(with Unfinished Business)
It’s been 15 days (and counting) since I last saw my therapist. The last time I saw her I was still functioning under the illusion that she and her doctors were working, slowly, methodically, through a long diagnostic process. Initial signs, along with a family history, pointed to MS, but in order to diagnose, they had to work down the MS rule out list. There was a long list of possibilities to test for and that would take time to get through. I did not sense any urgency. It seemed sensible to remain calm and carry on with these rule-out tests. Cancer was in the mix, and mentioned, along with the caveat that it seemed unlikely. At one point, less than a month ago, there was even talk of just needing back surgery, with a mere 10 days to recuperate.
So I wasn’t worried. And I wasn’t prepared when the very next day, the cancer diagnosis was made. I had no time to prepare. I didn’t know we’d be heading into a long, traumatic break. When she took a 3-week break last spring, we had time to prepare and plan and find ways to explicitly stay connected. This time, the bottom just fell out.
It’s not that I was completely unaware of shifting dynamics. I had started to notice that she wasn’t in top form, that her energy and patience were waning. I knew that I wasn’t able to extract from her or our time together what I needed.
We were in the middle of intense work and now it stopped, without warning. And I have no idea when it might resume. My primary oxygen tank ran out long ago. My backup tank is nearing empty.
My therapist keeps encouraging me and everyone on her caseload to seek out supplemental support. She provided a long list of names and contact information. I wonder how many people have reached out to these other therapists. Or is everyone else just as frozen and in shock as I am?
Initially we were told that she would receive treatment as an in-patient followed by two weeks at home, during which she was encouraged to resume normal activities, including work. But her treatment regimen proved more taxing, her doctors overly optimistic. I was living with the hope she would make it to the office this week, or maybe by the end of the week, or surely by Monday. But this week has slipped away and next week looks very uncertain – which means the next in-patient cycle will begin the week after and I’m still here hanging onto hope that is slipping out of my grasp.
I’m in such denial that I can’t even bear to delete my appointments from my calendar. I’m still ruthlessly guarding that time, just in case something changes. It’s only when the designated time has come and gone that I can delete the digital placeholder.
What started as a slow process has suddenly started moving at warp speed. I can’t help but feeling left behind as a treatment team swooped in and took over. There are regimens and therapies and protocols to follow. There is a plan, although often shifting, but a plan nonetheless.
I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a team of professionals offering guidance. I’m feeling very alone and a bit aimless.
It’s hard to know what would help right now. The only person I want to talk to is her – but I can’t even talk about all the things I’m feeling and experiencing. I can’t burden her with my fear and anger and disappointment and discomfort. I could reach out to another therapist but I loathe having to retell my story and I worry about feeling misunderstood because I can’t possibly condense what’s taken me more than 4 years to express. I could go and just talk about what it’s like to have to stand by, helpless, while your therapist has cancer – but what then do I do with all the other stuff? I don’t know that I have the energy to let someone else into that space. I am not interested in building a relationship or therapeutic alliance with someone else. And if I do go see someone on weeks that she is not able to work, what then do I do if she is able to make it in the office? Do I just see her, or just the other therapist, or both?
In this mixed-up and crazy world, therapy was something I could count on. It was always there, without fail, at an appointed place and time. I always knew she would be in her chair, waiting for me. A backup therapist just doesn’t satiate my need for consistency, predictability and routine.
I try to close my eyes and imagine what it will feel like to be sitting in the same room. I try to imagine how she will look, I try to mentally prepare for the new haircut and potential other visible changes. But, really, what will we talk about? What can we say? Will we just sit together in silent reflection? Will that be comforting or alienating?
I know that my therapist is not the only one hurting right now. I’m sure her children are in a state of pain. I’m sure there are other people who depend on her who are in pain. It always hurts to see someone you love suffer. I wish there was a chemo for helplessness and despair. I wish there was a treatment protocol with a high probability of eradicating these feelings. I wish I knew what might be relieving.
She has encouraged all of us to “let sorrow and fear move through like waves.” I’m trying my best to do that, and to not let the waves pull me under. But that’s easier said than done when you are feeling flooded.
I do have an inkling of what it feels like to reckon with a life-threatening condition. I know that depression can be just as toxic and damaging and unpredictable and treatment-resistant and deadly as any cancer. I know that the darkness can be as all-consuming as out-of-control cell growth.
Friends and neighbors and colleagues –all those people who have a relationship that is not clouded in confidentiality – have swooped in to help. They have organized a Care Calendar and a Food Train and are able to visit. I am jealous of many of these people – those whose relationships are far less intimate, who may not know as much as she has shared with me over the years, who may not have even known her for as long as I have.
I stay connected as best I can with emails and text messages, although sometimes I have to consciously disconnect for my own sake. It is heartbreaking that the rules of therapy mandate that our face-to-face relationship is only allowed to exist in the confines of a physical office space. And when circumstances spill outside of that boundary, I am unsure of the protocol. I know that there are new boundaries about what we can and cannot speak of, I’m just not sure what the boundaries are now around time and physical location. Will those also shift and adapt, or are those unmovable?
I worry about the ways this cancer experience is going to change her. I worry about what all the drugs circulating through her body are doing to her. I have this persistent thought: that they return her to us mostly as she was before.
Yet I know she can’t help but be changed by this experience. So I worry about how that new-found perspective on life and suffering will inform our work. I worry that she will be so overcome with zest for life that she won’t have the capacity to stare down the darkness. I worry that cancer will become the new yardstick for every trial or tribulation that erupts: well at least you don’t have cancer. I worry that the post-cancer version of her might not be very helpful to me anymore. I am already longing for the old version of her to come back to me, just as she was. We have unfinished business to tend to.