Death slaps me in the face and knocks me off my feet.
As I put the ‘phone down, I realize for the first time since she received her Stage IV breast cancer diagnosis that my stepmom is dying. Although we’ve been dealing with the daily reality of illness since September, at no point in the proceedings had this occurred to me. At least not on a conscious level.
In my family, whatever ails you, you grin and bear it. You get the facts, close ranks, deploy whatever skills you’ve got, and push forward.
Thus my 71-year old father turned into a logistics mastermind and carer in Paris, and I became the phone counselor sitting half-way across the world, in the upper left corner of the United States.
Not ideal but I needed to earn my airfare and travel funds before I could do more. So I made a plan, kept my head down, and got on with it. And I will be getting on with it for most of 2019 as I attempt to juggle life on two continents with the invisible and contrary sidekick that is depression.
As Dad outlines the possible next steps involving a gamut of daily treatments rather than chemo every 21 days like now, I can hear his voice weaken. And fade. He has a comprehensive grip on everything and is conveying information at the rate of knots while I jot down key dates. And he is exhausted.
He then hands the phone to my stepmom and the conversation veers into voluntary euthanasia territory within a minute. And France’s stance on the matter hindered by objections from the Catholic church even though we’re a secular state. And wishes I’ve been aware of for years but which sounded abstract until illness struck. Once upon a time, I used to call Switzerland and then the Netherlands home. Both countries allow death with dignity.
My stepmom knows my heart, has always known it although she didn’t raise me. Her message is implicit and urgent, it hits home. She’s an atheist, so am I. We have no filter.
When our 90-minute phone call is over, I feel as nauseated as my stepmom has been feeling for the last few weeks.
Put it down to empathy, the power of suggestion, or simply stress, eating has been repellent for many weeks. I survive on vegan protein powder shakes, homemade soups and puddings when I really must get something down me. I’m French, we live for food, this is a travesty and those shakes are about as pleasant as drinking diluted grout mixed with kids’ toothpaste. But they keep me going with minimal side-effects. Such drastic measures are all part of adapting to ever-changing circumstances and outsmarting the parasite in my head.
A member of the tribe pops up on my screen, asking for an update. They agree the news don’t sound good. And they know, this is their field. Ours is a brief but heartfelt exchange to be continued later because our time zones never align. I can’t see my screen anymore so I collapse on the sofa in my home office.
Suddenly I’m on a boat in the middle of a storm and all I can do to weather it is remember to take the next breath and the one after that. My eyes are closed but everything is moving around me.
I’m home alone, my cats are downstairs, and I end up grabbing onto the side of the sofa to steady myself although the rest of me is perfectly still.
After five years of not listening to any music, I’ve been force-feeding my brain with audio vitamins on a loop for over a week. And my cell phone with earbuds still attached made it to the sofa with me. Not sure bouncy Quebec electro-pop can be much help right this very minute, and the person I’d call in such circumstances is dead. But I remember I have something I can use, a mixture of ASMR and voice, about seven minutes worth of ad-hoc narrative and rainy soundscape.
So I stick the earbuds in, press play, and surrender. And because insomnia has been fierce of late, the track somehow makes me relax and fall asleep. Stabbing stomach pains wake me up an hour later, everything is still moving, so I keep my eyes closed and try to think of headlines. Because I’m never not working.
Not only is this editorial obsession my saving grace, but it’s a sure sign I’m still functional, against all odds.
After focusing for a few minutes, I’m able to stand up. I open the window to get some fresh air into the office before going downstairs. In the freezing kitchen, I throw some protein powder and almond milk into the blender to make a monstrosity. I also dump four teaspoons of instant coffee and some cinnamon into the mix in an attempt to improve it. And then I take the viscous, carpet-colored brew back upstairs: It smells incredible, which makes the taste less offensive.
And I get right back to work, shaken but surprisingly clear-headed.
In the space of two hours, my haywire brain settles and rights itself because I allow it the time and space to do so.
Had I given in to the terror I experienced, I’d likely be rocking myself in a corner, in tears as the world around me falls apart. But the parasite in my head and I have lived together for five years now and have gotten quite intimate. I know its quirks and foibles, and it’s nothing if not predictable.
There are patterns to panic and anxiety attacks. Shock, stress, and insomnia also tend to increase the likelihood of such incidents. In short, what happened after this phone call with my father and stepmom was a textbook reaction.
Instead of dealing with it reactively and pushing back, I let it be and proceeded on instinct. I am lucky to work from home, which gives me a lot of leeway when it comes to dealing with crises. But even if you’re in a workplace, you can always isolate in the bathroom for a while, or go get some air on a non-smoking smoke break.
In my (limited and personal) experience, acknowledging the issue rather than trying to override it by any means necessary helps. To me, this makes a big difference in how long a crisis lasts and how it impacts me.
Please note I am neither a psych professional nor a science writer, just a news and current affairs journalist who has turned the pen on herself. My work is about documenting the difficulties of bootstrapping recovery and rebuilding a life that works in public.
If there’s one thing the darkness and silence of depression fear, it’s exposure.
And it so happens that exposure is my stock-in-trade.
Funny how it always all works out, isn’t it?