When the Top Blows Off


When the Top Blows Off

First published April  10, 2012 on facingcancer.ca

Would you like to read about what living with cancer resembles when the gloves come off?

Imagine for a moment that you exist in the shadow of a volcano.  Like Mount Etna it gets a little cranky from time to time and blows off some poisonous gas.  So long as you’re upwind you’re inoculated from the worst effects. These are the occurrences that you can chalk up to normal stress and frankly, most of you living cancer-free lives will have the occasional Etna-like day.

But hold on to your britches ‘cause this ride is about to get hot and bumpy.  You know it’s going to happen.  You can predict with even greater certainty than the world’s most renowned seismologist.  Vulcanologists have no more claim to an accurate predictive index than you do and yet, like a awe-struck mule you stand locked in place waiting for the moment when the entire top of the mountain comes off.

Let’s get all Wiki on this for a moment and you’ll begin to acknowledge the similarities:

A volcano is an opening from the Earth’s surface into pools of hot liquid rock (magma) beneath the Earth’s crust. The opening allows magma to expand and erupt, where it takes the form of lava, ash, cinders, or gas. Because the magma is under extreme pressure from the overlying crust, ejections of this material can expand explosively, causing an area of destruction several miles wide. Ejected ash, dust, and gas can persist in the atmosphere for weeks or months. Eruptions in or near the ocean can also generate tsunamis.

The Eruption

In a typical volcanic eruption, lava is forced up and out of chambers beneath the surface, sometimes creating a tall cone of rock and ash. If the ejection is energetic enough, “bombs” (large liquid globs of lava) can be thrown from the vent for miles through the air. Lava will flow from the eruption site and may cover a large area. “Pyroclastic clouds” are flows of superheated gas and rock (called tephra) that can race from a volcano at speeds up to 700 km/hr (450 mph), usually steered down slopes by gravity. These can destroy almost everything in their path, heat the air to 1000°C (1830°F), and carry noxious, deadly gases.

OK.  You with me so far?

You’re now coming to understand a little bit more about how this fight wears and tears you down.  You’re now getting a glimpse, with terrifying transparency, of how a most unwelcome disease sets off rumblings within your core.  How, even  with all of the best support and being forearmed with knowledge, you remain frozen to the spot as the bombs drop all around you.

Curiously, it doesn’t take something cataclysmic to launch the summit.  More often it is the culmination of little indignities, normally brushed off cynical commentary, the impact a complete stranger introduces, and a simple, if messy, domestic mishap.

It’s at this point that pretty much everyone at the party says something inappropriate and emotions kept in check for days just let rip.

And, it is this aspect of this goddamn disease that really tears me up.

I end up behaving “like a baby”.

I launch into diatribes best left at the roadside along with the rest of the day’s jetsam.

I become immune to all notions of decency that even the most loathsome despot would embrace.

What to do?  What to do?

If you’ve read my profile, you’ll know that I acknowledged living with clinical depression.  Here’s where things get a little more complicated for the caregiver with depression:  depression is often expressed as hostility, rejection, and irritability.

Despite all of the advances in the recognition of depression as a real illness, there are still people wandering this earth who truly believe that we should just be able to “snap out of it”, “buck up”, and “be strong”.  After all, what we’re afflicted with won’t kill us.

Or will it?

Did you know that an enormously high percentage of caregivers develop depression?  I didn’t.  Of course, I already had it so in some respects I can consider myself lucky that this wasn’t something new.

Here’s what The Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) writes about it:

Caregiving does not cause depression, nor will everyone who provides care experience the negative feelings that go with depression. But in an effort to provide the best possible care for a family member or friend, caregivers often sacrifice their own physical and emotional needs and the emotional and physical experiences involved with providing care can strain even the most capable person. The resulting feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, isolation, exhaustion—and then guilt for having these feelings—can exact a heavy toll.Everyone has negative feelings that come and go over time, but when these feelings become more intense and leave caregivers totally drained of energy, crying frequently or easily angered by their loved one or other people, it may well be a warning sign of depression. Concerns about depression arise when the sadness and crying don’t go away or when those negative feelings are unrelenting.

Unfortunately, feelings of depression are often seen as a sign of weakness rather than a sign that something is out of balance. Comments such as “snap out of it” or “it’s all in your head” are not helpful, and reflect a belief that mental health concerns are not real. Ignoring or denying your feelings will not make them go away.

So is there a point somewhere in all of this?

Yes.  A short while ago I wrote in this blog a few tips about how to respond to the quite natural feelings of anger that can arise – that WILL arise.

I left one out.

Acknowledge that the task you’ve been given is a real and genuine bitch.  And, if you’re already someone with a vulnerability – in my case, depression – do whatever you can to gird your loins for the rumblings at the earth’s core.

Seek help.  Talk to friends.  Don’t try to handle it all by yourself and know that the one whom you love most on earth will not always be the person from whom you can expect compassionate insight.  After all, they are the one whose veins are injected with poison and the last thing we should do is compound the pain with what can be seen as self-indulgent lashing out.

Remember though, that we have to look after ourselves too.  On days like this I am of absolutely no use to Kate.  I am more of a detriment than anything else so I must find ways to shake off the black dog or at the very least send him chasing after a stick while leaving me to enjoy the park for even a short while.

That lava flow needn’t be seen as ultimately destructive.  After all, Hawaii was created and is still being created by volcanic eruption and last time I was in Maui it seemed like a damn nice place.

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