Monday, December 31, 2012

The other Black Dog

Velcro-dog. Photo by my brother Jeff. 
Velcro-dog is the kind of black dog I can embrace whole-heartedly. His constant closeness is a comfort and a joy. His neuroses are comic. His nagging tends to benefit me as much as him; come outside, he whines, come and play. You've been sitting at that screen for far too long.

He's almost a balance for that other surly beast who's shadowed me since my teens, the one who lies in wait for me round corners whispering his miserable darkness in my ears. Almost, but not quite. I've been waiting for that other dog to find me. It was inevitable that he would, given his regular curtain calls throughout my life. And there's only so long you can hold out, be positive, be up when something as terrifying as the Freeloader gets its hooks into you. I've lasted pretty well, really; I've surprised myself as well as others with my ability to laugh at nearly everything that bastard's thrown at me. But this week I finally got cornered by his rabid henchman, depression.

All the handbooks tell me that it's a common side effect of chemotherapy. It's not just the poisons messing with your brain chemistry, either. Feeling like total crap, physically speaking, for months at a time is a splendid slippery dip into the pit of darkness. Looking forward to a lifetime of uncertainty once you crawl out of that pit is hardly likely to help lift one's spirits, either. And while you're stuck at the bottom, the complete inability to plan anything with any confidence makes looking upwards well nigh impossible. It's easy to get fatally tangled in the dark shroud of here, now, how in hell will I get through the next five minutes of this, let alone the next hour? when you don't know when- or if- your next good day will arrive.

It was losing my hair that did it, of course. I knew it was going to be a problem. I fell, bounced back for a day, wrote my blog post about it, and promptly fell right back into the depths once more.

Without warning, I was back on the ghost train. Every time I caught sight of myself in a mirror I was shocked all over again. Even my Gollum-like shadow frightened me, all skull and ears on the floor in front of me. You can turn all the mirrors to the wall, but you can't turn off the sun.

The Freeloader was having a field day. Now you look sick, see? Now you look like a victim.

Ugly, ugly, ugly, whispered the judges inside my head.

Maybe it's harder for me than for some. From early childhood my whole self-esteem was built on the way I looked. People were always telling me I was pretty, taking my photo, admiring my thick, shiny hair. I was a June Dally-Watkins model by the age of five. That early career, which lasted till I hit my teens, just built on the unconscious, unintentional and totally warped foundation of appearance-based values laid down in me from birth.

You have to look pretty. You have to look like that all the time when you're in public. Look how happy everyone is with you, how they admire you when you look good! When you're pretty, life is easy.You don't even have to say anything. You can just smile and BE.

A dangerous message to give a shy, intellectual child who had trouble interacting with her own family half the time, let alone strangers. All my life, my public persona has been built on the way I look. If I look good, it's easier to talk to people. If I'm having a bad hair day, my whole demeanour suffers. Even with the people I'm close to, I feel self-conscious if I'm not looking my best. All my life, my appearance has been the key to my confidence.

Well, that mat just got whipped out from under me, didn't it? Every day was going to be a bad hair day for the next six months or so. And feeling confident about walking out the door- well, I really didn't know where to start, because every time I looked in the mirror I went ugh.


I spent days 17 and 18 pretty much in meltdown. I cried a lot. I didn't want to get out of bed. The second day I didn't even get on the bike, because by the time I got myself out of bed it was far too hot. And I didn't have the energy anyway; I couldn't even imagine trying to push the pedals hard enough to get up the slight incline to Eagle Bend. Depression sucks the fuel out of you, and so does chemo, and when you've got both happening in the middle of the Bungy summer you end up feeling like a piece of overcooked cabbage- unappealing to look at, and damply floppy.

Not to mention smelling terrible. I was sure I had an odd odour happening. It started about a week before, a vaguely chlorine-like stench coming out of every pore. Even the mosquitoes noticed; they usually flock to me like I'm the entomological equivalent of a packet of Tim Tams, but lately they'd shown no interest in me at all.

Perhaps I should have been thankful for small mercies- my lymphy arm certainly doesn't need to be ravaged by the usual summer horde of buzzing vampires- but it's hard to be pleased about smelling like an over-treated swimming pool.

It didn't seem fair. I'd gone through all that pain with the Neulasta injection to try to get my blood count up quickly, yet here I was nearing the next treatment and feeling as flat as a tack. Why? Was it just the effect of the blues, or was something wrong? There was no way to find out on a holiday weekend, other than driving for an hour to bother the local hospital's emergency ward. I didn't feel like I was an emergency. I didn't have a fever. I was just miserable and lethargic.

I watched some TV shows to try to divert myself, and felt irritated by their depressing story lines- murder, power games, horrible little people doing horrible little acts of cruelty. I picked up a book; same effect. Did the whole world have to be so full of fucking misery?

I switched over to a comedy festival, and found everybody singularly unfunny.

Hmm. Maybe it's me.

In the end I got on the balance board and spent an hour in Wii Fit Land. It was the only diversion that worked. I needed someone to tell me what to do in words of one syllable, because I was buggered if I knew what to do with myself.

You're going too fast, said my virtual instructor sternly as I sweated buckets through the free step class.

Get fucked, I replied, stepping on and off like my life depended on it. Maybe it did. Or maybe I was just stepping in cross-rhythm triplets out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Being told what to do never sat that well with me.

By the morning of Day 19 I was weeping all over the Bear, unable to get out of bed let alone on the bike, and spilling over with dire thoughts. Did he wince when he looked at me too? Was he just being kind when he said he still thought I looked beautiful? I looked like fucking Gollum. Or ET, if you took the buggered-up chest into account. People used to look at my face and my cleavage, and now both of those were reduced to bomb sites. Hardly a wonder I felt ugly. As well as useless.

He's not a philosopher, my Bear. He's a man of action. And so when trying to reassure me didn't work, he got me up and took me to the beach.

It was an inspiration. Part of my problem turned out to be cabin fever. It's all very well in principle to stay away from crowds and avoid infection, but in practice it means staring at the same four walls for five months of your life. Little Miss Independence was going nuts after over two weeks of going nowhere but the odd doctor's appointment, and I didn't even know it till the Bear suggested breaking out of the compound and doing something just for fun.

Off he went to feed the turkeys before we sawed through the bars and made a break for it. Some things just have to happen, even if the sky is falling, Henny Penny. I started to contemplate what I could wear, and was well on the way to convincing myself that I couldn't go anywhere because I wasn't fit to be seen when the phone rang.

Maybe Jools is a spooky bitch too. I got a right royal reminder about exactly where to put the judges in my head, which was exactly what I needed.

“Don't let them get away with that,” she spluttered as I told her how they screamed ugly at me every time I passed a mirror. “Stop right there and challenge them. Look a little deeper at what they're saying to you. Say I beg your pardon, WHAT did you say?”

It made sense. I had to look it in the eye; that's the way I always deal with this sort of shit. Why wasn't I doing it now? I stopped ducking the mirror and just stared at it.

Black singlet top. Long black skirt over bike shorts, so I could get wet if I wanted. Black and white spotted scarf slung around shoulders; no point getting burnt.

Makeup. Earrings. Necklace.

No wig. Way too hot.

Hat? Sensible, but looks wrong. Nah. Red tea cosy, stuffed with bubble wrap.


I beg your pardon?

Um, okay, different...

Rainbow bag. Rainbow umbrella instead of hat.


I was a little overdressed for a walk on the beach. Like I cared.

“Wow. You look like an Egyptian princess,” said the Bear.

An hour later we were strolling along Chinaman's Beach, laughing as the wind tried to turn my rainbow umbrella into a spinnaker. We sat in silence at the end of the point, watching turquoise and white waves breaking over Snapper Rocks as the tide went out. Perched under a marbled wall of sandstone and surrounded by weirdly beautiful seaside plants, I thought about the healing power of nature and wondered how the heck I could have forgotten about it. 

Chinaman's Beach on my birthday.
Didn't take the camera this time.
I imagined taking everything off, even my bloody headwear, and lying in the water till it washed the ugly thoughts right out of me; imagining it was almost as good as doing it. Chickening out of the full monty, I ditched the skirt and ventured out to paddle my feet, watching the patterns of light through the ripples as the water sucked back out to sea. I stayed there washing the ugly off till my skin started to tingle.

“Time to go,” I told the Bear. “I'm starting to burn.”

And I set my spinnaker for home, mooring briefly at the local seafood co-op for some schoolies on the way.

Nature, the game changer. Don't let me forget again.


The prawns were a disappointment to me, but not because there was anything wrong with them and not because Ferdinand chucked a tizzy. They just turned out to be yet another food that now tastes like nothing.

There's no rhyme or reason to what's happened to my taste buds over the last week. Certain things taste exactly the same- sweet potato, cheese, nectarines and apricots, custard and Christmas pudding, kangaroo sausages, liquorice, peanut butter. Yet others either taste of nothing at all, or have acquired a strange and worrying overtone of something else.

Fishcakes, made from half-half red salmon and potato with my usual balance of seasonings, taste like I showed the label of the salmon can to the dish of potato and then threw in a bucket of dill. When I throw on lashings of lemon and salt to liven them up, I can't taste that either. Hot coffee smells acrid and unappealing, yet served iced over a scoop of ice cream it's still delectable. Garlic butter on my jacket potato reminds me distressingly of moth balls. The cardamon, cinnamon and star anise in my Pho soup, which were a splendid combination a week ago, now taste distinctly odd.

And so on, in increasingly bizarre ways.

For a dedicated food lover and cook like me, this random assault on my taste buds would in itself be enough to throw me into a decline of spirits. I remind myself that I'm blessed not to have thrown up at all so far; I remind myself that Ferdinand's peculiarities have been more amusing than dire.

Then the Bear reminds me that this is likely to get worse rather than better as the treatment goes on, and my spirits sink again. My pantry is already full of foods that appealed to Ferdinand for a few days and then were rejected. In five months' time, will there be anything at all left that I enjoy eating?

That's a sobering thought. Cap it with the thought that, thanks to the drugs, I'll probably gain rather than lose weight, and it's hardly a wonder that 'depression is a side effect of chemotherapy'.


This morning I still woke up too late to get on the bike, but at least I didn't beat myself up about it. I just got on the Wii and swore at the virtual instructor for an hour instead, then went and jumped in the lake. Um, I mean the dam.

And learning a lesson from yesterday's excursion, when Working Dog woke up limping for the third day in a row I decided that I'd be the one to take him to the vet. I tied a silk scarf around my Gollum-head and dared the mirror to say anything about it.

It didn't say a word.

“Are you up to the drive?” asked the Bear.

“You'd better believe it,” I replied.

I put Working Dog in the car and drove off. There was no way that other Black Dog was catching up with me today.

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