The Truth About Depression

The truth about depression is that there is no one size fits all approach, it affects people in different ways; young or old, male or female, the experience differs for everyone. I have been experiencing depression in some form for a number of years and I can say with 100% certainty that cancer is the major reason why I feel the way I do.

As a society we tend to define happiness by some key factors; health, work, location and relationships. The idea is that if a person has all of these plates spinning at the same time, they will be content and happy, however if one falls that person becomes unbalanced.

I feel I live in a constant state of flux, only having stability in some areas means I’m loosing focus on what is good in my life, and small changes can feel like the icing on top of the cake, like all my spinning plates are crashing down and breaking into pieces all at once. On social media I keep reading the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Turns out I didn’t get any lemons, but instead got given a pile of shit, and what do I make with that…a shit sandwich?!?!

As a cancer patient I need options, and I need hope that things will get better, and living with terminal illness has meant I’ve been frequently deprived of these, halting my ability to try and move forward with my life. I feel I am frozen in time, like I’ve heard there is huge storm coming but there isn’t anywhere I can run and hide for shelter. I am not asking for the world, just some hope that my life will get easier. I don’t aspire to look like the Instagram influencers I’ve never met online, likewise I don’t want to be paid a lot of money to travel from country to country documenting my life. I only want a life to live in the first place. I just want to be happier, I don’t think that is asking a lot.

Depression isn’t about feeling down for a few hours when I wake up in the morning, It’s the constant cycle of highs and lows and it becomes more obvious when I start having more bad days than good ones. A lot of changes recently have made me feel I am going through a particularly dark stage and last week I burst into tears because the warning light came on in my car and I only had an MOT and service a couple of months ago. Out of the blue something small acts as a trigger and I fall apart over and over again, but each time I put myself back together I am missing another piece. Of course, it’s not really about the car, however it becomes another issue that has to be sorted out, another reason why I feel I am failing. Depression is one extreme to another, I’m either high with happiness or feel like I am falling down and no one will be able to catch me. I believe the voice in my head telling me negative thoughts and leaving me feeling hopeless for days at a time.

Some days are better – for a split second I feel that maybe, just maybe I will start to feel human again one day. Depression is serious and ugly and affects so many people from all backgrounds and walks of life, it doesn’t just disappear when you’ve had enough, but manifests over time. I am not going to wake up tomorrow morning and decide not to feel hopeless because that isn’t how it works.

I’ve read books where people have said they have a new appreciation for life since they were diagnosed with a serious illness, that the small things in life become more significant. I don’t jump out of bed every day grateful to be alive singing happy tunes at the top of my lungs, and no one else does it either! I am constantly told I’ve been lucky so far, so feel I should be eternally grateful. It goes without saying that of course I know it could be much worse, but I don’t see others celebrating in some special way just for being alive. I’d be fine with my lifestyle and accept the all things I can’t have if I felt I had some element of control, and could potentially live a long and healthy life. It’s not easy to believe everything will work itself out when I’ve been fighting fires for the last eight years.

Currently It’s not one particular thing that makes me emotional, it’s the whole process of being a terminally ill patient. It feels like everything and nothing at the same time. I am an outsider in a world full of insiders and It’s no coincidence that cancer has affected the way my life has panned out thus far, and I’ve failed because of it and I’m constantly trying to look for answers in a world where they don’t exist. It has changed every single aspect of my life and each day there are multiple reminders thrust in my face which only serve to highlight exactly why I am depressed. It could be seeing my scars in the mirror, using my Freedom Pass or Please Offer Me A Seat badge to travel, my constant blood tests, GP visits, the struggle it takes to get myself out of bed and go to work, and the antidepressants I take when I wake up each day. I have been having what I like to call ‘mini-breakdowns’ over the last 4 weeks so I feel an adjustment of my medication is needed.

I am now at an age where 85% of my peers are getting married, having children and buying houses. Cancer aside, when I was in my twenties I felt I had a lot of close friends and allies doing similar things to me, but now I am the odd one out. It doesn’t feel so bad being in a group, but nowadays It can feel isolating. It’s so difficult not to compare myself to other people when I’m surrounded by what I am missing out on every single day, and I feel like I am a failure in comparison.

I feel like the chance at a future has been taken away from me, which is a major issue when in comes to relationships. How do I find ‘The One’ when I feel there won’t ever be anyone for me? Nobody could take on the burden of my illness, I don’t want someone to care for me, just about me, I want someone that can help pick me up when I am down. Having not settled down with someone in my early 20s I can’t give a man the future they deserve because I believe I wouldn’t be enough, and quite frankly feel I don’t deserve it. In reality my life is far from the disney fairytales everyone seems to hope for. The thought will always in the back of my mind that If I take a turn for the worst, would someone want to be there with me side by side until the bitter end? Not exactly the opening line of a dating profile. What I do know is how precious life is. It is fragile and uncertain, I know what it’s like to be told that cancer is in multiple organs and what it’s like to spend hours attached to a chemotherapy drug pump fighting for my life. I can’t bring someone in to that life.

I’m not angry at friends for being settled and having children, but am I sad for myself I can’t do that? yes 100%. I am only human after all, and although I don’t blame anyone for my sorry excuse at adulting it is extremely hard and unsettling right now. However, I don’t think of other peoples problems as insignificant to mine; I know people have awful times too which I could never relate to, and they aren’t less valid because they don’t have stage 4 cancer.

Being upset doesn’t mean I don’t want to see people and their children. However I have to acknowledge it is a challenge because my options are non-existent in comparison. I feel like an outcast when I compare myself to others, and I often need to do some self preservation, but I know it’s not other people’s fault. It would be easier to try and blame someone, however my life a series of unique and entirely unfair circumstances that I cannot control. Right now I am emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and feel I can only pick myself back up again so many times before I collapse into a heap on the floor.

Cancer has a lot to answer for and sometimes I feel worthless, as though I’m running around in circles trying to catch up with my friends; but we are not even in the same race! My path is going on a different route to that of my peers who all seem like they are running alongside each other. For years I’ve been held back because of my diagnosis, so I guess It no coincidence that I don’t fit in. I only want a fraction of what other people have, just some stability and options in life. I don’t feel like I am asking for much. It is unsettling and frightening standing in my shoes without options, like being given a series of multiple choice quiz questions with no answers to pick from. 

Flying Solo

Next month I am flying solo in more ways than one. I’m heading off to Asia for a wedding, and then doing a little bit of travelling alone. Being a stage 4 patient the thought of being in another country travelling solo is petrifying, especially when it’s to countries I’ve not been to before. I keep waking up in the night panicking that I’m going to die on my travels with none of my family around me, this probably seems ludicrous to others, but it’s something that has been playing on my mind. No matter how much I try this always niggles at me when I’m far away. Realistically, I don’t want to travel alone but I am sure it’ll be an amazing experience, I didn’t go travelling during my last minute gap year so It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. I had a bit of a YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) moment when booking the trip around a year ago. I just kept hoping I would be around and well enough to see it through, and thankfully I am.

I begin my trip at a wedding with around 40 other guests, including spending the first part of the trip with some very close friends, so I won’t be short of people to chat to and share experiences with there. It’s been a long time coming and I literally cannot wait to spend quality time with friends! I also end my two week trip in good company, which is very lucky. I’m spending about 7 days on my own in total, and although I’ve travelled to places by myself to meet friends before, I’ve never spend that much time exploring alone. I am a little apprehensive about it, but there is no backing out now. A few years ago I spent three days in Barcelona on my own, I loved the city but I missed sharing the experience with another person.

I’ve chosen to travel alone because I may not have much time left; I love going on holiday and always want people accompany me, but I want to seize the day and create some good memories of life outside of the terminal illness vortex, companion or no companion. I am yet to figure out exactly what I am going to do yet, but I do love a plan! I have my bridesmaids dress, factor 50 sun cream, malaria tablets and new camera at the ready, and I intend on spending this weekend looking at guide books and scouring the World Wide Web to find out more about my go place and activities for each destination.

I am sure its going to be an amazing once in a life time trip, and I’d rather travel alone than not go at all. It would’ve been nice to have someone to share the experience with, but I didn’t want to miss out just because I’m single. I’ve been told by many experienced travellers I’m bound to meet people along the way, but if I don’t that’s ok by me. I just hope I don’t end up talking to myself too much!

Being single is a lonely, especially at 31, but so is living with incurable cancer and the two do not make for a great combination. As mention in my blog post Singles Awareness Day back in February, I feel due to my cancer diagnosis I cannot offer a future to someone else. I honestly can’t imagine having a permanent holiday companion and a plus one for life.

As we get older the stakes are higher, I’m sure there are loads of men out there with baggage, but the reality is my diagnosis creates a huge barrier. As we get older it becomes increasingly frustrating; the pool of soul mates keeps getting smaller and smaller, but my illness prevents me from letting my guard down. Maybe I have focussed too much on working and keeping sane that way? but nowadays it feels like there is a time pressure on finding someone and settling down. With life being so uncertain and fragile it feels like I have nothing to offer in that way. Who wants a life with terminal cancer patient on active treatment and on medication for depression anyway? Like it or not there is a huge stigma about being a single female in your thirties, all of a sudden it feels alienating, and with cancer on top this is a total nightmare!

At my age people start thinking more in the long term, I’m in the minority with most of my friends who are settled down. Personally, I cannot think in the long term; I feel like it doesn’t exist in my world, so how I am meant to move forward?. Having cancer has taken so much from me, not just having a wedding / holiday companion but the overall prospect of a relationship and starting a family. Cancer won’t ever let go of my life, there is no remission or stopping treatment in sight and I have to accept that I may never meet a man and settle down. The short answer is I can’t. I am not at the same stage as my peers, although part of me is relieved that a boyfriend isn’t going to be dragged through this living nightmare, the future does feel lonely. It isn’t so much that dating is on my mind, but singleness definitely is.

I’ve heard of people in unhappy relationships who have experienced a light bulb moment post diagnosis and left their partner, having a new found appreciation for life. I feel I didn’t even get the chance to really begin the search for ‘the one’. For me, the sky isn’t more blue, the grass doesn’t looked greener and I’m probably not appreciating the small things in life as much as other people, quite frankly I don’t like the feeling of sand between my toes – it’s too hot and it gets everywhere!

Having said that, of all the bad things cancer has given me I’ve certainly been shown a lot of love and compassion over the years. I am fortunate that there are some wonderful people in the world experiencing this awful journey with me, even if they aren’t my wedding plus one.

Singles Awareness Day

It is that time of year again, January is over, the new year is in full swing, resolutions have been broken, everyone has been paid again following Christmas, and it finally starts to feel like winter might not last forever after all. Valentines Day is the next celebration on the list in a couple of days. For some it’ll be a big deal; It’s a time when shops are filled with red and pink love hearts, fluffy cushions and chocolate themed gifts, because nothing says I love you more than a box of Cadbury Milk Tray.

I find it odd that somehow as a society we have started to measure love by how much affection or generosity one shows another on a particular day, instead of perhaps showing love in more simple ways all the time. Why does it have be once a year? If you are single like me, then messages everywhere are saying that this day is only for certain people. There is a reason we’ve all heard of the M&S ‘Dine in for Two’ and not one.

I recently heard of another phrase coined Singles Awareness Day, so thought I would take a moment to blog about relationships and cancer. Over the years I have struggled a lot with the idea and feel like the future has been stolen from me, which is particularly problematic when in comes to relationships. Cancer is a catyclysmic event at any age, but if you haven’t settled down with someone it makes that idea seem beyond impossible. I didn’t meet my Mr Right at University and was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer shortly after graduating, which has made relationships pretty much non existent. I am now 30 years old, I still have single friends, but increasingly people are settling down and starting families, and days like Valentines Day make it more and more apparent I’m not at the same stage in life and Cupid hasn’t done right by me so far.  I’m not desperately single or angry and bitter about it, but it would be nice to feel like a relationship could be possible one day. I would have liked the choice.

When I featured in the BBC documentary A Time To Live last year a clip of my interview was posted on the BBC News Facebook page. The clip showed my thoughts on dating and was subsequently viewed online 1.2 million times. You should be able to view the clip here. I still stand by what I said back then, why would anyone want to take on someone with incurable cancer? Imagine falling for someone you know there isn’t a future with; I have some much baggage it wouldn’t be fair on the man in question. I don’t like to think about my prognosis, my immunotherapy is working well, but I know ultimately the outlook isn’t good and I’m on borrowed time.

Dating feels like minefield at the best of times, so with a cancer diagnosis on top of the usual woes it becomes even more difficult to deal with. The thought of trying to go out and meet someone makes me feel physically sick. I don’t even go on nights out as it is! How do you tell a man you’ve only just met you have a terminal illness? It isn’t the chat someone brings to the table on a first encounter. Even with new friendships I worry about how much to tell others, should I tell them my cancer is terminal? Or that I can’t have children? Do I reference my scars before they notice? or do I casually mention I’ve already written a will and thought more about having a funeral than a wedding?

All of these questions are extremely hard to think about in day to day life, I can’t imagine being in that situation with a potential male suitor. Even without cancer, I am not sure a person shares everything about themselves so early on, but perhaps it’s easier to lay all your cards on the table from the start. I know it’s not a persons place to know about my situation, however cancer is such a huge part of my life, and that won’t ever change. I often wonder that as I’ve no control over my circumstances then maybe I shouldn’t be trying to keep people in the dark so much. I am not ashamed that I have cancer, but of course if there was one wish I could have in the whole world it’d be to change my diagnosis. I fear having the ‘I know, I don’t look unwell…but I am actually really ill’ conversation with everyone I meet.

In reality, I can’t be the only person out there of my generation in this position, and I often wonder how others have navigated through illness and dating. There is no one to tell you how to talk about cancer when you’re trying to form a new relationship or meet new people. I know my friends would say I should put myself out there to meet someone, as I know it is unlikely won’t happen if I don’t look out for it. It’s 2018, we are a generation where online dating is the new normal and I’ve been told I’d be a great candidate for First Dates, I’ve definitely got an interesting back story, but I wouldn’t want that to be my key selling point. How do you introduce yourself and explain you are dying? I know I don’t have as much to offer as a healthy person with their whole life ahead of them. Would the suggestion be to find a man with similar odds to myself, maybe someone who has also experienced cancer in the hope that they will understand the situation more? Sounds a bit weird to me.

I am not sure if the right man is out there, I’ve never been good at meeting people, so how could that possibly improve? Perhaps dating is a bit like going to job interviews, having to put on your best front with someone you don’t know and convince them you are what they’ve been looking for. A life limiting illness isn’t exactly a positive selling point. I think that cancer and dating are almost entirely incompatible, I don’t think I can I possibly factor my illness into future relationships. Often I don’t have much energy to see friends and family, let alone going out to meet a person I hardly know.

Having cancer places a very severe burden on a potential partner, I know couldn’t put that on someone else. Last time I checked I was still playing a tug of war with cancer, most likely to die a slow, debilitating death with the odds are all stacked against me. It’s not the sort of message to write inside a Valentine’s Day card. Or how about ‘Do you want to be with me until I deteriorate too much that we can’t cope?’

Rather than solely celebrating couples as such, I’m going to take this day to tell my family and friends around me that I love and appreciate them, because perhaps I don’t say it often enough.