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I Used to Hate When People Said 'At Least You Have Your Physical Health'

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Saying that I’ve been through a long, treacherous road while dealing with my mental illness is an understatement. I was hospitalized for suicidal intent for the first time when I was 17. That feels like a lifetime ago, but really it’s only been 10 years. I cycled in and out of the hospital after that, and I thought I might always live my life in hospitals for a while there. For years, I couldn’t hold down friendships, a job, I couldn’t participate in college — I felt so isolated.

Yet, all the while, people would feed me “positive” thoughts like, “It could be worse. At least you have your physical health.” The statement infuriated me. There I was, in and out of a mental hospital every few weeks, and they wanted to remind me it could be worse? In my mind, that was the worst. I was at rock bottom, so forgive me if I didn’t care about my physical health. It’s great that I was physically healthy. It didn’t undermine that I was absolutely miserable in dealing with my mental health.

Now, I regret that. About six months ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I finally understand now. I wish I had listened. I wish I had realized that while it was unfortunate to be dealing with such a severe mental illness, I was still fortunate to have my physical health to rely on. Since finding out I have cancer, things have changed forever.

One thing is, I always thought the exhaustion from depressive episodes was the worst kind of tired there is, but now that I have “depression tired” and “cancer tired” mixed together, I realize how wrong I was. Most days, it takes everything in me to make it through the workday. I come home with terrible headaches and all I can do is lay in a dark room under the covers because I have nothing left in me to give. Taking the dogs out seems like the most insurmountable task. If someone asks me for a favor, I will likely break down crying. On weekdays, I’m at my tipping point when I come home to the point where my husband has questioned if going on disability would be a better idea. He hates seeing me so worn out from life, but we both know work is the only thing that keeps my mental health stable. It’s part of the balancing act. Physically, I need more rest and less of the emotional stimulation that work provides. Mentally, I need to go to work to stop myself from becoming suicidal because I put all of my value in my career title. It’s a vicious cycle.

And then the sickness comes. Before this — before cancer — I was one of the most reliable employees there could be. I almost never called off, I always had sick days to roll over, and I was extremely dependable. It kills me that I can’t be that way anymore. Due to cancer and the treatment I’m receiving, I’m always sick. Recently, I was sick for six weeks, which led to me calling off for four weeks because it was so severe that I couldn’t work. I was so frustrated with myself. I wanted my body to just cooperate for once. I wanted to be at work, but my body wouldn’t let me. At the time, my depression grew with every day that passed. I didn’t want to be sick anymore. I wanted my life back.

And then there are the little things that happen. Things that no one really thinks might bother me, but they’re things that cause such distress that I struggle to hold it together.

For example, my cancer causes shortness of breath. That means that simple things like walking down the hall with coworkers or getting into the car leave me absolutely winded. And that’s embarrassing. It’s completely embarrassing to know I haven’t done anything strenuous and I’m still struggling to breathe. It’s so bad that people ask me if I’m OK. Because other people don’t know my symptoms — not unless I tell them. And that would just make me self-conscious. I hate when people pity me or don’t know what to say, and talking about my symptoms would lead to discomfort that I don’t have the energy to deal with.

But it’s not just the embarrassing things. It’s the heartbreaking things too. For instance, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved singing along to songs. One of my biggest coping skills is turning on a Taylor Swift song and belting the lyrics alongside her to calm my anxiety. But even when I’m sitting still, there are lyrics I can’t finish because I run out of air. The shortness of breath doesn’t allow me to sing my favorite songs, and that’s one of the things that hurts me the most. I can deal with the embarrassment I mentioned before, but when I can’t do things that I used to be really good at and loved more than anything — it really is heartbreaking. It leaves me devastated. I’ve cried over it more than once because I just want my life to go back to normal.

Another thing to deal with is the holidays. I barely have the energy for everyday life, so I most certainly don’t have the energy to spend time in a large gathering and that makes it hard. I don’t want to pull “the cancer card” but I also don’t know if I can make it through Thanksgiving without having a mental breakdown. And it’s isolating because I know that my family wouldn’t understand. No one understands. No one can comprehend how tired I am and how helpless I feel as my body refuses to cooperate.

Even my husband, as much as he tries to understand and has hardships of his own in coping with this, just doesn’t get it. He’ll ask me to do simple chores that I know I should be able to do, so I’ll try to do them, which ends with me crying because I can’t and I feel defeated. It always makes him confused. He wants me to communicate with him about when things are too much, but everything seems to be too much nowadays and that’s humiliating to admit.

And overall, while I am sad about all of this, I’m mostly angry. I frequently will sob out of frustration, that’s how angry I am. I want my life back. I want my body back. I want my health back. Every day, I feel like my body is betraying me and feeling that way is such a horrible experience. I want to be able to go back to the way things were before, but I know I’ll never be able to. Getting a cancer diagnosis changes everything, and right now it’s hard to picture things ever being the way they were before again. It seems impossible. The best I’ll be able to do is find a new normal, which is something I can’t accept. I don’t want to find a new normal. I want my old normal back.

If I could go back, I would have listened. I wouldn’t have been grateful that I have a mental illness by any means, but maybe I would have been able to see the whole picture a bit more clearly. I wish I could’ve seen how fortunate I was to be struggling in only one area. Instead, I took that for granted. Now, I regret that more than anything.

And I’m really hoping things get easier because where I’m at, I have so much resentment inside of me that I don’t know what to do with it all. I need that to change. And if it doesn’t, I hope I can at least find acceptance with what my new reality entails because from where I’m currently sitting, that seems like an impossible task. But even with that being said, I’m still hoping I’ll prove myself wrong. Because I need a restored sense of peace. I just don’t know how long it will take me to find it.

Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Originally published: November 22, 2021
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