Living in a Box.

Who in their right mind looks forward to cancer treatment? Me. I need a break. I can’t physically find the time to fit everything in, and the idea of lying in a hospital bed waiting to get my cancerous bap sliced open and stuffed with silicone, saline or pig fat is suddenly not without appeal. I’ve come a long way in a few weeks – before, the idea threw me into a blind panic, but I’m so tired, and so ready to accept offers of babysits, dog walks, and help around the house, that I give up. I’ll trade anything – even my left breast – for a good night’s sleep and some time off work and away from the boys, who are in the throes of grief for the third year running. They’re sapping every last scrap of energy I have, and testing my patience to its limits. I adore them, and sympathise, but fuck – it’s hard.

It was all planned quite nicely. As nicely as planning cancer treatment can be, anyway. A few months ago, very soon after my husband had died but before my diagnosis, the boys and I had booked to go to Center Parcs on WAY – Widowed and Young’s annual holiday, as I thought it would be useful for us all to get to know some other bereaved young families. After discussions with the surgeon, we agreed that the boys’ need to meet other like-minded children was probably greater than the risk of postponing the surgery for a couple more weeks. We rescheduled the operation for mid-November – much later than we’d wanted, but the earliest they could find two slots, three weeks apart, for the type of surgery I’m having – and were instructed to go away, relax, and enjoy ourselves. But I hated almost every minute of it.

It wasn’t because of the charity itself, or the lovely, like-minded people I met there, who had similar tales of missing their spouses and a reassuringly heavy obsession with wine. It wasn’t the bicycles or water slides (which my husband would have loved) or the activities on offer – all organised well. It wasn’t the fact that I’d walked into the tail-end of the WAY Hallowe’en party with my wonderful villa mate (whose husband had dropped dead from a cardiac arrest the year before) as the DJ played “Jar of Hearts.” (We wondered if “Stayin’ Alive” or “Living in a Box” had made it onto the playlist earlier.) It wasn’t just that my children had, over the last few weeks, begun to become an angry pair of little shits, petrified of losing me as well as their beloved Daddy, and increasingly more furious with me every time I dared to cry, or to mention how much I missed him. I hated the WAY weekend, simply because it was just too soon for me to accept that I’m a widow.

As we became lost in the stupid bastard forest on our way to some ridiculously bereavement-inappropriate shooting game, I lost it. Completely. The smug twatting non-bereaved families of four, with their little trailers and flags and polka dotted Joules wellies who walked along holding hands as I raced past on my bicycle, screaming at my children that a fucking mastectomy would have been more fun after all, may well have been somewhat bemused, but I couldn’t have given less of a shit if I’d tried. They had what I’d had. They had a happy family, and I didn’t any more. They were probably the sort of people who’d try to helpfully say that I’d “get there eventually,” wherever the fuck “there” is. Where is it? I was there. I had it. All of it. And now I don’t. So, fuck you, and your stupidly jolly chunky knitwear. Just fuck the fuck off.

My husband should have been there. Here. With us. At Center Parcs, or wherever. We shouldn’t have been there just so we could meet other widows and widowers, and identify people who were “just like us” by their trademark blue WAY hoodies. As a family of four, we used to stay in five star hotels in exotic locations and meet people “just like us,” but suddenly a glorified swimming baths in a wood outside Nottingham was where we belonged instead. Had we been there as a family, we’d have loved it, I’m sure. And we should have been there as a family. A whole family. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet anyone as newly qualified into widowhood as me, and found it difficult to see old friends laughing together – people who’d lost their partners years ago, who had begun to rebuild. People who talked about being widowed the way my friends and I might talk about giving birth – never forgetting the life-altering magnitude of the situation, but perhaps more able to discuss it freely without being automatically wrenched straight back into the searing pain of it all. I didn’t resent them – I just couldn’t ever imagine being ready to move on, and these Merry Widows seemed as alien to me as the non-bereaved Chunky Knit Brigade on the outside, playing happy families in their identical little boxes in the woods, wondering what all the blue hoodies were in aid of. A new friend of mine had been asked by a Perfect Family what WAY stood for. She explained, and the inquirers shuffled and turned away.

The veteran WAYers were still widowed, and (mostly) still young, but in a different place from me. Not necessarily a good place – just different. No doubt, they’ll have felt like I did when they first came – in fact, a few people (who picked me up from the floor and wiped away my tears on many occasions over the course of the weekend) said the first time is always awful, and begged me to come back and try again next year. I suppose it’s that slow and horrible acceptance that you’re part of a club that nobody wants to join, and perhaps I’m just not ready to admit that I’m a member yet. For so many, the earth on their partner’s grave had settled, and had given them a more solid foundation upon which to start building new friendships and memories, but my husband’s memory is still so fresh that my heart sinks into the earth every time I think of what we’ve lost. For many old hands, that annual trip to Center Parcs has become an event to treasure, not to dread, and I hope that next year, we’ll have the same positive experience. Maybe Widowed and Young won’t be for me until I really start to accept that I’m widowed. For now, I’m still married. It’s just that my husband isn’t alive any more.

Love Fanny x

 

 

centerparcs-family

Happy fucking nuclear families, totally unaware of how lucky they are. Copyright centerparcs.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

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Positively Mental.

It’s World Mental Health Day today. And do you know what? I’m happy. I’m not happy because my husband has died, or because I’m about to have my left breast removed. I’m not happy that my children are about to watch me become ill just six months after we’d held their daddy’s lifeless hands and promised we’d love and miss him forever. And we do. We always will. I’m not happy that they saw him go from a healthy, happy man to nothing at all, or that they can only visualise the same thing happening to me (even though the same thing won’t happen to me.) I’m not happy that they can barely remember a Christmas in their short lives where they haven’t had a parent on cancer treatment. I’m not happy that today I can’t stop bloody well crying, for no particular reason, except for those reasons outlined above, which are probably reason enough.

I’m happy because, well – I’m happy. And that’s my husband’s doing. Not because he made me happy, specifically (like most people with a penis, he acted like one a lot of the time,) but because he’d been through years of depression and complicated relationships, sought help, became a different man, and then met me. He encouraged me to get some help. He couldn’t counsel me, because we were married, but he did point me in the right direction and pushed me to do the work myself (which really pissed me off, because a lot of the time I couldn’t be arsed, and was a bit frightened of change.)

I’d been depressed for years. For as long as I could remember. I’d had a relatively difficult childhood and celebrated my sixteenth birthday in a young person’s psychiatric unit following an overdose of paracetamol and barbiturates, having lost three stone in as many months. Nowadays, my main parenting goal is to see my kids celebrate their sixteenth birthday in the local cricket club. You know, like normal people do.

But I did do the work. Not with my husband, but with several different counsellors over several sessions across several years, and I found my way. I screamed at empty chairs, I wrote letters to the people who’d wronged me, I found the answers for myself, and within them I found happiness. I found myself. I got to the stage where, just like my husband, I hadn’t had a wholesale change in personality, but I had completely changed my attitude, and my outlook. I’d become somebody I liked. I’d handle a problem or a conflict head-on, instead of chewing over it and worrying. I became inherently honest instead of making lame excuses. Things still pissed me off, and life wasn’t perfect because life never is, but my husband and I were happy with ourselves and with each other. What other people thought of us was pretty much irrelevant, because we’d stopped caring about that, but we always made an effort to just be kind. Shit still happened, our kids were little bastards a lot of the time, but I wasn’t depressed, and I’m still not. I’m sad. Very, very, very sad. And grieving – partly for that brilliant partnership which was based on truth, openness, understanding, and a LOT of good humour. Achieving that state of mind was a real battle, and I’m proud to say that I won it.

Now, I’m battling cancer, apparently, which is a term that gets right on my tits. Lots of people battle disease, or disability. My husband never gave up, and really did fight his cancer to the end. It got him. It doesn’t mean he failed. He did as much as he could. He couldn’t have tried harder, and seeing inspirational memes on Facebook from people who have “kicked cancer’s arse” or “won the battle” are a little bit hard to swallow for those who didn’t win theirs. It’s not a fucking competition. Nor has any of this been a punishment – he was just bloody unlucky, and I’m slightly less so.

Let me be clear about something. I’m not battling anything. I’m just sitting here, usually with a glass of wine, carrying on with my life, screaming at the children, and wondering when my next appointment is going to be. Yes, I have major wobbles over my forthcoming boob job, but I’m lucky because my sort of cancer is one that they know all about, and if it turns out that I need chemotherapy (still unlikely, but we’ll find out for sure after the first surgery,) I’m fortunate enough to live in the sort of ghastly northern town where badly drawn-on eyebrows and dodgy hairpieces are very much de rigeur, so I’ll fit right in.

Breast cancer, according to pretty much every medical person I’ve spoken to recently, is no big deal any more. They know what they’re doing, and unless it has metastasised, they can usually cure it. Sadly, I know there are exceptions to the rule – and although there are no cast-iron guarantees I’ll survive, I’m fairly sure that I’m more likely to die as I navigate my way to the end of our cul-de-sac, because I drive like a complete wanker. Losing a breast is horrible. Going through any kind of treatment is horrible. But for most women, it’s a blip, and all over and done with in a few months. Hair grows back, but breasts – and I bloody love mine – don’t, but they’re an appendage that every woman can do without, if they have to. Put it this way, no matter how much it’s upsetting me to lose one, if I had a choice between this, MS, Parkinson’s, Motor Neurone, or any so far incurable and debilitating condition, I’d reluctantly choose breast cancer every day of the week. And I’d certainly choose breast cancer over a deep and lingering depression.

When my doctors looked at my scan, and my boobs, and the biopsies they’d taken, they knew what to do. The options might not have been ones that I liked very much (I mean, who wants a mastectomy, radiotherapy, and then the joy of taking Tamoxifen for ten years with all the thrilling side effects that come along for the ride? Not me,) but just because I don’t want them doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have them. I’d be a bit stupid not to, with no surviving parent to bring up our children, and I don’t want to die. They can cure my cancer, and I’m going to let them. They can cure it. They know what to do. Six months from now, in theory, I can move on from this, and while the mental scars will take time to heal, I hope they eventually will.

Mental health is a different beast altogether. Nobody really knows what to do. It’s all trial and error – drugs, talking, therapy, different drugs, crashes to earth – and there aren’t any easy answers. I see close friends who suffer with these silent, invisible illnesses, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for all the tea in the Co-Op. They don’t know how to help themselves, and much of the time it seems that nor does anyone else. Sure, I can give advice, I can listen, and I can hug. But the happiness has to come from within, and finding the end of the string to unravel it all can be a monumental task. Nobody can walk into a psychiatrist’s or counsellor’s office and be told precisely how quickly their cure will come, if it ever does. What works for one person may not work for someone else.

One in eight women will get breast cancer. To the population at large, when it happens, it’s the end of the fucking world. And it is, for a while. I’m not downplaying it – it’s bloody awful. Yet, the majority of us will walk away from our treatment with the rest of our lives ahead of us (if not an intact set of tits,) just as we did before. One in four of us will have mental health problems at some point in our lives, and to the population at large, when that happens, nobody fucking cares. Mental health patients, on the whole, are the ones truly “battling” illness. I’ve been there, and I promise you – it’s so much worse than cancer. Those of us who are fortunate enough to turn up to our appointments and be handed our cure on a plate should spare a thought for those whose cure eludes them. We should count our blessings, because it could all be so much worse than this.

Love Fanny x