Jennifer Goodman Linn You Fearless

Healing Physically, Yet Still Not Whole

This article appeared in The New York Times on January 18th, 2010. My friend Lauren pointed it out to me and I really loved it. It rings very true of how I am feeling now and what I have learned over the past 5 years. Enjoy!

Still haunted and chastened by the Puritan work ethic, our culture doesn’t much believe in convalescing, in full recovery. No matter what happens in our lives — a grave illness, a wrenching divorce, a death in the family — the unspoken understanding is that we should want to rush back into the game. Like an old-time quarterback who has had one concussion too many, we are expected to stagger back onto the field no matter what.

I found out that I had prostate cancer nearly two years ago — it ended up being an unexpectedly aggressive Stage 3 cancer — and in the time since then I’ve learned that there is a big difference between recuperation and recovery.

Recuperation is just physical. The claw of the surgical incision relaxes its grip on your gut. You graduate from catheter to man-diapers to man-pads to, finally, your very own comfy boxers. Energy seeps back into your body after the radiation and the hormone therapy cease.

But recovery means wholeness: mind, body and spirit. And I reached a point last summer and fall when I realized that even though I was back at work, once again juking and stutter-stepping my way through the streets of Manhattan, I hadn’t recovered at all.

I thought I had weathered the trauma of diagnosis and treatment, thought I was ready to focus on the future. But my body disagreed.

Physically, I was game, but I soon realized I was going through the motions as I became more and more tired. I felt like a spinning quarter about to nod to gravity and wobble to the tabletop. Mentally, I couldn’t focus: I became shawled in the monochromes of depression. And spiritually, I wasn’t angry — I did want to know what this cancer could teach me — but just right then I couldn’t make sense of my cancer-blasted interior landscape.

I hated to admit it, but I had to excuse myself from the day-in and the day-out if I wanted to fully heal, if I wanted to recover.

It was hard to do. I grew up in a hard-nosed rural culture that valued willpower and raw muscle above anything else. You never admitted weakness. You could have blood pumping from your left hand and be holding a couple of severed fingers in your right, but still you tell the boss: “I’m O.K. I’ll be back to work right after lunch.”

Just one small example: My old man was igniting a huge outdoor furnace one subzero morning at Kingston Steel Drum — a factory in my hometown that cleaned 55-gallon drums — and it blew up on him. The explosion knocked him a good 30 feet. All Dad did was stand up and swear, shrug, laugh and get back to work.

But after my treatment for cancer, as much as I wanted to shrug, laugh and resume my life, I found that I couldn’t. The world seemed to accelerate as I slowed down. I was standing still, and daily life was a blur that I couldn’t hope to touch, never mind grasp.

I needed to take a deep, painful breath, lower my eyes as the manager trudged from the dugout, hand him the ball and slouch to the showers. I couldn’t go anymore.

When I was hospitalized in the early 1980s with an acute case of ulcerative colitis, the doctors tried to save my inflamed colon by throttling my diet down to ice chips and sourballs. They reasoned that the colon might respond better to treatment if it didn’t have the pressure of doing its job.

In the same way, I had to remove daily pressures from my psyche; my body wasn’t the only thing that the cancer had feasted on. I couldn’t bear the thought of commuting to New York City, or even answering the phone. I didn’t want to hear my own voice. I wanted to sleep, wanted to be in the wind.

I retreated into a chrysalis of healing: quiet but intense talk with family and friends, savoring N.F.L. games, taking long walks, losing myself in Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to spaghetti westerns.

Each day I looked forward to dusk, craved the architecture of bare black branches stark against the gray winter sky. Some days I was a branch, some days the sky.

As our current e-hive expands exponentially, as we splinter our lives and time into nano units of interconnectivity, we are losing sight of primal time, the slow moments that make us human. Postcancer, I worry that we are becoming too fast for this world — or, maybe, that this world has become too fast for me.

After surgery and treatment, my 21st-century synapses and neurons wanted to believe that the cancer had been no more than a bump in the road toward a bright future — just a particularly nasty frost heave.

But the deepest analog part of me understood that having cancer was a life-changing event. As much as I thought I wanted to forge ahead, surge into the whirlwind of dailiness, I needed to slow way down.

The scar on my gut might have faded a bit — I had indeed recuperated — but I still needed to recover.

Dana Jennings is a reporter at The New York Times.