Friday, 2 February 2018
Rock Bottom - by Tamás Vincze
, my recently published book. In this post I’d like to share a chapter from the book about a moment, which I think we’ve all experienced during the journey with cancer: Rock Bottom. This is my experience of that period and the beginnings of moving out of that place.
The treatments over the next few weeks were some of the worst I experienced. Medication arrived late to the hospital, and I sometimes waited half a day for sessions to begin. Nurses couldn’t insert the IV, or there simply wasn’t a bed available due to emergencies. I would sit in a dark corner of the hospital before treatment, far away from people, not practicing mindfulness but thinking of how and why I got there. Everything that had been going right was going horribly, horribly wrong. After some treatments I could barely stand up and had to spend the night at the hospital. The sights and sounds of the cancer ward are depressing at best during the day, but they can be terrifying at night.
I had always made sure never to stay overnight. It’s an impossible place to rest. There is something about darkness that can be very disturbing, and night-time silenced the ward and turned it into an alien place. I couldn’t see my fellow cancer patients but I could sense and hear them loudly. Raw unfiltered human emotions, begging, pleading or praying. Bargaining for a bit more time, hoping that there’ll be another and perhaps better tomorrow. Begging for more time with families and loved ones, praying that this is not yet the end. Occasionally this quiet would be interrupted by an emergency and a patient would be taken out and gone for hours.
At nights like these I could hardly find the peace to sleep and struggled to process what I saw. I was only 18, but here I was seeing people more than twice my age encounter enormous suffering. I had no idea what to say that might help them. All I could do was observe, seeing and feeling their fear of death: “Please don’t let me die just yet.” I had known from the beginning that my cancer was not terminal, but I couldn’t help wondering how different things might have been. What would or could have I done in their circumstances? What emotions would I have had to face? The details of our lives were all different – age, name, hometown, occupation – but ultimately we all wanted the same thing: life without cancer.
The sessions became worse. One day in late March I arrived at the hospital and somehow knew that it was going to be bad. I had been becoming increasingly fearful of chemotherapy and the horrible physical side effects. At some point it got so bad that I was thinking of ways to escape, but common sense prevailed at the end. On this day, after the customary tests, I was escorted to a room with about eight other cancer patients (private rooms were hard to come by). When I looked around I saw the familiar landscape of white beds, IV poles and colourful medicine bottles, but more than that I saw misery, mine and theirs.
After about an hour of treatment I saw and felt darkness closing in on me and felt a burning pain moving through my body, gathering force with every breath I took. I started sweating, tossing and turning in the bed. The pain kept intensifying, and I felt my arms and legs go completely stiff as the throbbing pain spread from the IV needle in my right arm. As it moved further up into my body the burning turned into a strong, pulsing sickness. My mind shut down and I lay there, eyes closed, clutching onto my life. This shock was so sudden that there was no time for self-pity. Instead I begged and pleaded: “Please let me get through this.” “Please let me survive.” “Let me live and I’ll never take anything for granted, especially my health.”
After a while I felt a cold soft hand touch my forehead and then my cheeks. I looked up and saw a doctor sitting by the bed, looking down with kindness. I was in agony and searching for hope to help me through. She touched my arm where the needle was inserted and said quietly “Just breathe, it’s going to be okay”. What I went through had been so violent that having this loving, human experience of sitting with her for a few minutes was like the ray of sunshine after a storm. While the burning sensation didn’t stop yet, her presence was soothing. After a while she gave me a glass of water and a pill. It calmed me further and lulled me into quiet sleep for a few hours.
The last thing I remember before passing out was asking her for the name of the pill: Xanax. That was my rock bottom. I had never needed anything external to keep my sanity, but on this day I was in such pain that I was completely helpless. There is a danger that, once you get used to receiving outside help, your self-reliance will weaken. I had tried to avoid that as much as possible: I always thought that only people with much more serious ailments took pills such as these.
I’m not sure why I attributed so much weight to this incident, but it marked a turning point for me and another moment of grace. After I woke up and regained my senses I was grateful for this to be over but I had had enough. The last few treatments had been awful, and looking back at how well the first six had gone I was amazed to realise, through a very painful lesson, how much my emotional state influenced the outcome of the chemotherapies. After the ‘victory’ of reaching the halfway point, I had thought of little else but my own significance. I paid the price for not being present to my own health, which was a sure way of losing. The other sure path to defeat was to fall back into despair. As long as I could avoid both these extremes I was going to be okay.