(With apologies to Annie Lennox…)
Annie Lennox sings that “sweet dreams of made of this,” but it was not a sweet dream, more like an unsettling nightmare. I was looking and looking, but not sure for what, and that sense of endless, restless searching persisted even after I had awakened, setting me on edge for the day.
In fairness, a consummate online researcher, I had been searching before bedtime to a solution to an annoying house noise that has plagued us for over a year, and scrolled through countless pages and search terms without success. But the dream felt more like a metaphor than a reflection of my pre-sleep activity. This year has been such a distressing one and the search for meaning and purpose and normalcy seems endless. Will the pandemic ever be over? When can I make a plan for something more than a week away? How will we live as things open up more fully? Will it ever feel like my life again?
Many of these same questions plagued me while going through cancer treatment. The unpredictability of how I would feel from day to day, the hesitancy to assume life could be planned, the uncertainty of whether or not the cancer would actually stay gone. I recently counselled a woman who had just completed her first round of chemo and offered comforting words about how the next time would be easier because she would have a better idea of what to expect. But I couldn’t commit to it being the same. Unlike living through the pandemic, with cancer, it’s never the same day twice.
Who Am I to Disagree
What so many of us are really searching for is a sense of control over our lives again. Cancer did a pretty good job of abolishing my abiding belief that I can manage and control anything and everything. Cancer was the new boss and I had zero control over when I received treatment, how I felt during and after treatment, how well I responded to treatment, and whether or not the cancer stays gone. Now the unending pandemic has taken over, leaving us questioning when we can safely go about living our lives. The news changes daily about vaccine efficacy, and case counts and transmission rates and safety.
I’d like to think that my cancer lesson and all that I have read and written about resilience would give me greater tolerance for the continued uncertainty and lack of control in life now. But all the mindfulness meditation in the world won’t change the fact that we are wired for control—some more so than others. Researchers show again and again that stress increases when we feel we have no control. And even if we can learn to recognize the things over which we have no control so that we stop perseverating on trying to change them, that doesn’t reduce the associated stress. Just because I know I can’t change the weather doesn’t mean I am not going to get stressed out about the fact that it’s supposed to rain on the one outdoor dinner I have planned to reunite with family. So, is there no hope for me?
Hold Your Head Up, Keep Your Head Up
The significance of popular music lyrics has often eluded me, but the wisdom of the Eurythmics is loud and clear. I’m not alone. Looking for something, for answers, for a sense of control, is a universal experience. And perhaps I would feel a greater sense of restlessness and impatience if I hadn’t lived through cancer. But cancer also taught me the importance of grit, the need to endure, the benefit of keeping my head up. I’m still looking for something, but whatever it is, I guess there’s a better chance I will find it if I don’t bury my head in the sand!