18 September 2008


For better or for worse

There's no good reason to try to determine which has been the worst year of your life, but I do consider it from time to time. It could have been last year, when I found out I had cancer, went through painful simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation, had four different surgical procedures (one of which kept me in hospital for almost a month), lost 60 pounds, and ended off with yet more chemo and no end in sight for treatment, even though I was feeling better.

It could be that. But it could also have been 2004, when I nearly lost my wife Air to clinical depression. I alluded to what happened that year, but never wrote about it it any detail, to maintain her privacy.

Now, almost five years later, she has written a four-part series on surviving major depression, as guest blogger at Mental Health Notes. She covers her initial post-partum depression back in 2000, the catastrophic breakdown in 2004 that took her to our local hospital's mental health ward for two weeks, her subsequent intensive outpatient treatment program at the hospital and gradual return to work, and the silver linings she has learned about in the years since, and now that she's had to take care of me through all my health problems.

In that weighty year, the worst moment for me was one day, after bringing our daughters to visit Air in the hospital. We had played cards with her in the patient lounge, on the ward where nothing is sharp, and there is nothing mounted to the wall or ceiling that will hold a person's weight. I brought the kids back to the car and buckled them into their seats, then I slumped on the outside of the door, and I cried and cried, not even caring what the girls thought, or whether some stranger might see me there, weeping against the station wagon in the hospital parking lot. At that moment I didn't know if my wife would ever leave that ward, or if she did, what would happen. I feared our life together would change permanently.

And it did. But, in many ways, for the better. When you get married, there's a reason you pledge to stay together for better or for worse, and part of it is that the worse forges something in your marriage that the better never could.

I look at her writing this way: I don't have to be brave to admit I have cancer. It brings almost nothing but sympathy from everyone who hears. I wish it were so for depression and other mental illness, but it isn't. As someone who's never been clinically depressed, I regret terribly that I really didn't understand what Air was suffering at all until it had gotten very, very bad in late 2003 and early 2004. I didn't have a fucking clue. And most of the rest of us don't either. Many people who have no experience with it remain judgmental about mental illness, so for her to write about it candidly now, when she doesn't have to—well, that's brave.

Her treatments have worked extraordinarily well over the past four years, but as with my cancer, as long as she is alive her battle is never over. I hope I am a better help in her fight now than I was in my previous ignorance. As my love and the person who cares for me, she is certainly the best reason to try my hardest to stick around.

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04 March 2008



Many months ago I said, about my cancer treatment, that I'm not brave, even though people say it. Bravery is facing danger head-on when you have other choices. Here have been my choices over the past year and a bit:

  1. Potentially life-saving small surgery? Yes or no?
  2. Potentially life-saving two-month radiation treatment? Yes or no?
  3. Potentially life-saving early two-month chemotherapy? Yes or no?
  4. Potentially life-saving large surgery? Yes or no?
  5. Potentially life-saving late six-month chemotherapy? Yes or no?

The basic choice has been: Treatment or death? Yes or no?

That's a pretty easy decision.

My real choices have been pretty small, and the choice to blog (and appear on the radio) about all this stuff was also an easy one, because this was the question: Write about my cancer like I write about everything else, and keep the information flowing? Or live two lives, and try to remember whom I've told and whom I should be hiding stuff from every single damn day?

Why would I choose to keep it private? Given who I am, how could I possibly do that and stay focused?

I said in that radio interview and elsewhere that, as far as relating to other people goes, cancer is an easy disease. People don't judge me for it. (Perhaps if it wasn't colorectal cancer, but lung cancer from smoking or liver cancer from drinking, some people might judge me. But even so, cancer is no longer "the C word.") They're sympathetic, and cut me a lot of slack.

What takes some bravery is what fellow Vancouver blogger Corinna is doing at her site Gus Greeper: writing in painful, wrenching detail about her depression, anxiety, and therapy. And her trip to the hospital yesterday after she downed a handful of pills and some wine.

Depression and other mental illnesses still have a big stigma. They shouldn't. For someone who has never experienced them, like me, they are tremendously difficult to understand, but that doesn't make them less real. And let me tell you, until you've been close to or had cancer yourself, you don't understand it either.

Stay brave, Corinna. It's worth the fight.

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