January 12, 2016

Things I Have Learned in the Shadow (& Light) of My Illness.

woman shadow flowers back

“You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


Illness is a descent into the underworld of bodies and hearts that burn and break and then sometimes, against all odds it seems, mend and stitch themselves back together, rise up altered and stunning.

I have had cancer, twice now. This most recent experience seemed to take all the things I had accumulated and assumed as certain, and left me emptied but open.

During those months, I kept writing things down, scratching them out on a legal pad. They became a travel log of sorts, field notes, ways of marking my place on the map of things, remembering what it was like, so I could return later, and piece together coherent narrative.

I’m not sure if I have a story that makes any kind of sense yet, but I do know I learned things.

Dear god did I learn. This is what I know now.

1. There is this kind of reclaimed clarity that can come.

Like maybe I had forgotten, and now I’m remembering. I know who I will choose to let in. What I will give myself too. The cost of things. The risk. The way it is worth it.

I know the sound of yes and the sureness of no. How capacity may be expanded, but limits are defined. “I’m not confused,” I said. “I’m angry. There is a big difference.” The same is true of pleasure, fleeting and deeply rooted.

This. This just feels good. That is the answer, without the circling, round of round of what ifs and should I and what will they say.

Yes. No. This. That. Leave. Stay.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


2. You can’t be the same person anymore.

You can’t go back to who you were before it happened and began. This is not a value judgment, a statement of good or bad. It is just the way it is.

You have been changed.

3. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk about it.

At all.

And it helps to have people who show up anyway. Who take you out, offer distraction, go sit in the dark movie theater and get lost for two hours, and drive you home afterwards, and not say anything, just roll down the windows, because it’s one of those nights where it’s almost warm, and air feels good on skin.

4. I have become very uninterested in the belief systems that hold the physical world and body as simply temporary and therefore unimportant or lesser.

This line of thinking that claims that it’s only what’s on the inside that counts, or that living in bodies is somehow a shameful thing, and we should be apologizing for not having yet transcended.

How this thinking turns us into exiles, never at home, or lost souls in need of saving. This is not true for me. I live in a body, and I love the world. And I don’t want to rise above them. I choose to enter more deeply into them. This is where my soul is found and known.

Cherries in late August. The feel of her smooth skin against mine. The expanding of lungs. Watching my body heal from fire. Watching spring try to break through cold ground. That he still lets me kiss the top of his head.

That when I dance, there is ecstasy and release.

This body and world is my home. And I love her fiercely and wildly and with the deepest of devotion.

5. You realize, in these thunder crashed moments, that there is nowhere to get to.

Which means, you can do whatever you want. No one is keeping score or here to give you brownie points and gold stars. You will not be rewarded in the end for how much you suffered or martyred yourself or denied yourself.

There is no pre-determined agenda. So you are free to just live your life, and create things. This is liberation.

6. Illness makes people uncomfortable, and so people can become uncomfortable around you.

Because they want it to be the fault of something, to possess a thing or person upon which blame can be placed. Or they want to offer unsolicited advice, unasked for versions of a cure, so they can know it won’t happen to them, that they can somehow do something different and be spared.

When you are the one who is sick, you are this raging emblem of vulnerability, a reminder of just how little is within the clutched hand of control.

And this is met with either arrogance or empathy.

7. Arrowhead pendants worn around the neck can help in unexpected ways, how just having it there, to reach up and hold onto, becomes the thing that saves me that one morning, when everyone else has left and I am afraid and alone, standing stunned in the middle of my kitchen, unable to move.

Dreams of deer come night after night. There are always at least two of them, sometimes three. Their antlers are often carrying things, like magnolia blossoms and flames and that one time, colored beads like Mardi Gras and rosaries. It takes me months, in the dreams, to realize they can speak.

“Why didn’t you talk to me sooner?” I asked one night. “You never asked,” he answered.

The deer with their antlers bearing gifts, they save me too.

8. You find yourself on the beaches of Los Angeles, driving along the coast of California in a red convertible.

And if there was ever a part of you that hesitated, that made excuses or put things off, it has gone away. Now, you just say yes. And go. Yes, and jump into the project, creating what you’ve always wanted to. Yes, and here you are, living and living and living.

9. The need for it. The choice to claim it.

10. You don’t always do what you might have imaged you would.

Because ideas are not the same as reality. Philosophies are not the same as bodies and your one life. We are a mystery, even to ourselves. And this humanizes—no one can know what they will do, until they are doing it.

That is how it happened, that long with my assumptions and arrogance, I found it was also my judgments that got tossed out the window, when we were driving away fast that night, singing loudly and my laughter could barely keep up with the heave of my cries.

The security of moralism seems irrelevant and not at all useful. And somehow, this is when I knew I just trusted myself, solid and true.

11. At some point, you just start saying what you really think and feel.

Which means sometimes other people are offended. Which means sometimes other people come and meet you there and you connect in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Which means, all the pretending is done, and this is the greatest relief.

12. Sometimes, it’s like having less skin, or no skin.

Porous, the way things come in and out more easily. I feel heightened sensitivity to all stimuli, and it’s all abrasive, like sandpaper scratching at burns not yet fully healed. And the only thing that really helps is listening to this and respecting this. Building a blanket fort on the bed and crawling in and staying, as long as I need.

13. The people who end up showing up surprise you. So are the ones who do not.

14. There are lots of days when it’s just scraping by.

It is not massive weights of strangled suffering. It is not the brilliance of epiphany or the roaring sound in your ears when the sky splits open and you understand again what it is you are here to do. It is just getting by and through, half limping, and insides held together with temporary sutures. It is hospital bills and missed work, fatigue and soreness and someone is hungry and wants to know what is for dinner.

And so yes, you just do what you need to do, to just make it through.

15. Food is good, and the people who bring it, or send it, having it delivered at your door.

So is someone who cleans your apartment. Homemade chocolate is good. So is boxing late at the night in the gym, when he comes to let you in after hours. So is swearing.

So is kings spa and slow yoga.

So is someone who is not afraid of you, when you come all the way undone.

16. Anger will resuscitate you.

It will cut open what is infected, and burn out what needs to leave, and it will shake you hard. It is powerful, and can become your ally instead of the enemy you resist and keep locked in the closet because it’s not fit for company. Once owned, and harnessed, it can be the burn which lights your way.

17. You will go through periods where you become weirdly obsessed with information, and stay up late at night, kept company by the glow of the computer screen while your eyes scan columns and research, your anxious brain coming up with elaborate plans.

And then you will have points and places, where you just stop, and it’s not exactly like giving up, but you don’t have to try anymore. There are still decisions to be made, choices along the way, but there is nothing to figure out. And you’re somehow okay with the fact that there is just a great deal you don’t know, and never will.

18. Grief doesn’t really care about your schedule, or your opinions, or even your most cherished beliefs.

It turns you in to someone you don’t recognize. And there are these times, where I have hated him, feel like he is this horrible intruder, who has come in and ruined everything, and none of my own pieces fit together anymore. And then you one day you realize, I realize, grief did not destroy.

He came after the destruction, salt water cleaning out the wound. He is the very thing that carried you through and brought you to shore.

19. Love will become this very broad and beautiful thing.

It is a bottle of frankincense. It is the one who takes you to the hospital and takes you for martinis. The one who sits down and says, “So what the hell is going on? Tell me the shitty stuff, and then we will move on and talk about what comes next and whether or not we should buy mules, which were on all the runways this spring but I can’t decide yet, but you should totally get them because you’ve always had good calves.”

It is the one who will curl up in bed with you and you will both whisper secrets into the dark. It is a mailbox full of words and offerings.

It is women unlocked, who hold their own key.

It is love.

20. The healing can hurt as much as the original wound.

21. Life is so extraordinarily beautiful. 

The way the glass of water tasted that afternoon—how it was just water, but I wanted to cry, because it was so perfectly complete.

The way we bleed.

The life raft I built for myself to carry me through, so I could rest, and do what I needed to do.

The sound of my own heartbeat and the feel of my own belly, moving in and out with breath. Hot pho on a cold night, and how it was raining, and light reflected everywhere, and the neon made that low hum and hissing sound.

The way sun and heat feels on bare skin still stunned from so much cold.


The story working its way to resonate sound.

How alive it all is. How beautiful.





More beauty from Isabel: 

21 Unexpected Ways to Say I Love You.

Reclaiming Sweet Freedom: 23 Things That we Need Not Explain, Justify or Defend.



Author: Isabel Abbot

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Camila Cordeiro at Unsplash 

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