellowknife. She just completed a year’s sabbatical in New York.