Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Definition of Coping

As the date for my operation approaches and the thought of major surgery starts to become more and more of a reality, I start to wonder what I should be doing to...

a) get my body prepared for the onslaught of anaesthetics and invasive surgery


b) get my mind prepared to deal with the emotional rollercoaster that I'm sure will ensue after all the surgeries have been completed.

Well, the answer to a is relatively easy. With my current diet of lashings of green tea, tons of fruit and veg, nuts, pulses and a rather challenging daily juiced concoction of broccoli sprouts and lightly steamed broccoli, if there was ever an award for culinary abstinence, I'd be a deadringer for it by now.

But the answer to b is not quite so simple. Every week during consultations with doctors or chats with friends, I get told how well I'm coping. At first I just assumed that they were mistaking my numbness over the whole thing for a kind of fearlessness that I'm not sure even exists in anyone. Then I started to consider the term, 'coping'. What does it really mean ? I always took it to mean being able to deal with what life throws at you. But now, after having had to cope with first a critically ill baby at birth and then months later being told I have cancer again, I'm not so sure. To say that someone is coping well often implies that they have a choice as to whether they choose to sink or swim. Do you collapse in a heap on the floor at the news that you're being made redundant or do you swiftly put on your coat, jump in your car and head straight to the nearest jobcentre ? If you have hungry mouths to feed, one might say that you'll be more inclined to do the latter, not because you want to, but simply out of an innate moral or parental duty, you feel as though you really have no choice. Does that make you a stronger,  more resilient person, or simply a more practical one ?

Perhaps what matters most is the packaging. For example, I'm not scared of needles but after having one too many painful jabs in rapid sucession, I admit to now feeling apprehensive every time I know I need to have an injection. But I don't like to express this. So instead of howling like a baby whenever I see the needle, I imagine myself on the most beautiful beach I've ever been to, bathing in a warm, crystalline sea. This gives the impression that I'm calmly and serenely enduring the ordeal. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. But if on the other hand, I choose to cry, tremble and demand to be given a local anaesthetic every time I see the needle being prepared, this could work in my favour by releasing some of the stress being experienced, which in turn might help me to relax . And yet, to the outside world, I would be seen as 'coping badly' or falling apart.

Personally, I'm not sure whether I'm coping well or badly. I'm just getting on with life. I feel that I have to because I have a baby who depends on me for everything and because of this I have less time to think about my own problems. I don't complain too much about side effects and I try to keep up with the world of news and current affairs so that I can talk about something other than cancer if someone calls me. In this respect, my rational self seems to have overpowered my emotional self. And to the outside world this translates as someone who is coping well. But I still have days when I can't see bright colours anymore, only dark shades of grey. Only these are the days when I don't answer the phone.

Some of us are better at expressing ourselves emotionally, others tend to lean more to pragmatism. Neither approach is right or wrong, it's just a different way of dealing with something that we can't control. And yet an overly emotional person is often the one who is seen as 'out of control. It's an attribute invariably used to describe women and seems to go hand-in-hand with other adjectives; the words hysterical and irrational spring to mind.

I think that I'll continue with my rational self, because that's all I know and it works most of the time. I'm not sure how it looks to the outside world, but it seems to get me through scan after consultation after scan. Unless one day I decide to do a Thelma and Louise and call time on my crazy adventures in Cancerland, I will go through what I have to because my current will to survive is infinitely stronger than my will to die. And I think this is what ultimately drives us all as we navigate our way through the trials and tribulations of life.

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