This is not Another Hurdle, This is the Next Step

Self-talk impacts our ability to keep going. Always be gentle.

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Photo by Iben Kønig on Unsplash

Selecting the right soundtrack is key to finding the portal into an uninterrupted two-hour writing sprint while in transit. To crank up the joy despite current circumstances is a tall order but there is no horror music cannot assuage. Playing one track on a loop forces my brain to relinquish its grip on the anxiety gnawing at my insides.

Tomorrow, my parents and I are meeting with my stepmom’s oncologist; as befits stage 4 cancer, hope is tentative, cautious, and resigned. I expect my father will once again deliver his serenity lecture at dinner; my stepmom and I will exchange knowing looks, wondering if he will ever get it. There will probably be death jokes, too, because humor is how we cope when we’re forced to consider the unthinkable. We’re blunt and we don’t do magical thinking; we’re also tenacious and defiant otherwise we would never get through days like these.

Days like these have been going on since September 2018 and long may they continue. While hoping for remission may not be realistic within the current parameters, “not worse” or “less bad” always count as good news. While complete detachment is something both my stepmom and I are highly proficient in, it only happens when we get to the hospital. The hours leading up to tomorrow’s appointment are going to be torturous, fraught with insomnia, and draining, no matter what we do.

We find it easier to get through them together rather than apart, which is why I am on a high-speed train from North Holland to France. Tomorrow, we take the next step, whatever it is; we will prop one another up if we have to but we will keep moving forward until life runs out.

This is the only expectation we have and the reason why we’ve all become masters in the art of mindfulness.

Make the most of today because tomorrow might bail on you.

We’re long past catastrophic scenarios so we don’t squander our time entertaining them; there’s no point. Giving in to fear would be a waste of time so we focus on love, this mighty force that holds us together and ripples out to anyone who orbits around my family. My parents are the darlings of the oncology ward; most nurses greet them with kisses on cheeks, something I yet have to see happen with anyone else.

Their chemistry is something else and they’re always laughing so stressed people naturally gravitate to them. Cancer didn’t do that, this is who they’ve always been, friendly, curious, and easy-going folks who are always happy to have a chat with strangers.

My father’s optimism is a force of nature; he projects an aura of quiet confidence designed to take as much pressure off his wife as possible. “I have it easy,” she has told me on many occasions, “your dad takes care of everything.” While he manages her treatment and medication schedule, “easy” isn’t the adjective that comes to mind when undergoing heavy chemo. There’s never a hint of irony in her voice though; her ability to endure with patience and grace has carried her through a tumultuous life.

Unexpectedly, it is by my parents’ side that I relearned how to live, too, after depression did away with all that was good in my life and stalled it for half a decade. I showed up on my parents’ doorstep at the end of December 2018, offered them a hand to hold, and here we are a year later, on the same continent again.

Everything is so surreal I keep checking my pocket to make sure there are Dutch house keys in it, that none of this is an hallucination. Reality hitting home is always bittersweet and disturbing: I’m not the patient but would I still be here if cancer hadn’t struck people I love? I never got the chance to say goodbye to my best friend and hug him one last time. I was still trying to figure out how to do that when cancer killed him; some days, grief still throws my brain for a loop and disables critical thinking altogether.

Make the most of today because tomorrow might bail on you.

Empowering self-talk isn’t exactly the forte of anyone who has spent time getting up close and personal with mental illness. While I value facts too much to embrace fiction, remaining factual when there’s a parasite in your head declaring your life has come to an end is a challenge.

Given enough time, depression will distort everything and anything until it’s so unfathomable you can’t even explain it because depression’s perception of reality doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny. Anyone with enough love and patience to help you parse depressive propaganda will help you debunk it quickly by pointing out the disease’s many lapses of reason.

Now that I know this and have good people around me, I strive to set the mental noise aside to prevent it from getting too deafening. Hence music, the distraction that also conjures up instant focus and purpose, even when I’m exhausted.

On rough days, my self-talk is a DJ backed by an algorithm that keeps me on my toes, delivering delight one discovery at a time. Earbuds are pacifiers for the soul, headphones provide a more grounding experience but they can also alienate people so I only use mine on flights or at home. Like my parents, I relish random convos with strangers, including my seat neighbor when they’re open to it.

Approaching life as a series of steps forward making up movement is a lot more forgiving than punitive to-do lists as it allows momentum to gather strength and grow. As long as you keep moving forward, you are making progress; even though you may not be aware you are moving, it all adds up eventually.

Reframing hurdles as steps, daring to hold our head high, and taking stock of how far we’ve come shows us helplessness is always a limiting belief, never reality. And since the words we use impact how we perceive and approach life, dispassionate, non-judgmental language can help us control anxiety too. Conversely, jargon preloaded with the expectation of difficulty or failure can trigger or exacerbate it.

Make the most of today because tomorrow might bail on you.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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