Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Running on empty

When I was a little girl I had a peculiar stoicism which bewildered those whose job involved inflicting pain on me. I never cried, never even flinched at vaccination time; I looked at the needle, even, when I was having blood taken. And I endured countless drillings and the occasional extraction at the dentist without anaesthetic.

It's not that I didn't feel the pain. I did. But I wouldn't show it. I was one tough little cookie, and I was an expert at self-control. Mind over matter, and all that.

And then I grew up, and endured a childbirth that was a living hell. I can describe it in darkly comic terms now; imagine pushing a watermelon covered in razor blades through a piece of inch-and-a-half human polypipe, and you're getting a blurry picture of what I endured. But at the time it wasn't funny.

Something happened to my stoicism that day. It broke, and I've never been able to put it back together.

I don't look at needles any more. I have an injection before dental work. Put me in pain, and I scream for relief. One night of bone pain after that Neulasta injection was enough to send me crazy- remember?

Oh, I still have a strong mind. It just doesn't work on my pain threshold any more. And thanks to the Freeloader, I'm starting to see that pain tolerance isn't the only human limit that can be broken if you push it too far.


Really, I'm doing so well. Sure, I only have about two-thirds of a day of energy in me, but my fitness is probably the best it's ever been and my strength is slowly increasing.

I can help around the farm again. I can tidy the house a little without having to rest for the remainder of the day. I can go to town and achieve maybe three tasks of the five or six I really need to do, before I run out of puff and have to come home. And the other day I cycled 11 km without breaking into a sweat.

There was a time when carrying the heavy pots of water out to the veranda for turkey processing left me puffing and flat for hours, but now I take it in my stride. Last week I picked up a 20 kilo bag of concrete without difficulty- completely impossible a few months ago; when we needed a few more veranda posts for our extension, I was able to help carry the lengths of felled tree out of the forest and then lift that damn blocksplitter to thump some of the bark off.

Not all of it, mind you. The Bear did most of the work. But given that the blocksplitter was where this whole story started, I felt that I'd come full circle nevertheless, just through being able to try.

And it's not just what I can do that's improving. My hair is starting to look like maybe I meant it- maybe I just had a really radical haircut. I mean, Mia Farrow got away with the pixie look- why not me?

And my nails- well, the crappy, yellowed, flaking part is almost up to the top. Another month and I might be able to cut the gross-looking part right off at last, and feel like the poison is out of my system.

All of that has fooled me into thinking I'm nearly out of the woods. But here's the rub: while my physical strength is returning and I'm looking more 'normal' on the surface, my emotional strength is starting to crack.


For many women, the emotional fractures happen much earlier. They'll have a meltdown when they're diagnosed (completely appropriate, but I couldn't do it). Or they'll soldier through the diagnosis and chemo but suddenly fall apart before radiotherapy, like my Pink Sister Angie. (Me? No way. The occasional dummy spit, but no real breakdown.)

See, I've got form for emotional stoicism as well as the pain thing. I have a talent for low-level PTSD. I'm the one who copes brilliantly in a crisis, looks after everyone else, and then bursts into completely inappropriate tears a week later when everyone else has forgotten all about it.

But it's not working for me any more. My emotional tolerance is broken. The tiniest bit of stress, and I'm a cot case.

I mean, this last week is a perfect example. I'd finally got to the stage where I felt secure enough in my physical strength to actually plan an outing for today- lunch with the Bear at a favourite pub down at Maclean, on the river.

And then a tradesman working on the extension got his dates screwed up, and instead of coming Monday and Tuesday he was coming today. I would normally be mildly annoyed- wouldn't anyone?- but this time I was inappropriately furious. Angry words flew out of my mouth, soon to be replaced by tears of frustration. Even the Bear ended up crying.

I think he probably had a better handle on what was going on than I did. He certainly wasn't crying about a tardy tradie.

Eventually I resigned myself to rescheduling the lunch date. But when this morning dawned and the tradesman had messed his appointments up again and didn't turn up- and it was too late to go back to Plan A, because other much less exciting plans had been made in its place- suddenly a silly situation that I'd normally swear about a few times and then laugh off became something that knocked me down for the count.

Every time I tried to talk about it I started to cry. I realised I was being slightly ridiculous, but that didn't stop me melting down. And even as I was dripping all over the floor, I was thinking I can't go back to work like this. One little problem and I'll crack up. I'm not better yet. 


The Bear isn't better yet, either. We're both running on empty. There's not a drop of emotional energy left in our tanks, and in him it expresses physically. First it was the gastric flu; this mega-fit man is never sick, but last week he was laid low.

And now he's lying beside me in an exhausted coma as I write this. He went to bed pretty much as soon as we got home from running a few chores in town, and he couldn't even get up for dinner.

He never refuses my cooking.

I'm scared that he's broken, too.


Maybe this is the breakdown we had to have. At least we're acknowledging to each other that we've got nothing in reserve. But where do we go from here?

Don't suggest therapy. I've had so much counselling in my life that I feel like I don't need it any more- I've got to a stage where I can cope with just about any personal crisis by talking myself through it. Surely that's exactly what this blog is about- talking myself through cancer.

But what happens when coping isn't the answer any more? What happens when the emotional tolerance hits zero?

I suspect the Bear will just hibernate his way through it. Sleep or beer are his answers to everything stressful. (Or, more often, beer and sleep.) It's not so simple for an over-thinker like me. If I let it all go when my emotional tolerance is broken, will I ever put the pieces back together? If I start crying, will I ever stop?

That's a stupid question. Of course I'll stop. The problem is being able to start. Cracking up over little things that aren't even the problem, like a tradesman who isn't here when he said he would be, is just a symptom. I need to crack up over the Freeloader who stole a year of my life, or over being chopped up and poisoned and burned alive, or over the constant threat hanging over my head for the rest of my life.

But I can't do it at will. I'm too used to keeping the wheels spinning.

Maybe there's someone out there who can teach me how not to cope.


  1. Candy the body heals quicker than our hearts. Falling apart is normal and healthy and to fall apart at this end of the ordeal is definitely the best time to do so. Of course you and Bear are running on empty, that is to be absolutely expected. And of course you have some anger issues that need to come to the surface and be released, you are only human! 'Time' is what you need. Time is the greatesr healer. Don't place too many expectations on yourself or Bear. Try to enjoy the simple things in life, like breathing fresh air, and give yourself time to heal. Sending loving vibes your way. xo

    1. Thanks Karen. What you say is true. Certainly I'm enjoying spring, which seems to have come early. The more I'm outside the better I am. But somehow I have to get this secret supply of crazy out in the open at a more appropriate time! ;)