Stockholm Syndrome

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Stockholm Syndrome

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First published May 6, 2012 on facingcancer.ca

It is Sunday evening as I write this.  The kids are just put to bed.  Gabe produced a rather nice and surprisingly capable reading of ‘Goodnight iPad’ for a four-year old and Sam was most amused.  It has been a beautiful sun-filled day with harbingers of the summer to come.

And yet as I write it is with a deeply-rooted sense of unease.

Eighteen weeks ago tomorrow Kate’s chemo commenced.  Tomorrow, for the first time since January, we will not be making the trip to Credit Valley.  We both felt that this would be a moment of great rejoicing and renewal.  It is not.

About four weeks into Kate’s chemotherapy I had a most enjoyable (and in retrospect too infrequent) cup of joe with Bothsides.  She was most helpful in shedding light on some of the issues I was attempting to address in my shotgun role and at the time it seemed curious that she mentioned that tonight I would probably be feeling what I’m feeling.

That surprised me for it seemed more likely a time to unpack the ticker tape (hell, do they even make ticker tape anymore), call out the marching band and strike up some John Philip Sousa!  At that time I asked Alex if she was familiar with Stockholm Syndrome.  She politely claimed she was not but knowing her better now I’m sure it was just a technique intended to allow me to express some thoughts.  She’s like that!

I posited that someone undergoing the trauma of chemo might in fact find some degree of comfort in the ‘poisonous’ relationship as although it made one feel absolutely dreadful it was a relationship where some benefit might accrue from the hardship.  The regularity of the treatments and the knowledge that the patient is fighting tooth and nail might in fact provide some perverse but understandable comfort.

Consider the following.

Stockholm syndrome is “the phenomenon in which victims display compassion and even loyalty to their captors.  It was first widely recognized after the Swedish bank robbery that gave it its name.  For six days in August 1973, thieves Jan-Erik Olsson and Clark Olofsson held four Stockholm bank employees hostage at gunpoint in a vault.  When the victims were released, their reaction shocked the world: they hugged and kissed their captors, declaring their loyalty even as the kidnappers were carted off to jail….No widely accepted diagnostic criteria exist to identify Stockholm syndrome – also know as terror-bonding or traumatic bonding….”* (bolding by me)

So, when I read this piece recently the notion of terror and/or trauma bonding made a lot of sense.   In fact, Kate has more recently read about Dr. Marla Shapiro’s experience of the end of chemotherapy and in her book she explains feeling something similar.

At least while chemo is underway you can legitimately believe that the treatment is actively hammering away at your disease.  When the flow is interrupted though – what is happening?  Will it come back?  Has it just been hiding away in some dark corner awaiting the first hint of a Sousa march to come prancing back down the main street of your life?

Now, to be clear, neither of us would sign up for more chemo to test the theory.  It is our solemn pledge to never darken the door of a chemo ward again except to provide support for someone else.  (By the way Rachel, if you read this we’ll be thinking of you and Philip tomorrow.)  However, in my role as co-pilot and in trying to help others in my position just be aware that the reality of the last day of chemo will in all likelihood not live up to the celebratory expectations you had.  Oh hell, crack open some bubbly if you like or dish out some ice cream but in our experience we suggest you take this one step at a time and celebrate a number of small victories that can occur along the way.

Perhaps a little trip to Stockholm might be nice!



April 23, 2012 and the bells ring out

*TIME Magazine, L. Fitzpatrick, August 31, 2009

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