Our minds and bodies hold visceral memories of things that happened in certain seasons.
Three years ago, in February, I started chemotherapy.
I was as prepared as I could be for getting the drug infusion every three weeks, feeling awful for part of each of six cycles over four months.
What I was not prepared for was the tsunami that hit my social life during the year of treatment.
The crisis of cancer doesn’t come in its own neat package. Instead, it can throw a spotlight on everything else going on in one’s life, good and bad. Things happen that have nothing to do with cancer or treatment, but they’re magnified in the bizarre world of Cancerland, with its terror, unpredictability, and endless, time-consuming appointments.
And, trouble seems to come in batches.
I thought I had some good professional people working for me, and that turned out to be untrue. Shortly after I was diagnosed, my bookkeeper used my credit card to steal from me. Then my tax accountant screwed up my tax return. Then I discovered that my financial advisor had misrepresented certain facts in the closure of a retirement account, resulting in my having to pay a huge tax penalty. I fired all of these people, and none of them went easily.
Two days before chemo was to start, I went to my hairdresser, Larry, to have my hair cut off. This was one of the worst experiences of my life.
As I pulled up to his shop, I checked my email and read a message from the best friend of my ex-boyfriend: “LH has died.” It was Valentine’s Day of 2012. LH had been in a long manic episode, followed by a long depression. His brother had gone to his condo and found him dead, the living room strewn with empty pill and booze bottles. There were notes on his i-pad about how to commit suicide.
Here I was about to do what was necessary to save my life – including sacrificing my long hair – while LH had been unable to access the help he had needed to keep living.
I ran into the shop and told Larry all about it. I cried and screamed while Larry cut my hair off and handed it to me in a plastic bag.
I had no family to take care of me during treatment. I thought I would rely on friends, and I thought I had quite a number of good friends. That was “BC,” before cancer.
Most of the people I thought were friends turned out not to be.
I had been operating with false assumptions and a lot of naivete. I considered someone a friend if they were fun to hang out with, good for a chuckle. I had collected a motley crew of people, most of whom I would no longer want to spend time with.
There were some stalwart, old friends who supported me in various ways, and those relationships really did not change. There were neighbors and a few new friends who surprised me with their generosity.
There was the problem of seeming to need people to take me to appointments. In retrospect, I should have just hired a college student assistant for logistical help. But there were a number of erstwhile friends who swooped in and offered help. I felt I needed them and was glad for their help.
As I am writing this, I am tempted to entertain myself, and you, with the antics of people who said and did some outrageous things when what I really needed was calm and intelligent companions. I have a very long memory and could produce here strings of dialogue and colorful descriptions.
But three years later, I have no taste for it.
During the months of treatment, as about a dozen people disappointed me, one after another, I kept smacking my forehead and saying: “What was I thinking? Why did I think So-and-So was my friend?”
Then I read a line from one of my favorite self-help writers, Karen Salmansohn, who says to turn the phrase around: It’s not “what was I thinking?” It’s: “what was I learning?”
That’s way more interesting.
What was I learning? This is hard to write about because it has more to do with the feeling realm than with concepts, let alone rules of behavior.
For starters, I was learning that, in my intention to like everyone and have lots of people to interact with, I was consistently overriding my own deep felt responses. What I mean is that if someone appealed to me because they were fun or funny to talk to, I would ignore my own intuition when I also experienced this person saying and doing things that made me just cringe. Sometimes this was because the person didn’t share my values or was just not that bright, both of which really bothered me, if I’d been honest about it. Often I would ignore hurtful comments made directly to me. I had done this for so many years that it was habitual.
In the midst of cancer, which I think of as a direct confrontation with reality, I found I no longer had room to be around people who just make me cringe. Many of these people said and did things during my treatment time that made it a no-brainer to just let them go.
What I was learning may seem like a very pedestrian lesson: that there are lots of friendly acquaintances and very few real friends. These are nuanced and fluid categories, and I don’t want to put someone in an acquaintance category permanently if they are in the process of becoming a friend. But I Iearned that I have a particular vulnerability about not being able to make this distinction, and I am now being careful and cautious about it.
That’s part of what I was learning three years ago, and I have a lot more to learn.
P.S. And, thankfully, my hair is now longer than it was before cancer. It’s headed toward my waist.