A few weeks ago, Sarah Hughes @donteducateblog tweeted the link to the video of Jamie Lawson’s ‘Wasn’t expecting that’. At that stage, I hadn’t come across the song at all, although it was soon to top the UK charts. I subsequently heard it on the radio a number of times, but am grateful for having been pointed to the video, which I almost certainly would not have looked for, otherwise.
As the tweet had indicated it would be, I found it incredibly moving and ended up watching it a number of times, in tears. The song is a beautiful but tragic (in an all-too-common way) love story of a couple who meet young, get married, have children, and lead a fulfilling life together, which is cut short by cancer. The video tells the story in reverse order to the lyrics, starting with the couple in late middle-age, and working back to their meeting as youngsters. At the end, and in accordance with the lyrics of ‘Wasn’t expecting that’, the video cuts to the image of a wife and mother taking her last breath, caught by a relapse despite an earlier, but temporary reprieve. It’s only as you hear the lyrics unfold that you realise what it taking place in the video – you recognise the words that you have already heard, enacted in the scenes that are taking place.
Cancer is in my family – as it is in everyone’s – and I first came across it at a fairly young age. I lost close relatives and I was in close proximity during the progression of the illness. The video was a hard watch because it triggered memories. But more than that, it was a hard watch because it triggered fears about the future. It wasn’t so much my relatives that I saw in that dying wife and mother, but myself.
Growing up, I had an intense fear of death and the paraphernalia of death. I found it deeply uncomfortable being around serious illness; I found it distressing visiting family gravesides and would do almost anything to avoid it. Being in the rooms of those who had died left me feeling literally ‘haunted’ by their presence. And somewhere along the way, I picked up and internalised an unwavering belief that, like those who had gone before me, cancer would consume me and I would die young. I was often compared with one of my relatives who died in middle-age; somehow the genetic traits or accomplishments we shared because indicative of a common destiny, a shared manner of dying.
This has been very much on my mind lately. In the not-too-distant future I will entering a new decade. My therapist jokingly said that it ‘wasn’t too bad’ and that the decade after that was ‘the real killer’. I told her that her comment was unwittingly apt, because part of me firmly believes that I won’t make it beyond this next decade and into the one after. Entering a new decade feels like the start of a ten year countdown to the end of my life.
And neither is my belief completely without foundation. A few years ago, following discovery of a breast lump, I was told I had lobular neoplasia, the ‘polite’ name for lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), what some might call ‘Stage 0’ cancer, though some tend to argue that in the case of LCIS it shouldn’t technically be regarded as cancer at all. However, my chances of developing ‘actual’ breast cancer are now more like 1 in 3 or 1 in 4, and combined with other instances of breast cancer in the family, those are not the most promising odds. I feel as though I am playing a waiting game – waiting for Stage 0 to develop into Stage 1, or worse. According to my internalised timescale, I believe that that will happen at some point within the next decade. And yet, I am doing absolutely nothing to try and prevent it. My diet is appalling and I do virtually no exercise. Part of it is due, I think, to an inherently poor appreciation of risk. But I’m beginning to realise that it is also partly because I believe that whatever I do will make no difference – that this illness will kill me in the short or medium term, and there is no escaping that scenario.
I think that this belief is in large part responsible for an aspect of my mental health difficulties that has troubled me for a very long time, and which was present even during the period when my BPD symptoms were somewhat in remission. I get very anxious and distressed at the idea of ‘time running out’ and I am constantly worrying about ‘making the most of my time’. This anxiety is such a core part of the way that I am now, that every decision on how to spend my time involves an automatic calculation of whether I can ‘afford the time’ and how I will ‘make up for it’ , if necessary, at another point. A friend of mine realised suddenly when I described this to her a few months ago, that ‘this is why I never see you’! She was right – it took me two years to meet up with another close friend because it took that long to persuade myself that I could allow myself to take a day away from the children. In the few months before my second child was born, I became virtually house-bound when I wasn’t at work, because I wouldn’t let myself interact with anyone else in order to maximise the remaining one-on-one time I had left with my elder child. In addition, I always find the first few days of any holiday exceptionally stressful, until I reach the point where I feel I have ‘made some memories’ and made ‘good use of my time’.
These days, right in the midst of BPD, when I think about the possibility – in my mind, the certainty – of getting ill, I am petrified and appalled at the thought of having to go through that experience feeling as completely alone and isolated as I do now. I simply don’t feel capable of fighting serious physical and mental illness at the same time, whilst also in the midst of a relationship in serious trouble; and I would not want my children to watch me go through what I watched my own family experience. Though suicidal ideation is something I experience on a fairly regular basis, I am afraid of having my ‘hand forced’ in that way – though I know that for as long as I breathe I have a choice, however difficult the choice to live may be. And I am afraid because sometimes it feels as though that choice will present itself not even in ten years, or five years, but in ten months, or five months, or five weeks, or tomorrow. However much my heart breaks when I think about the fact that one day therapy will end and I will lose my therapist, at the same time part of me believes that she will lose me first.
To the extent that my BPD allows -perhaps instead of being so focused on making memories, I should be more focused on one day being remembered. Because that would involve being really present and alive to someone else, in the moment, rather than living constantly in the shadow of the future, while trying to turn the present into a memorable past. And then, if and when something happens, I can say ‘I was so busy living, I wasn’t expecting that’. Rather than ‘I was so busy expecting that, I wasn’t really living’.