How to be sad

This post should probably be titled “How to be sad question mark” because I don’t know if I really know how to be sad well enough to be giving instructions. I can’t really give instructions on being sad, but I can talk about how it happens sometimes.

I’ve been pretty happy lately. This is generally something I worry about, prolonged periods of happiness. Not because I think it’s a sign of manic depression or that reflects a simple involvement with the world, but because I mean to be prepared to have the rug pulled out from under my feet all the time and if I’m too happy, I forget. And then when the rug is pulled and I fall over, I feel stupid for forgetting. Kind of like if I’d only been cautious and diligent in my watching, that rug wouldn’t have moved at all; that it can only be moved if I stop paying attention. And I stop paying attention when I’m happy.

Today was a hospital day. After I had my blood drawn, I went to the waiting room and sat down. My friend — we met in a support group, and again in the waiting room a couple of months ago — was there with her partner. She’s been in a clinical trial for recurrence and today she would find out if it was working or not. We chatted about the ways she had been keeping busy to help pass the time between her CT scan and appointment with the oncologist. I was called in to an examination room, and when I went back out to the waiting room, my friend was gone.

Hospital visits never happen in the time span you think they will. I waited an hour or two — I lost track of the time — for blood test results which would let me know if I could have chemo this week or not. So I sat, reading. And my friend came back to the waiting room with her partner. She was crying. I knew she didn’t get the news she wanted.

I looked up at the two of them, and quickly looked back down. I blushed because it is embarrassing to witness moments like these. Maybe I mean humbling, I don’t know, all I know is that my cheeks burned red. My friend and her partner sat down beside me, quietly crying and talking about what happens next. I just looked at the words on the pages of my book, not really making sense of them, trying not to cry. I couldn’t say anything — it wasn’t my moment, and I would have cried if I tried to say something. And besides, anything I would have said would be inadequate. It’s one of my greatest frustrations, the complete inadequacy of language; the inability to articulate the grief and anger and frustration of a moment.

I spoke to a journalist from the Toronto Star last week and one of the things I brought up was the knowledge a cancer patient has that often the people they meet and form relationships with are going to die, and not in the abstract sense that everyone dies, but in the real, immediate sense that they are actively dying. We tell stories of triumph, when we tell stories at all. But not everyone is triumphant. And we don’t really talk about it. Maybe out of a fear of jinxing ourselves, or because we don’t want to group ourselves as also potentially actively dying, or because we know we don’t really belong to that group yet and it’s not appropriate to talk about those who aren’t as lucky as we are.

I feel guilty sometimes. Every cancer patient feels guilty at some point. Guilt for worrying friends and family. Guilt if we have successful treatment, guilt if we don’t. Sometimes I feel guilty because I worry that my friends who have had long remissions like me will be worried now that their cancer will come back because mine did. I feel guilty for being relatively lucky for having had a seven-year period without cancer and for being fairly likely to enjoy another long remission, if not a complete response. When I was waiting to get my blood drawn, I was talking to a woman from Sudbury who is seeing her oncologist tomorrow. She is pretty sure she’s recurred again, for the second time. She said she wished she had seven years between her initial diagnosis and her first recurrence. And I felt bad, even though I understood she wasn’t begrudging me the time I had.

And I feel bad for my friend. It doesn’t matter that intellectually I know it isn’t my fault (and to think otherwise is incredibly self-centred). There’s this tiny voice inside me telling me that if I had been more cautious and careful, if I had worried a bit more and not let myself be too happy that I could have somehow changed her results. No matter how much I know that to be untrue, I’ll never be able to fully shake the feeling. Or the feeling that if I hadn’t let myself be so happy, then I wouldn’t feel as sad as I do right now. There is an allure to pessimism, but realistically it doesn’t make the bad stuff feel any less bad just because you expect it. It just makes it less unexpected.

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About Alicia Louise

I'm a writer, editor, fact checker, storyteller, events organizer, chronically busy yet endlessly lazy, mildly neurotic (though I keep the neuroses well-hidden, one hopes) 32-year-old with recurrent ovarian cancer. I like people and good writing and straight talk. I have a hard time feeling sorry for people, including myself, but the people that I love, I love passionately; one may even say creepily. I try to keep that mostly to myself. I'd like to be charming, but I'm usually just a mess. I'm like a gull slamming into your windshield.
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