Inner Resources

from "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," by Edward Gorey

Anybody else besides me feel just plum wore out? I feel not only like my get-up-and-go got up and went, but took the Space Shuttle to get there.

Aside from the fact that I think humans should do like bears and hibernate for the winter, life has just been too much lately. And it’s the kind of too much that leaves me with a very un-zen-like emptiness. It’s not quite boredom, exactly, because that implies that nothing much has been going on lately. If anything, too much has been going on lately, leaving me to feel like a left-over Halloween pumpkin, hollowed out, bruised and turning to mush on the back porch. It’s an extremity of blah-ness, an ennui, if you will, that could be fatal if not mitigated as soon as humanly possible.

Whenever I feel like this, I think of John Berryman and his poem “Dream Song 14,” which I discovered decades ago during another patch of intolerable limbo:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored…

Not coincidentally, Berryman was haunted all his life by witnessing at age 12 the suicide of his father. That early acquaintance with grief and loss would inform his masterwork, 77 Dream Songs (1964), from which the above poem is taken.  So, it’s a Berryman kind of boredom that has me in its miserable clutches now. It’s not the boredom of meaningless activity, but of too much loss, too much strain, that leaves me feeling like Sisyphus, overwhelmed by the apparent futility of life’s daily strivings.

Sisyphus & his boulder

“Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?”

from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by John Keats

Like Sisyphus, I feel as though I have been punished by the gods. Like Keats’ knight, I feel abandoned by mercy. The phrase, “blasted heath” comes to mind, and, as did Macbeth, I am mumbling at witches when I ask them why they’re pestering me, who vanish before they explain themselves.

Life started ganging up on me as summer was leaving, and autumn, that most poignant of seasons, was beginning. That is the time of year that my mother died, sixteen years ago. This year, one of my best and oldest friends lost her mother, too. And then another friend lost hers. And another. And as the 25th anniversary of my father’s death approached in November, I had to put down my sixteen-year-old dog.  And another friend’s mother died.  And sistahs died, taken by cancer.  And children. And friends.   And friends of friends. The trouble is, too many people have been dying lately.  And what can one do, really?   Nothing much, when it comes down to it.  Death is part of life.  We can certainly grieve and support each other, but ultimately we must accept the inevitability of our mortality.  Yet there are times when there’s nothing quite as draining as inevitability.

And perhaps that’s what I’m stuck on.  Sheer, unvarnished inevitability.  Because I thought I’d have gotten further by now at the task of reclaiming, resurrecting, redefining my life after cancer.  Compared to a year ago, yes, I feel better.  I no longer need prescription drugs to get through the day, just those regular pedestrian mainstays, daily coffee and occasional chocolate.  My last mammogram was clear.  After an episode of arrhythmia, I passed a cardiac stress test with flying colors.  I can walk two or three miles now and then without worrying about much beyond some arthritic grumblings that can usually be addressed with nothing more complicated than some ibuprofen and a hot shower.  I eat well, I get enough sleep, I take supplements.  I’ve even begun to make some serious art again, which pleases and refreshes me.  So, what ails thee, I ask myself.

The other night, I went out to dinner with a good friend whom I don’t see often enough. We had a delicious, healthy dinner in one of our favorite bistros and caught up with each other.  She is a perceptive and understanding friend, as well as a good listener.  And she has known me long enough to be able to help me put things in perspective when I feel bogged down.  But even to her, I had trouble explaining myself.  The problem is, it’s hard to explain how tiring it is to be tired for two years, how much energy it takes to keep pushing the boulder of post-treatment fatigue uphill, how inevitably defeated I often feel, so that the occurrence of any of life’s other tragedies can easily swamp me.   The problem is, I still don’t feel like myself, the self I was before I was diagnosed with cancer. The problem is, I won’t be ever be that person again, and I don’t know yet who it is I will be.  I am not in command of my inner resources the way I used to be.  My inner resources, the ones I relied on before cancer, have flown the coop.  Or so it seems.

And yet, that doesn’t seem quite accurate either.  I would not have managed to get this far without marshaling some considerable inner resources, I realize. So why is it that surviving cancer feels so, well, anti-climactic sometimes?   I am reminded of a blog post written by a friend and sistah.  “Cancer is NOT a Fight!” she said.  “You don’t FIGHT cancer.  No one does.[…] When you are ‘fighting cancer’ you are really just laying there making a conscious decision, knowing in advance what it will cost, to take it.  You lay there for scans […] for chemo […] for surgery. You lay there for radiation, needles to the nipple, radioactive dye injections, […] for endless recovery. You just lay there day after godforsaken day.[…] And you fight fear more than anything else. But totally prostrate and helpless IS NOT A FIGHT […and] being able to do NOTHING [is] the hardest part of all. […] There was no AFTER IT’S OVER resource section in my info book. How about yours?”

Like me, my friend is a natural fighter, a person who is used to stepping up to a challenge, putting her considerable talents to the task, and emerging triumphant. But the task of survival after cancer is for so many of us a process not of triumphantly putting it all behind us, but of enduring the aftermath. And the aftermath can go on and on and on, without a clear end in sight.  So, in some ways, especially with the infamously recurring demon that is breast cancer, the “fight”  — and its aftermath —  is never over.

For someone who’s always kept faith with the notion of living in and appreciating the moment, it has tried my patience beyond anything I’ve ever experienced to endure so many hours, days, weeks, months of limbo, of exhaustion, of long-term side effects no one warned me about, of taking two steps forward and one step backward. It’s stupefyingly dull to keep trying to believe that time itself, that the passage of enough of it, will bring me to some fuzzy, unfocused moment when I will emerge into — what?  I don’t know.  But whatever it is, I also know it won’t be handed to me, that I’ll have to invent it myself as I go along.   That I’ll have to reinvent myself, in fact, that I’ve been reinventing myself for over two years now, so slowly and laboriously that it’s difficult to credit myself with making progress.  Yes, friends, this is boring.  And the hardest, most tedious part is accepting the death of my former, pre-cancerous self.

drawing by Allie Brosh, author of the blog, "Hyperbole and a Half"

Yes, I’m still here. My former self may be gone, but the container of that self is still here.  And that’s not nothing.  It’s been a pretty good container, all in all, albeit banged up since this whole mess began, but not beyond recognition.  That’s a start.   It’s tricky to grieve for my old self, however, while trying to patch up my current self and invent a new one.  I suppose I just need a new mantra, one suitable for cancer survivorship. How about: I endure therefore I am. Works for me.  Besides, what choice do I have?  What choice does any of us have?  I don’t feel “heroic.”  Just depleted.  My inner resources are a few quarts low.


Gratitude and much love to Webbie, for being there and for “getting it.”


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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, December 07, 2010 at 12:12 am, filed under Attitude, Cognitive Dysfunction & Depression, Fatigue, Life & Mortality, Nitty Gritty, Survivorship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to “Inner Resources”

  1. Kathi – I am completely taken with all your writing, just overwhelmed with the intensity and ingenuity of one beautiful human being. You have been my hero on my darkest days and on my happiest, also. As much as Teddy loves you, so do I. There is no one I know who can explain life as well as you. Thank you my friend! Susanne

  2. Thank you, Susanne. Our friendship means a lot to me, even though we don’t get to see each other as much as we have in the past. Because of Teddy, I think of you every day — and so does he, I’m sure! — and he’s the love bug he is in no small part because of how much you loved him when he lived with you. Oh, and by the way, how is it that a twenty-pound cat can steal the covers from a grown woman??? xxoo

  3. Kathi, Your posts are so beautifully written and honest. One woman told me that DCIS is like the “golden ticket” of breast cancer because it is the stage zero, non-invasive type that comes with phenomenal survival rates. In comparison to invasive or metastatic disease, I see her point. Yet, your post reminds us that treatment for any of these “types” is difficult and that the aftermath can continue long after treatment is over. I like your new mantra. I hope it will help you to refuel.
    -gs

  4. Thanks so much, Gayle. Your kind comments mean a lot, coming from another writer, thinker and activist. When I’m feeling particularly philosophical and perhaps fatalistic, I sometimes think that this experience was visited upon me to place me in the unique position of being able, as a health care clinician, to evaluate the patient experience from both sides, and to explore the peculiar irony of whether and how often the cure is worse than the ill. The conclusion I’ve come to time and again is that oncology in particular, and medicine in general, needs to take a cold, hard look at its treatment paradigms. I’m struck by how perverted the Hippocratic concept of “do no harm” has become. We consumers of health care have bought into this perversion as well, when we insist upon a pill for everything, when some solid advice might in fact be more beneficial and curative. We all need to take responsibility for fulfilling the spirit and the letter of informed consent, whether we are patients or clinicians.

  5. Kathi, As always, everything you write is exceptional, and extraordinary. You take the reader to places we think about, and somehow, you know precisely what we are thinking and sharing… you are a gifted writer!
    My mother’s favorite expression was, “Crime-mee-nently!!! “Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,So haggard and so woe-begone?” from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by John Keats

    You and my mother would have been great friends… (yes, I loved her dearly, and miss her). When you posted these words, I about fainted!
    Thank you, for everything your creative spirit writes and shares! You are a superb woman, whom I admire greatly…
    Love,
    Indi:o)

  6. Thank you, Indi. You are a dear. <3

  7. Kathy,When you said,”accidental amazon” I thought your amazon alluded to your height,strength,talent as a therapist and personality.Now that you explained the fifth and foremost reason for the name,I’m convinced the other attributes are equal to the title_especially after browsing your site. You have my latte.

  8. 😀 Thanks, Sue! Much appreciated — both the compliments & the latte. So nice of you to visit!

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