Hope and despair

I’ve been struggling of late. I’ve had whole days of tears, hours of anger and precious few minutes of laughter. I haven’t been taking care of myself. I missed many weeks of exercise class. I didn’t do the pilates I learned. I haven’t been eating as well or drinking as much water.

I forgot to be mindful, so I didn’t spot the creep of despair. It took hold of me inch by inch, like the air bubbles that gathered on my neglected glasses of water.

Each failure of self-care led to another, and another.

I blame Brexit.

I stayed up all night watching as the UK voted to leave the European Union six weeks ago. I was transfixed by coverage as what felt akin to a natural disaster played out on the screen. Almost immediately the hate crimes began. Still sleep deprived and dazed, an abstract but powerful sense of threat invaded. Where my Iranian-ness had previously been intriguing or exoticised by other Brits, (“Oh you have lovely skin, bet you tan well.”) suddenly I started to feel like little targets were painted all over my face.

I went into full fight or flight mode.

The great thing about fight or flight is that it’s really rather handy when you need to run or punch. For longer, more sustained levels of threat it’s not so great. The cortisol and adrenalin released by your brain to prepare your body are really bad for you over time. This was something I experienced just after my cancer diagnosis.

Then ding, ping or whatever realisation sound works for you, happened. I had felt like this after diagnosis. Cancer was Brexit. Brexit was cancer.

Brexit, as with cancer, represented an existential threat that felt quite abstract at the point of diagnosis (or referendum night). I never felt sick from cancer itself. It would eventually have made me sick, mostly from growing into organs and obstructing their function rather than inherently being a problem itself.

As with Brexit, it was the effect of emboldening racist ideas and behaviour that was the primary source of pain for me. The visceral threat of violence done to me, my family, my friends or any other human.

When I received my cancer diagnosis, after the shock settled, fight or flight pushed itself forward as an option. I welcomed it at first. People told me that I could ‘beat it’, newspaper articles shouted when a celebrity died after a ‘battle with cancer.’ Many of the voices around me were saying fight. Please fight. And my hormonal messengers were reflecting that back. The adrenalin kicked in, the cortisol was flowing. Exactly the same way I felt inside and out the days after Brexit.

Pretty quickly I realised that fight or flight was not going to be my friend for the long, relentless treatments I was facing for cancer. Chemotherapy is a marathon requiring pacing, stamina and humility. And lots and lots of help. In fact it requires the very opposite of fight or flight. So I switched to ‘positive thinking’. There was lots of evidence to show this kind of approach worked well for reducing stress and improving outcomes.

But it switched me off from the world. I had to stop listening to the news, to stop engaging with people’s problems. Shamefully it stopped me connecting with people with secondary breast cancer because their reality didn’t fit with my visualisations for survival. I wasn’t in fight mode but I was deep on the flip side. I was immersed in flight.

The process with Brexit went the same way. I eventually switched off the news and tuned into French radio stations where I could only understand one in five words. ‘Brexit’ sounds kinder with a French accent. I unfollowed all the political facebook groups I’d frantically joined in the days after the vote. I started sewing furiously, determined to create something beautiful or useful in this world. I filled in my Irish passport application. Deep, deep in the comforts of flight.

Then I splashed myself with hot oil. Yanking my arm away reflexively, I nearly vomited from the pain when the tiny movement did a grand impersonation of a dislocation of my shoulder. It was the side of my body operated on, where parts had been removed. This was a warning I’d been ignoring for weeks. The lack of exercise, the neglected pilates, the stress and tension of muscles flooded with adrenalin. It all added up to pain. Here my life with cancer and Brexit collided and smashed in the blinding agony of my injured body.

The pain must have jolted something loose in my brain and I made the connection between cancer and Brexit. I would need urgently to return to my cancer coping strategies. It’d proven itself. It had done the job. Maybe it could help with life after cancer too.

What was it? In one word: acceptance. It’s a small set of letters for a very big thing. It’s a hard thing. Like radical generosity or self-care, it’s tough and difficult. It doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come instinctively. It’s not ‘acquiescence’ though. It’s not giving up. In fact when I let go of positivity, of hope, of flight, I also let go of despair. Because those two things are flips of the same coin and it’s exhausting to lurch from one to the other. I needed to get off that track, board a different train.

When I was alone, just me, in reverse quarantine from the world of bugs and germs during chemo. Truly and deeply isolated, I faced my death. I stared it in the face and then looked back at myself. I stripped back the thin skin of positivity and went deep into the innards within, into the mess of terror and panic. I managed to untangle some of the guts of fear.

An unexpected side effect of that letting go was it freed me up to do the things that would, ironically, help me lower my risk of the cancer returning. With the clarity and energy that comes from not being terrified, I found room for solutions. I lost weight, ate healthier food, lowered stress, did exercise.

Shifting from fight or flight took me out of binaries and allowed me to see what was really there. The complexities, what exists, where the problems lie and what the solutions could be.

I don’t think I’ve mastered this fully. The warrior in me has been around for a long time and history is its ally. But I need to go deeper into the real, to see all that is there not just the information selected by hormones. I need to apply what I learned when I thought I might die.

So be it Brexit or cancer, the world is as it is. I strive to see it. All of it. Then maybe I can find the room to change it.