Pain as Plot: One Year Of Turning Struggles Into Stories
"A cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, and three surgeries."
That’s how Sarah measured our year and it’s certainly more descriptive than 525,600 minutes. It’s hard to look back on the space between November 14ths and not see the major challenges, especially the moments of that first night. The memories of collapsing to the floor with back pain, “dancing on snowflakes,” and hustling to the ER are so vivid that they feel more like recurring dreams. I remember the distressed faces in the waiting room, the uncomfortable contours of the hard plastic chair, and the soundless Dancing With the Stars results flashing across the wall-mounted TVs. Kirstie Alley was going home, but I was just checking in.
You know the sequence. You’ve read it here. Pain became confusion, confusion became cancer, cancer became treatment, treatment became surgery. Each phase jerked sloppily into the next; cancer provides no smooth transitions or organic moments. It’s long, slow waits punctuated with bouts of whiplash.
Treatment was successful and now I’m cancer-free. The experience left me with only a few physical reminders: a wicked abdominal scar, a low white blood cell count, and some carefully placed silicone. Of course, it deeply and irreversibly altered so much more. My thoughts on suffering, empathy, and community responsibility have been completely re-shaped and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a post-cancer worldview. New convictions will reveal themselves as life gives me opportunities to feel them.
When I began this blog, I said that I was aware of the “comfort in shaping personal experiences into a narrative” and the sense of control - and power - that comes from turning ordeals into narratives. And it’s true; knowing in the back of my mind that each painful moment would be a “plot point” later kept me from feeling rudderless. In this last year, I read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and found that sentiment echoed, although stated with much more poetic depth: “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling… If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.”
I can’t undersell how much storytelling did for me this year. There was, of course, the distraction of professional storytelling: this was the year that included the writing and airing of my first television episode. But there was also this very blog, an outlet I used to process my feelings on whatever the struggle of the week was. “What are you going to write?” Sarah would often ask when I sat down at the empty Tumblr window. My usual answer was: “I’ll know when I start writing.” The art of shaping each struggle into a narrative helped me understand the way it was affecting me. Sure, on the surface, it seems like a particularly millennial therapy: understanding through oversharing. But pain became words, words became sentences, and sentences gave me distance. Then I’d reach the end and “real life” would return. But real life, upon return, would have extra clarity.
I’m still consistently asked how I’m feeling. There’s always a split second where I resent the question. Uh, I beat cancer, remember? I’m obviously feeling great! But then “How are you feeling?” starts to sound like the kind of question that hovers over a composition box on a social media site. Put the cursor inside. Tell a story.
And that’s what I try to do. Thanks for listening.