November 4, 2011 I heard the news that there was a mass on my jaw. At 18 years old, and my first time away from home, I heard the news that would forever change me. I sat alone in a cold hospital room, with tubes sticking out of me, and kind nurse practitioner, a stranger, crying telling me that things were not OK. It started with a lot of denial, sarcasm, and numbing. I never knew the power of numbing until I heard the news of an aggressive, rare, benign tumor. “Thank God it’s not Cancer.” Well, when it is a one in million tumor that no one knows anything about, cancer might have been a better diagnosis.
The denial included me staying in school because I would not let go of the friends I had just made. Little did I know that I would lose all of these friends because being sick required me to withdraw from just about everything. I would go on to have seven root canals, surgery to remove the tumor, and two hundred thirty-six days of self-injected chemotherapy. There is no other word that is synonymous with chemotherapy than pure heart-wrench. I stabbed myself every night in secrecy to flood my body with the poison that was called medicine, I covered what was left of my hair with thick headbands and scarves, and I drew on eyebrows and wore fake lashes so that in class I would appear “normal.” I drank three glasses of water at every meal to keep the fevers down, and I drank cans of seltzer at parties hoping people wouldn’t realize I was not drinking beer.
I had one friend and one boyfriend that kept me hanging on. When I ended chemotherapy, my boyfriend ended things with me, and my family was hundreds of miles away. That is when I made the executive decision that not sticking around seemed like the only viable option for me. I talked through the pros and the cons without shedding one tear. Numbness of anxiety and depression takes a toll on the body that is inexplicable. Someone was watching over me because I decided that it wasn’t the right time.
That is when I realized hurting was not my only option. I was not adding the poison to my body anymore, but poisonous thoughts continued to flood my mind each and every day.
If you ever feel like there is nothing left for you; I promise you that you’re wrong, things will get better, you just have to give life the time to turn around. My road to recovery continues every day, but there are many aspects that have saved me.
I had a guy that I was dating throughout the worst of my challenges, and I barely shared with him everything that was happening. He knew I was hurting, and he accepted my hair loss, but he didn’t know how hard I was fighting to not cry every minute of every day. He told me that he could picture us being married some day after the mountains of life we had climbed together. When he broke up with me, I broke up with myself, I told myself all kinds of horrible, mean things. After him, I had to learn how to pick myself up at my absolute lowest point.
Ending chemo is supposed to be the best time when people you love celebrate, but you’re celebrating a horrendous thing that happened and it hurts like hell. I remain single since that experience, and learning to love myself instead of a companion has been an incredible journey. I am not where I would like to be, and that’s OK. I am constantly finding myself with the chances to travel, meet new people, and discover new hobbies that I do for me, and only me. Being with yourself will make you strong, independent, and even more of an honor to love some day down the road.
I cannot even begin to list the amount of doctors that recommended antidepressants. Have you ever looked at the side effects or how they can manipulate the chemicals in your body? Don’t get me wrong, they are definitively what works for some people, but I was not eager to put anything else in my body. It has been proven that exercise can release the same endorphins that will help you feel some kind of relief from the world. Even if it is a five-minute jog, something that gets you up and moving feels so rewarding during and afterwards. This is one area that there is constantly room to improve and set obtainable goals.
3. Therapy is the most amazing way to discover yourself
Mental health is something that still remains in the shadows of our society today. There needs to a light to shine down on this, whether you had “problems” or not. My therapist is one of the most patient, compassionate, and amazing human beings who has provided me with skills to help me help myself. She never shunned me for the mistakes I made, and taught me how to meet them with acceptance. Hating yourself is never the right choice, and sometimes it takes some professional insight to realize how to simply be OK.
When my therapist recommended this for the first time, I was so resistant and inclined to believe it was something for hippies. Now, every single morning I complete five stretches for forty seconds. Each stretch I decide one thing that I am grateful for, and I remind myself of every piece of that thing I am grateful for. It puts life into perspective when the big picture may feel in complete and utter shambles.
5. Letting go and accepting what is
This is something that I have accepted I will struggle with for the rest of my life. False expectations only result in someone getting hurt, period. Learning to be present and focus on the aspects that create joy and happiness makes your life beam in a different way. Somehow the other parts remain with you, but establish a grounding that seems to find their rightful place.
6. Family first
I always thought that I knew the importance of family, but it’s funny how they were the first I resisted and pushed away. I sugar-coated everything for them, because I believed that they simply could not understand. This continued for years until I began to be more open and honest with them. I began to tell them when I was not ok, and they started to learn how to help me. They are the only ones that have been there no matter what from beginning to now, and that will continue until the end. Family does not always mean blood relatives, for some it can be close friends or a significant other. Finding your family and letting them find you is the process of a lifetime.
7. Be Yourself
After my bouts of medical and emotional challenges, I did not know who I was. I immersed myself in just about anything and everything to try to find my niche. It was not until I turned back to my core, who I was, and the profession that I was working towards. Occupational therapy works to help people return to activities of daily living, so if I am going to do this some day, I need to practice what I preach. I started to focus on doing what makes me happy and not what others wanted me to do. I surrounded myself with the people that made me happy (ironically many were in the same major) instead of the people I once thought I “should be” surrounding myself with. I immediately had people tell me that I appeared to be glowing, and glowing is what I felt. It is not an every day thing by any means, but I will take a few days a week of being happy than no days.
I am forever a work in progress. We are all a forever work in progress.