Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Getting of Wisdom, the Crushing of Candy

I was having a bit of a pity party this morning over breakfast.

"My life is so boring," I wailed to the Bear. "People ask me how I am, and the next question is always what am I up to. And what is there to say? All I do is get up, exercise, clear the lagoon, make dinner and collapse into bed."

I left out the bits about sitting in this chair writing, talking to my friends on Facebook and making Bitstrip cartoons or playing Candy Crush. No need to spoil a good whine with facts.

Gotta keep laughing or we cry...

"What do you want to do?" he asked, looking far more distraught than I'd intended. Everything knocks him sideways at the moment, and any sign that I'm the faintest bit upset is like a baseball bat to his temple.

Which stunned me into silence, and not just because I'd realised I was being a royal pain in the arse. What did I want to do? I had absolutely no idea. It's so long since I've had any real choices that I've even forgotten what the choices are; I've sorted out a routine that seems to be manageable, and I'm just putting one foot in front of the other to get through each day. Cancer plays such havoc with your life that picking up the pieces as you emerge from the other end is both exhausting and highly confusing.


Mostly, I suppose, people want to go back to whatever they used to enjoy Before Cancer. But cancer has changed us, and we're not quite sure who we are any more or what we want.

It's harder for the young ones. So much of their life BC was about socialising. It's okay for me, out in the back of beyond, perfectly happy with my own company and having my few genuine friends only a few taps of the keyboard away- that is, until too many people seem to require me to prove my 'better-ness' by something monumental like taking up parachuting or climbing Everest. (Don't start me on the 'bucket list' concept. I don't have one. I never will. Man plans, God laughs, and there's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.)

No, actually, I'm quite content to sit here in this chair between compulsory routines and monumental efforts in the lagoon. Allow me my seemingly boring pastimes, please.

From this angle it looks like I'm halfway there. Bollocks to that- nowhere near it.

But for younger women without my slightly anti-social tendencies, those who want to be accepted back into the fold, to be back where they started- well, sometimes it's tough. I'm old enough to have had some knowledge of human nature forced down my throat by that greatest of teachers, Life. But for them, cancer has thrust that mantle of wisdom upon their shoulders way too early.

They hadn't realised, before this disease marked them out, that what they call 'friends' are probably just an assortment of random strangers, thrust into their lives by a similarity in age or occupation. But now that fact has been forced down their throats in the cruelest way, when they're at their most vulnerable. Faced with the possibility of having to look their own mortality in the eye, many of their so-called 'friends' will cut and run.

See, with their brain these people know everyone dies. Ask any preschooler about the circle of life, and they'll know that people are born, live for a while and then die. But that's not the same as facing the gut-wrenching emotional truth that this also applies to them. A child who actually realises that is usually categorised as having an anxiety disorder.

So for these women who've come together by chance and spent far more time clubbing, getting pissed off their faces and moaning about their problems with their body size or their men than getting to really know each other, contemplating death as anything but a disembodied theory- contemplating it as something that may be actually happening to someone their age-  is completely out of left field. What?

No thanks. The Mean Girl comes to the fore with a vengeance, cutting the afflicted one from her carefully styled and highly superficial social group. She doesn't call, she doesn't visit. Cancer isn't cool, and so you're not included.

Because she doesn't want to think about that other group, People Who Die. This, you see, is the crux of our newly-acquired wisdom, thanks to our diagnosis:

People die. You're included.


Sadly, too many people manage to avoid acquiring that simple wisdom with age. Even some older 'friends' who ought to know better will cross the street to avoid us, rather than catching the faintest whiff of Grim Reaper clinging to our aura. Even, though it seems unspeakably cruel, some of our closest relatives- parents, siblings, in-laws.

What will I say to her? they wonder, when forced to think about us and our inconvenient condition at all. They either have to acknowledge we're ill, or pretend it's not happening- which might be tough, given the obvious changes in our appearance.

No thanks. If they're not emotionally invested in us- and many of our acquaintances and some of our family members, for all their protestations, simply aren't- it's way easier to cross the street.

And even if they are invested- well, it's just too awful to think about, and either they're angry with us for needing attention they don't really want to give (because then they'd have to think about it), or their learned social code hasn't taught them how to talk to someone with a possibly terminal illness.

No. They don't want to think about it at all. There but for the grace of God...

Ah, yes. God. That's the way many of them will avoid thinking about it. Believe in an eternal life after death, and you don't have to confront your own mortality at all.

Or diet! You can believe in diet. See, it's your fault you got cancer, they imply- or even, in the worst cases, baldly state as you stare at them in amazed horror. You ate the wrong things. You should eat like me and you'll live forever.

Oh, the blame game is a great one for people who are in denial to play. It's your fault because you weren't positive enough (but I'm always positive so I'm safe). They never say the second bit out loud, because they're way too unwise to realise their own motivation.

And so, if we've been part of a large and loose social circle, we may find that we're marooned on our own little island of wisdom, with way too many of our supposed 'support group' either treating us like a leper or splattering idiotic platitudes on us so fast that we can't even find a square inch of silence to throw back a fuck off.


Here on Wisdom Island, rather than getting back into our old social groups and painting the town red, most of us are playing Candy Crush when contemplating the true meaning of the words 'friend' and 'family' gets too painful (and we maybe realise we don't have any of one, the other or both). The re-definition process is an unwelcome accompaniment to the constant nagging anxiety which will be our companion from diagnosis to grave.

It's not all bleak, of course. Knowing what makes a friend, or what counts as true family, is a truly valuable life lesson that can make the rest of our life- however long it is- far more enjoyable and meaningful. It's easier to cut out the dross when you understand what 'dross' looks like.

Me? I'm very lucky to be older and a bit battle-scarred, which is why I feel like I have the perspective to write about it. I've had very few encounters with any Mean Girls during my illness, because the last of them got ejected from my life some years ago in the middle of a different crisis. And the emotionally damaging members of my family are all dead, while the rest have been paying attention, reading my blog and not pretending this is anything but shitty. Huzzah for them.

But I still play Candy Crush.

See, this is how it works. The nagging voice of the Scary Man can't always be silenced by shouting. Shouting at him takes energy, and we don't always have energy to spare. Sometimes the only thing that stops us thinking too much is a repetitive, level-up game.

You might think that we could get the same effect by reading a book, or the newspaper. But no; books and newspapers can lead us to thoughts about friends, families, death. They're full of references to this new wisdom that we're just trying to hide from for a few minutes, just so we can breathe without holding a shield up. Shields are heavy.

There's just enough strategy in that game to occupy our mind and keep the other thoughts out. If we're puzzling how to get a striped lolly and a colour bomb not only created, but located next to each other, we can't be thinking how hard it is that our closest relatives are actually not very nice people, or that our supposed best friend wasn't actually a friend at all, or that a twinge in our back might be a metastasis rather than a pulled muscle.

There's only so long you can think about that stuff without committing yourself to life in a nice white coat with tie-back sleeves, or becoming an axe murderer. So please, don't begrudge us our game playing. Don't tell us we should get out more. (In fact, when you see us playing, just shut the fuck up.) Because sometimes, when you've had the ultimate wisdom thrust upon you and you're realising you may be surrounded by dross, it's a case of crush or be crushed.

No comments:

Post a Comment