Altruism vs Boundaries

I haven’t posted since Joy’s death. I probably haven’t felt ‘right’ since then, either. I’m not going to lie – I’ve gone through phases of pain, pancreatitis, poo-pants and, in full disclosure, some pretty bad anxiety. Over the past few months (or maybe my whole life, I don’t know), I had been trying my best to live everyday as if it’s the last and grab life by the balls or ~enter other cliche here~, but I found myself putting pressure on everything and bitterly disappointed when things didn’t go to plan. Every interaction with friends had to be with the purpose of fulfilling some repressed selfish need to be someone’s best friend. Every conversation with a prospective boy-lover had to be with the purpose of starting a relationship with the one and only love of my life. Every interaction with clients had to be a life-changing psychological breakthrough to their inner turmoil. Every day had to full of structured, fulfilling, meaningful and awe-inspiring activities in vain attempts to become my best self that people would reflect upon at my funeral and cry a simple tear in mourning of the fact that I improved their life in some way.

However, the uninspired aren’t inspirational. And don’t misunderstand me – it’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve searched for inspiration in every place a millennial in the 21st century searches for inspiration: ebooks on happiness, podcasts and meditation apps. I found myself trapped in extreme states of intense exercise to going to bed at 7pm, abiding by a plant-based diet to eating half a packet of Oreos, mindful barefoot walking to developing blisters from wearing ‘feel-sexy-and-powerful’ shoes. I went back to the drawing board and did something a logical psychologist would do – look at the research. Happiness is usually correlated with altruistic acts. That is, making others feel happier is meant to improve one’s own mood. So I tried that. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and tested myself to push past my exhaustion to meet other peoples’ needs. I felt exhausted, and not any more gratified than a resentful doormat. Perhaps I was doing it wrong?
Or maybe my problem was that I didn’t set boundaries.

Since diagnosed, I haven’t respected my new body and its new limits. I haven’t invested time in the self-care that I need, that isn’t full of buzzwords like ‘mindfulness.’ I haven’t invested in myself as much as I have in professional development, personal relationships, and reputation-building. My career is centred solely around facilitating others in their own struggles for meaning and connection; meanwhile, I have not been a good role model in setting boundaries and respecting my emotional and physical limits. As a perfectionist with a statistically likely short life trajectory, I feel immense pressure to ignore my boundaries. I so want to be the daughter, sister, niece, cousin and friend who has a jam-packed funeral with people crying about how she did everything for everyone. She was selfless, kind, generous and kind-hearted. Before I die, I want the approval from my parents, admiration from my brother, adoration from a lover, and respect from my peers; but I also need to learn to come to terms with my imperfections. It’s time to practise what I preach – take care of yourself first, or become comfortable with having others’ having to care for you later. While there might not be a ‘later,’ I refuse to become a burden.

 

Advertisements

Oh, Joy

Stomach cancer ate the life of my online friend the other day. Have I processed it? No. How does one process loss and grief over someone that they never physically met? I don’t even know what to write about her, except that she was one person with a mutual understanding of the perils of gastric cancer. She was known for keeping it real; and her blog reflected as much. Joy kept an account of how she felt with the disease and, in part, her death came as a relief to what she described as a painful “journey.” To me, she was someone who reflected back brutal honesty about the psychological battle of a cancer patient, hospital stays and end of life care. Although it frequently came up in conversation, I didn’t feel like the end of life stuff was ~real~; like it wouldn’t happen to her because she was young and a beautiful person, she was funny and witty and –

she didn’t deserve it.

But no one really deserves cancer, or to die at the peak of their life when they have so much potential for living. Like she said, there is no battle in cancer: the opponent has always been far stronger than one’s own willpower to stay alive.

Her passing was a wake up call as to how I am actually considered to be one of the lucky ones. I was operable – even though I shouldn’t have been – as my surgeon wanted to extend my life for as long as possible. Joy was not so lucky, but that’s the way the oncology seems to work. You’re always just one tumour away from being at the end of your rope and having no options left. Each person’s body copies, reproduces and mutates cells at different rates, and for some, those mutations don’t respond to the domestos that is chemotherapy. The approach of oncology is to kill the garden in order to kill the weeds, and for some, it works – the garden thrives after the weeds die. For others, the garden dies and the weeds still tolerate the poison that’s meant to kill them. For even luckier ones, the garden not only lives, but the root of the weeds can be pulled out and provide more time to plant some other seeds in their place. I feel tremendously lucky and simultaneously guilty that my weeds were ripped out, and hers were left to take over.

Analogies and metaphor aside, Joy’s passing was a reminder of what I have now, which is time. Borrowed time. And I’ll do as she wanted, which is to “carry on the good fight.”

52494577_10213124967335046_5035130267228962816_n.jpgRest in peace, Joy; stentless, syringeless and symptomless.

 

A Tribute To My Best Friend

Yes, I know you hate birthdays, but I am celebrating the 8,913 days I have come to share with you on this earth so really, this milestone is one that I have taken it upon myself to selfishly celebrate. There are no words to genuinely convey the amount of respect, admiration and love I have for you, but like my masters degree, I’ll give it a shot and hope for the best.

There are many things that make you special and irreplaceable, for example:

  • No one else has my back 100%, even when I’m wrong or overreacting.
  • No one else will listen to me complain about the same thing repetitively, and join me in said complaining even after I’ve forgotten my original complaint.
  • No one else will drop everything or change their schedule around to drive me around like free Uber.
  • Not many (except maybe Zia) will let me smash out a Bernard Fanning solo or James Blunt instrumentals in the car.
  • With no one else do I share such a vast amount of inside jokes that we often forget about them (until reviewing birthday cards from years ago from the “bad boys 4 lyf”).
  • No one else will give me such a generous share of their lotto winnings, when you win the lotto, that is.
  • And not many know all my flaws, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, yet still both a) love me and b) like me.

At the risk of this sounding like a wannabe-romantic cliche note from a spouse on Valentines Day, you are my rock. You’ve been there to celebrate the highs, empathise with me through the lows, massage my feet during the pain, fetched me flannels for the sweats, and restocked my chocolate supply without asking. If not for your unconditional support, I may not be here today (I may have faded away from the lack of dairy-free chocolate); and I definitely would not be the person that I am today. From a young age, I’ve come to strongly admire you and role modelled your personality and quirks, so much so that I now believe that 4pm is a reasonable dinner time (even late by my standards) and 2am is a reasonable time to empty the dishwasher. You have also taught me important life lessons, like choosing people who add to your life instead of detracting from it, even if it means you end up man-less (with statistically better life satisfaction, may I add). Your altruism isn’t just towards me, but extends to all your family and friends, and is one trait that is both rare and goes underappreciated.

Other traits I may not have picked up from you, like your ability to power nap, binge watch My Kitchen Rules, and your tendency for procrastination; but that’s what makes us Yin and Yang. You balance out my control freak, and I push you out of your comfort zone. So much so that I make you leave the country. According to astrology, we are a friendship match made in heaven: we have shared humanitarian values and both love a good chitchat. And boy do we talk. Five hours go by, and it’s like we haven’t even scraped the surface – from teaching you psychology, safe chicken-eating practices, renovation woes and good specials on at Kmart, we are possibly the best shit-talkers in Australia (way better than those Gogglebox losers). During these long conversations, we have been through so much together, like learning that Chinese restaurants do not open until 5pm (why so late?!) and that people on Gumtree are, in fact, the compost of Australian society. Our daily chats are more like life lessons than my masters degree, or at least more relevant (did you hear about the marble tables at Kmart?).

Selfishly, I wish I was there to witness you reading this post; but at very least, I hope it wasn’t too embarrassing. As you know, I will now beat myself up for how crap this post is, which you will later counsel me for because you know me so well.

I love you forever and always.

Funky Town (But Not The Good Kind)

V4x6bTnqTgOYuPeS92J8bw_thumb_2971

I didn’t want to get out bed this morning. Not because it is Sunday or because I had a particularly busy week, and I had slept okay the night before. I didn’t want to get out of bed because I didn’t want to face the day. I didn’t want to feel isolated and purposeless, passing time by performing benign monotonous tasks that further feeds the negative little devil in my head that tells me I’m worthless and that I’m wasting my life. I didn’t want to talk to my family and pretend that I’m doing well or feeling okay, because I’ll admit that this morning, I was not feeling okay. Yet I didn’t want to talk to no one and further isolate myself, because then I would let myself become overwhelmed with negative self-talk and let my stress manifest in unhealthy coping. I’m a psychologist (or close to one), I told myself, I can get through this. But unfortunately, one petty fight with a close friend was the straw that broke this camels back, and my facade fell to the wayside.

In attempt to find comfort and familiarity, I called my mother. Sure, we may not be BFF’s, but the sound of her voice on the phone almost reduced me in tears. I missed how I would talk and she would ignore me, so I could insult her without her noticing. I missed her annoying emails. And in that moment, I missed just having the presence of someone who ‘has to’ love me. I didn’t know how to respond when she asked me how I was; I haven’t for weeks. There’s a strong desire in me to lie and tell her everything is great and that I love my placement and I love my life, but my dad or aunty had probably already told her otherwise. I also didn’t want to tell her what was going on, as that would mean she would be winning (she so desperately wants me back in Adelaide, and anything against Brisbane is further supporting her case). But I was honest, and outright told her what was happening without giving her a chance to ask me the dreaded “how are you?”. Hearing myself finally talk through the recent events, I felt embarrassed. This is petty, I thought to myself, and my mum’s no-bullshit approach of “okay, now move on” confirmed my belief that I should, in fact, get over myself.

So, of course, as a natural rebellion against my mothers’ advice, I did the total opposite – I sat in complete silence, let my eyes tear up and let myself be completely and utterly useless.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_297f.jpg

I journalled my petty dramas (something I hate doing, because things are always pettier when written down), ate a vegan Cornetto, and took a photo of myself eating my ice cream and put a filter on it because that’s what my generation is all about: put a filter on your face to hide your sad eyes and no one knows what you are going through…

…unless of course, you’re like me, and you blog about it. Then regret blogging about it, but still force yourself to post it because it’s exposure therapy for your social phobia (I’m really just self-diagnosing, here) and need to please everyone all. the. time. But stuff it, I will not delete it (unless my mum says otherwise; there’s only so much guiltless rebellion I can do).

Here’s to hoping that tomorrow, I can wake up out of this funk. And if not, I’m sure my bladder will wake me up, anyway; and life will go on.

 

Martin, You Made My Day

Honesty hour: it took me over two hours to write this post. It’s funny, as it’s not my longest post, nor my wittiest, my most depressing or most uplifting. Yet, it took me a lot longer than usual because the critic living inside my head told me that it was stupid; that was stupid. However, unlike what I’ve become accustomed to recently, I didn’t delete the whole thing instantly. After aimlessly pacing, mindlessly shopping, and arguing with my negative self-deprecating schemata, I decided to return to my writing. Re-reading what I had written this morning, I felt the drop of disappointment the pit of my ‘stomach’ (rhetorically, of course). You are not a writer, you’re a loser. Get on with your life, no one wants to read about your sad existence. You don’t even have the worse, most tragic cancer. Other people are dying. Talking myself out of posting yet again, I deleted it. Then in a state of cynical optimism, I bashed Crl+Z and my text reappeared. I was relieved the text revived, and I decided that it was a sign to post it. After all, the purpose of writing this post was to emphasis the utter fineness in imperfection and self-development. So here goes, perfect in all its imperfections, enjoy this (shitty) read…

~

Caught up in a spiral of self-obsessed stressors, I have lately caught myself in cycles of self-pity and exhaustion that are contrary to living a life harmonious with my values. For example, I value my family more than anything, but often push them away when they try to talk to me, or withhold certain information in order to save undue worry or stress.  I value my friendships yet often find myself withdrawn and tired at social events, and forget to follow-up on best-laid plans for regular catch-ups. I value helping others, but catch myself selfishly prioritising my own schedules and routines instead of sacrificing my time. I value psychology, but deny professional development opportunities due to cost, travel time and poor time management. I value my personal wellbeing but often push my body too far out of its comfort zone, resulting in pain and exhaustion. Despite knowing and understanding my values, I have two common excuses for acting against them, being (1) those lovely side effects of cancer/being stomachless, and (2) being lazy, unmotivated or just plain ass tired... In acknowledging and reflecting upon my slump in self-development, I still haven’t actively moved towards my values. Although, in my defence (and as excuse number 3), there have been a number of barriers and minimal opportunities for change. A slave to my university schedule, impoverished by being at university for almost 7 years, and the consistency of pain, nausea and difficulty eating/digesting proves to work against my favour. This morning, however, the world was testing me…

After a night of intense pain, I woke up at 4:30am and eventually decided to give up on sleeping and go to BodyPump. Half-asleep and groggy, I got dressed in the dark. Until a gecko fell from my ceiling onto my shoulder (yay for Brisbane humidity), which woke me up to almost-perfect concentration. I wrapped my ankle in a brace, laced my sneakers, and started walking my usual route to the gym. I ironically listened to a podcast about happiness, for which I wasn’t feeling much of recently. Although I had had a fulfilling week full of placement, catching up with the best company and having some decent gym sessions, I felt a sparsity of joy arising from these activities. Suddenly, I was distracted from my happiness podcast and my negative self-talk telling me what a shitty life I was living. I spotted a tan leather button-up wallet on a bus stop bench, and picked it up hesitantly. Opening the button, I noticed that the wallet was full of cards, including a drivers license, bank cards, bus card and student ID. There was money in the pockets of the wallet, and I suddenly felt embarrassed that I had picked it up. I closed the wallet, and continued my trek up the road. They will notice it’s gone and come back, I thought. Fifty metres later, I did a 180 and started walking back down the road. Heaps of people walk this way and could pick it up and steal everything, I thought, and picked up the wallet. I unbuttoned it for the second time and searched the name on the drivers license on Facebook. I took a photo of the license, and messaged it to the name and photo it matched in a Facebook profile: student at UQ, only one year younger than me, quite attractive male (if I may say so myself). I closed the wallet and put it in my bag, deciding that if it was not the right ‘Martin’ on Facebook as on the drivers license, that I would drop it at the police station later. Low and behold, two hours after my gym session, I received a call from Martin. He was incredibly grateful, and offered to pick up the wallet when it was convenient. I offered to drop it off as I walked the dog, which is exactly what I did. He thanked me again, and was pleasantly relieved that nothing was stolen; something that may not have happened if I hadn’t picked it up. I turned to walk home, and realised something different.

In that moment, I was happier than Martin. Sure, I could have fleeced his cash, PayWaved his bank card and potentially stolen his identity (my hair is about the same length as his), but I didn’t. Instead, I did something that aligned with what is important to me, and that was better for my mental health than alleviating any financial pressure or just ignoring the issue and always wondering if attractive young Martin had been robbed. Temporarily, I forgot about cancer and last nights’ bowel obstruction, and had a feeling more euphoric than any amount of morphine. I realised that, while I am not currently behaving in line with every value, I am a work in progress. Like a swipe right on Tinder, I had potential. Potential to grow into something better than I am right now, and make a small difference in my little bubble world where I am capable of making changes at a microlevel. Sure, I may not change the world while I am still here on this earth; but what I can control are the decisions I make that shape the memories for people I leave behind.

And that, my friends, is about as perfect as a wake up call from a gecko (honestly not great, but it sure keeps you on your toes).

~

Nothing But Everything Matters

The idea that nothing matters is the root of both depression and happiness, but from opposite perspectives.

Since being diagnosed with cancer, I have lived by the notion that nothing matters. And it’s true, either way you look at it. After treatment and in the proceeding months, I have questioned my purpose in life. Naturally, as everyone post-cancer does in the movies, I also wondered if another career path would suit me. Maybe I should start selling meth like Walter White in Breaking Bad…I’ve always thought I’d be a pretty good criminal with my innocent-looking features yet stealthy mind. Those movies also made me question my family values – maybe I should move home so my mum can shave her head in solidarity with me like in My Sister’s Keeper? Or maybe I should start scouting the oncology ward for the next and ~only~ love of my life like in The Fault In Our Stars, so I can kill a dude after giving him his first and only (probably very awkward) sexual encounter? They seemed improbable, to be honest – there’s no way dad would let me sell drugs, mum would never shave her head, and anyone will tell you that it’s almost impossible to have sex in a hospital bed. Or good sex, in private, in a hospital bed. In months of this reflection on these fictional characters and their life after cancer, in addition to comparisons I make between myself and other “cancer survivors,” I have grown increasingly miserable about my nothingness of a life. I found myself admiring other cancer “survivor” friends who have decided to take time off, see wellness coaches, attend all their follow-ups, create a clothing line for people during chemo, attend cancer seminars, get involved in cancer research and volunteer their time to hospitals. Upon reflection, I admire their ability to find meaning in the nothingness; and give themselves perhaps a more enriching meaning than life pre-cancer. Me, contrarily, have made no significant changes to my life or myself since cancer. The egotistical bitch living in me nags at me for self-improvement, to achieve something of meaning. Go on, Gabby, take a chance – quit your career, write a book, tell your story, be a self-righteous cancer-prick who starts a podcast about wellness and posts pictures of their green smoothies on Instagram and tags it #nostomachnoproblems. Then I realise that comparison is the work of the devil and that none of this matters, because nothing matters.

You see, it doesn’t matter how long I survive or what I choose to do with my remaining years. It doesn’t matter if I finish my degree, whether I live in Brisbane or in Adelaide or overseas or on the moon. It doesn’t matter if I live alone or with housemates, or adopt six cats to claw at my legs and torment my dog. It doesn’t matter if I have lots of friends, or few friends; or if my family call me regularly or completely ignore me. At the end of the day, my life is insignificant. And I know most of you reading this are people who know me personally, so saying this is controversial, but my life doesn’t matter. If I were to pass away tomorrow, sure you may miss me, but your life will go on (except dad, your life will go on with PTSD and now probably complicated grief, sorry). You may cry at my funeral (which has been perfectly planned by yours truly), you may talk about me to your mates at night with tears in your eyes and a drink in your hand, you might celebrate my life or my death (a few of you out there might hate me already), and my dog may wait at the door for a while, waiting for me to come home. However, the world will continue to turn, appointments will be booked, employers will expect a return of their employees, you will need to do grocery shopping and fill up your car’s petrol and one day you will wake up and not think of me. My dog will get used to living in Adelaide again and curl up at the foot of the electric blanket in my parents bed, my neighbours will get a new tenant in my apartment, my position at uni will be filled by some other dim-witted person who decided to go down the path of psychology. My email accounts will fill up with spam on where to buy the best Viagra, and eventually be shut down for exceeding its data limits. My family might make a “In memory” page for me on Facebook where people who I barely knew or spoke to when I was alive can post “I miss you, Gabs” on the reunion of my death to make it seem like they truly cared about a girl who tragically lost her feat to cancer. And I will be in the abyss of the universe onto the next best thing that might not be better than this but might not be worse, and might be nothing – who knows?

My point is: it doesn’t matter. What I do or don’t do might not change the world, but I am changed by the world constantly. The people, places, experiences and small gratifications I get out of my daily life are far more important than the impact of my life. So in that sense, everything matters; but only today. Only now, while I’m here and you’re there, and I’m studying and training in psychology, living in Brisbane with my dog and the shitty crow that wakes me up every morning at 4:30am.

What Would You Do?

In full transparency, I’ve kicked off 2019 in a pretty poor mental space. In Adelaide, I was able to forget about my degree, psychology and pending projects. I was finally able to enjoy the company of my friends and family without the pressure of deadlines, tight schedules and an internal dialogue nagging me about productivity. Absorbed in the love of my close friends and family, the university world floated away and I was able to let myself just be. Of course, that existence wasn’t always possible. I was having partial bowel obstructions that scared my mother and brother out of the house; and I wish I could have removed parts of my body to leave along with them. Having them see my doubled-over in pain left my heart as blocked with guilt as my intestines were with food/water/air (whatever blocks intestines). On a more positive note, the pain was not intense as it had been in the past, probably due to not being stressed about deciding whether I needed to call the ambulance in order to not be alone when turning septic from ruptured intestines. It was calming to be devoid of any decision-making and responsibility.

Returning to Brisbane, I was hit with a big whack of real life. The first night back, I went to bed early after nights of tossing and turning. I hit the pillow at 9pm and slept right through until 2:45am when I woke to a disgusting smell. Patty had released his anal glands (and for any of you with small dogs, I can feel you cringing with me). I pulled the covers back to see pooey paw prints in my bed, and got out of bed to walk to the kitchen to grab cleaning supplies. Except, when I turned on the light, I found Patty, backed into the white blinds and covering them in smears of brown. It was everywhere. Brown on my pinky-white rug, brown on the carpet, brown under the couch, brown on the TV table stand; my apartment was literally covered in shit. The smell was atrocious, so I put the dog outside in the torrential morning rain to finish his business (or so I thought) while I cleaned. I cleaned from 3am until 5:30am, when I finally got the majority of it out. I went to the gym and came back to the same smell, and Patty had been sick again. I readily called the vet, and took him in. Hello, dog mama responsibilities. He was okay – most likely food poisoning from raw meat. I spent the remainder of the day keeping an eye on him, cleaning and doing endless loads of laundry, and left Patty outside to sleep that night.

The responsibility continued to whack me hard in the face during my placement meeting with my next supervisor. The placement day was set, for three days away. Great, I thought, just enough time to get the shit smell out of my apartment. Upon completing the paperwork, I disclosed my status as a ‘cancer patient.’ In 10 seconds, it was obvious that this was not important given that I am not currently in treatment. I think I actually pulled this exact expression…

49210756_361602331304433_4167921789722165248_n

I immediately felt invalidated, misunderstood, and completely alone; and I was angry at myself for feeling this way. I didn’t want people to treat me differently because of cancer, right? I didn’t want pity from my supervisor, especially; nor for him to choose me for this placement out of sympathy (hence not telling him until this point). So I asked myself, what did I want – how did I actually want people to react to me? My answer: I wanted answers. I didn’t want them to ask me question after question, but I secretly wanted people to tell me what they would do in my situation. I felt like asking them: do you think I’m mad for being here, doing university when I have a pretty high statistical likelihood of dying in the next few years? What would you do if you were in my shoes? I wanted to know so I could justify my own decisions to the side of me that begs me to say a big fuck it and “go live life,” whatever that means.

I’ll admit – there is also a self-serving egomaniac side of me that wants acknowledgement for not falling into a heap of cancer self-pity and quitting everything, instead pursuing this career despite missing a few organs and being injected with poison. I’ll admit that my somewhat fragile ego enjoys being good at something; and being one of the people who “fought” cancer has so far been something I’m “good at”, despite there being no reasonable logic in thinking that this is actual talent. You don’t get a gold star for surviving, but I think I seek acknowledgement for being so resilient, especially when faced with the uncertainty, discomfort and exhaustion of starting something new. I am educated enough to know that what my cancer does (or does not) do to me in the future will not be a test of skill, training or resilience. Sure, I may live a little longer from being proactive about my health, but this disease is the body’s drive to self-destruct; and at the moment, I feel more like the bystander girlfriend nagging her self-destructive boyfriend to “please stop doing drugs” in a meek voice as he lights his crack pipe.

The powerlessness of the disease inadvertently comes with an enormous responsibility to make choices that no one can make for me. Big stuff – like what to do with the next few years – rolls into serious decisions like where I should live, what I should do with my life and who I should spend my time with. If there’s one talent that I am (slowly) acquiring from cancer, it’s learning to stop the perpetual cycle of overthinking and rumination (and displace some of my worry into smaller problems, but that’s a blog post for another day). Contrary to my Virgo characteristics, spontaneity and “one day at a time” is the only way I’m going to get through this year. After all, I don’t want to do nothing and be like this guy in another year:

46445262_313604179239310_5259474997717499904_o.jpg

So despite having a cloudy head and poor decision making, I’m going to go to placement and I’m going to live with my decisions with as much content as I can foster…while not-so-subtly fishing for answers from other people about what to do (comment below if you have ideas).