I have always had a pretty healthy sense of self, and will admit to being very self-centred at times. I’m going to blame birth order – I am the youngest by 10 years and the only girl, so my overblown sense of my own importance is totally my parents’ fault.
My self-centredness grew exponentially when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer patients are selfish because they have to be to survive. When you get the diagnosis, your world becomes incredibly small, and when you realise you are in the fight for your life, you curl yourself up into the metaphorical foetal position, and the rest of the world becomes a buzz around you – you are aware of the noise but don’t have the capacity to decipher what any of it means. You become selfish because it’s the only way you can cope with what you are facing, particularly when the diagnosis is new and you are being confronted with so many things you wish you never, ever saw, heard, felt or knew. At some point, you come to terms with the new normal, the selfishness is no longer essential for coping, and you realise that while you were focussed on the nasty business of cancer, the people around you were having lives too.
I am working on a blog post about how cancer affects those close to the person diagnosed. As part of this process, I asked friends and family to tell me about how they were affected by my cancer. Self-centred still! I was expecting a sentence or two from each person, but what I got from my dear friend Erica shook me to the core. While I was busy having cancer, my friend was struggling too, but I had absolutely no idea how much. My pain, both physical and emotional, was so all-consuming that my friend’s pain was virtually invisible to me. I am going to share her words here, even though she gives me far too much credit – I don’t think I deserve her generosity of spirit, but this is her truth and I feel honoured to share it.
When a friend that means the world to you asks for your help with something, you don’t hesitate in saying yes, especially when you have been faced with losing said friend to breast cancer. However, when Julie asked me to write for her blog I had to think twice for a few reasons, a) I don’t often read the blog because it always has me in tears, b) can I match the standard she’s set?, and c) it’s daunting to revisit those early days in Julie’s diagnosis.
I guess I should start at the beginning. Our boys are days apart in age – I’d met Julie at antenatal classes. We spent our maternity leave having cups of coffee discussing and laughing at the differences in our boys. One was talking first and the other walking first. We even came up with the idea that they could forma boy band. It was fantastic to have someone so close to share the good, the bad and the ugly.
When our boys were three, my family moved from Queensland to NSW and although we could no longer catch up for coffee, I knew I could call on Julie when I needed her. And I did need her. I was pregnant with my second child and suffering from antenatal depression. Like Julie I had trouble staying pregnant, but at long last we were to be blessed with another baby. However my mind wasn’t as happy as it should have been. I hate to say it but my son wore the brunt of my depression. He was home with me all day, each day and I couldn’t hide it from him (or my husband). It was (and still is) the toughest thing I have had to face. Things didn’t improve once our beautiful girl arrived four weeks early. My antenatal depression turned into postnatal depression (PND).
Only days after coming home from hospital, Julie called me with the ‘news’. Holy shit! I was in shock, after all Julie was the strong one. I was absolutely gutted. I was going through hell. They couldn’t take her away from me. This wasn’t fair. Those are almost exactly the thoughts I had after getting off the phone. It was the most selfish moment, yet it was all I could do not to fall into that familiar dark hole. I remember telling my husband and the look on his face. He was scared for both Julie and her family but also for me. “How is she going to cope with this?”
It affected my moods (it didn’t take much anyhow), it affected my sleep (on top of the needs of a newborn baby), it affected the way I felt about my children and husband. My friend was faced with death and leaving her family and I had to make the most of mine. I really struggled with that. I couldn’t always be there for my family like I wanted to be. My PND was so all-consuming. I did my best and mostly showed them my love through cooking and feeding them. I made the most of little moments, like my son feeding his sister a bottle for the first time and those first smiles from her. Or that moment I walked into the lounge and saw both kids on my husband’s lap squashed into a single arm-chair and that joyful, self-satisfied look on his face.
I couldn’t get my head around what Julie must have been going through. Or what her family was going through. I had been in the dark hole so often that it was more familiar for me than them. I was grateful that my family wasn’t going through the same ordeal. I don’t think my son could have coped after all I had put him through with my PND. His mother had already betrayed him with outbursts of anger and pushing him away so she could hide in that dark hole once again. I felt overwhelming guilt that it was my friend that was sick, that I couldn’t always appreciate my family and those I loved most and that I still needed call on Julie with my problems. She had her own problems.
We moved back to Queensland while Julie was still having chemotherapy. I felt that I had to explain to my son before seeing them, why Hugh’s mum didn’t have any hair. How the hell do I do that? How did they explain it to Hugh? This horrible disease affects everyone. I simplified it, “She is very sick and the medicine for it made her hair fall out”. In his innocence, he accepted my explanation and saw no difference to the Julie he’d seen 12 months prior. I took his lead and found that he had the right attitude. Who says you can’t learn from a 4 year old?
As time went by both Julie and I travelled our journeys and we both have seemingly come out the other side. Julie is thankfully still with us to give us a regular kick up the bum and reality check with a quick word and bossy tone. I am learning to cope with PND with medication, meditation and the fabulous support of my husband and family. When I see our boys play together I am thankful that Julie and I met and that our families are there for one another. Life wouldn’t be the same without us being there for each other. I have a great love and appreciation for Julie. Until now I don’t think I’ve ever put it in words to her. Julie you are my rock, my mentor, you are what I aspire to be.
Antenatal and postnatal depression affect a significant number of women in Australia – they are real, severe and sometimes prolonged illnesses which need diagnosis and treatment. The Blackdog Institute provides information and resources for those who are affected. Please, if you believe you may be affected, contact the Blackdog Institute.
More tears – beautifully written with courage Erica. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.