This is Part II of my three part series of essays on my struggles with post-traumatic stress after cancer. In Part I, I described what the whole experience felt like, and in this part I'm sharing the story of all that I did to cope with and overcome it, and all of the wonderful people that helped me get there. Fighting cancer was the easy part. Recovering from PTS after cancer is many orders of magnitude harder, because you have no idea who or what you're fighting against, only to realize it's you.
Post-traumatic stress gives you the feeling of internal panic as though your house were on fire, with you in it, but there's no window or doors in which to escape, and you can't simply run outside. It's your mind that's on fire, where you live, and it's all going up in flames. You’re panicked because you feel trapped and don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to do, or if you can even escape. When I first started suffering from post-traumatic stress after cancer, this is exactly what it felt like to me. I didn't understand what had started the fire, nor what was feeding it. I just knew that my mind was on fire, and had to do whatever it took to save myself.
PULLING THE PLUGS
As I look back on my journey through post-traumatic stress after cancer with the wisdom that a few years have brought, it's very clear to me now what had been going on, what my sub-conscious mind was seeing and feeling, and what my triggers had been. At the time, however, I hadn't a clue. I was blindsided and dumbstruck. There had been some signs earlier in 2012 of the trouble that was brewing within me, but I thought I had been doing perfectly fine. It wasn't any one thing that set me off, but rather a seemingly perfect storm of bad external stimuli that had hit me from all sides at once that did it.
With my mind ablaze, I did the only thing I knew I could do at the time, and just started pulling the plugs, on everything. Anything and anybody that didn't need to be in my mind or in my head space, just needed to get the hell out. The news and its daily death count and all of the terrible goings on in the world is enough to get even normal people on edge, and that was the first to go. I've not been a consumer of what they call "the news" for three years now, and haven't missed it for a day. Television and the Internet were all shut off, and I simply ran "cold" for awhile.
I had to do a bit of house-cleaning in my personal life as well. A person's eyes are the windows into their soul. I needed to be able to look someone in the eyes, and just know that they were good for me, right for me, would never bring any harm to me, and that I could trust them with my life. I needed to feel this level of trust towards anyone who was going to be in my life going forward because PTS made me feel like my life was endangered constantly, even if it was all in my head. Most fell into a large middle group of people who I knew cared and were concerned, but just didn't know quite what to do with me or how to support me. I tried my best to distance myself from such people. These were all good people, but good wasn't enough. I needed nothing less than the very best for me, someone that could stand by my side with confidence, and who just knew exactly how to support me.
There were, unfortunately, a person or two in my life who when I peered into their souls, I saw ulterior motives and hidden agendas. These people were gone from my life in an instant, without so much as a second thought, and were made very aware that they were no longer a welcomed presence in my life. I had sensed trouble within these people, and bridges were burned to prevent any more of this trouble from finding its way into my life. These were survival mode instincts. Get out, and stay the hell out. Right or wrong, fair or not, simply having caused me to doubt their intentions towards me was enough to fail me as a friend. These were not the types of people that I could have anywhere near me during this time. I was terribly hurt and wanted nothing more to do with these people, and banished them from my life.
Cancer changed so much about me as a person, but PTS and having "demons inside" changed me even more. It raised my bar for friendships through the roof, and a lot of people simply didn't make the cut, through no faults of their own in the majority of cases. The only people I could have anywhere close to me needed to be rock solid, dependable, trustworthy, and positive people. I could count on one hand the number of people that I felt this way towards. Cancer is already such a lonely experience, but experiencing PTS is even moreso. I withdrew from people I had loved and considered friends, I withdrew from interests and hobbies, and I withdrew from everything and anybody in my life because at the time, I didn't know exactly what was hurting me and why. I pulled the plug on everything.
I know there are some people that I've pushed away that have been very hurt, and I'm sorry for this. How the hell do you explain to someone that your house is on fire in your mind, and that whatever their deal or issue was, they just needed to get the hell away? This is how survival mode instincts work. You're fighting to survive, and nothing else matters. My conscious mind was no longer working, and all I was operating on were survival mode gut instincts. If I didn't feel at that instinctual level that someone was good and right for me, you were potentially registering as a threat, and simply couldn't be anywhere near me. And sometimes, this meant being alone.
YOU DON'T FIGHT A FIRE BY YOURSELF
As many people as I had suddenly pushed away, I knew full well that I needed help, but from whom? You don't fight a fire by yourself! You need the help of as many people as possible, from people that you know without a doubt are on your side. A critical mistake I had made during my first few years after cancer was actually trying to take the advice of many well-meaning people, including some of my doctors, to just try and "forget" all that I had been through and move on with my life. Maybe this works for some, but for me it was terrible advice. Scorpios never forgive or forget anything, and especially not something that had hurt us.
Cancer Community Support is Essential Long After Cancer: I had become disconnected from the support I had enjoyed from fellow testicular cancer fighters and caregivers at the TC-Cancer.com forum, which was one of the first places I found on the Internet back in 2011 when I was at the start of my cancer fight. Many of these people had drifted away from the forum, but I quickly tracked them down and connected with as many as I could find on social media. We were scattered all about, but just having them psychologically closer like this helped me to feel better, and safer. I logged back into the forum for the first time in awhile and made a post about the terrible anxiety I was struggling with. I had thought I was all alone, but one by one the responses popped up from others who had been on my same timeline, and who had been facing similar challenges in their own lives. Just knowing that I wasn't alone and wasn't nearly as isolated as I thought I had been made an immediate and huge difference. There's nothing worse for any cancer fighter or survivor than to feel alone!
One of the very best things about the cancer community is that we're always there for each other. When other friends fail you or just don't know how to support you, the cancer community just knows, and always has your back. Cancer community support can be a bit of a double-edged sword. There are plenty of sad stories, and not everyone you know is going to make it, but the support gained from this community of incredible people is simply invaluable and irreplaceable.
Support from the Medical Community: I called my oncologist's office in January 2013 to get a fresh prescription for some Ativan, because my anxiety was out of control. I was immediately relieved when I heard the voice of Trish Traylor on the phone, the best and most incredible oncology nurse ever. What kind of oncology nurse can you chat with about cancer, life, fast cars, and guns? I hadn't talked to Trish in quite some time at this point, but just hearing her voice on the other end of the line helped to put me at ease and bring some calm back into my life. Trish and I talked on the phone for a bit, and when I told her what was going on she dropped me the numbers to some therapists. I gave them a call later, only to find out that the first available appointments weren't for another 6-8 weeks for one, and 2-3 months for the other. I couldn't believe it and knew it wasn't going to do. I'm sure there were other resources in the area that could have helped on a more timely basis, but my house was on fire now, and I needed help now.
If I waited 6 to 8 weeks to get into a therapists office while experiencing PTS, there wasn't going to be anything left of me for therapy.
My local medical system had failed me here, and I knew I was on my own. I was very grateful that Trish was willing to exchange personal contact information with me, because I knew she didn't have to. Trish was a "safe" person, and I needed more people like this in my life. I would have many pep talks with Trish over the coming months, on her own personal time. Trish became a huge source of encouragement and guidance for me, and I was so grateful for her presence in my life. If you ever want to know a real-life angel, get to know an oncology nurse!
Finding Your Innermost Circle: I also sat down for pep talks with my friend from work, Claudia Ritchey, quite often during this time. Claudia and I had bonded over the years and she just got me, and knew what I was going through not because she had been there herself, but simply because she was that brilliant and amazing of a woman. Claudia was a very spiritually connected person, and all it took was 5 minutes of talking to her and I would calm right down, and I just felt like everything was going to be okay. Claudia knew. I didn't know how she knew things, but she did, and I believed her. Claudia and I connected on a very deep and spiritual level, and she had always been a complete angel to me, except that she was leaving! Her last day at my office was the last Friday in that January of 2013, and I was going to have to find a way forward without nearly as much of her physical presence in her life.
Claudia had become like a big sister or sister-mom to me, with all of her southern gal warmth and charm to go with it. God bless her for being on-call for me throughout most of 2013. I knew she was far too talented and gifted to be sitting around as our office manager. She had sacrificed a very high profile legal career at the Supreme Court of the United States for her family, and clearly had callings elsewhere in life. God had other plans for her, and needed her to bless other people with her presence in their lives, and I tried my best to accept that she would be gone.
I leaned heavily on my cancer mentor, Kim. Kim is a friend that my wife and I had known for over 15 years by this time, who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer the year before I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I didn't know what a cancer mentor was or why one might be needed, but without even asking I already had one. Kim volunteered herself for this role when she learned of my diagnosis, and it never mattered one bit that we had different types of cancers, nor that she was a she. We're all the same inside, and feel the same things, and so much of the young adult cancer experience transcends cancer type and gender. Kim got me. Kim knew exactly what I was feeling, and just knowing that I wasn't alone made things better, but Kim was in Pittsburgh. I quickly saw the pattern.
People that were wrong for me had been too close, and those that were right were too far away.
I found some important support that I needed and which helped to shore me up, yet still felt alone and abandoned at the same time. I didn't know what the answers were, and still had terrible amounts of anxious energy inside of me. All I knew was that I needed to find outlets for this, something, anything, or else it would eat me alive. What was done with some others in my life was done, and what needed to be done. No regrets. If something or someone was wrong for me, they just needed to go. I had closed various doors and slammed shut a few others, and there was no going back. As frightened as I was, it was much better to be alone for awhile than to allow hurtful people to continue to be a presence in my life. I simply prayed that the right doors would open in time, and tried to find the outlets that I needed to manage on my own.
FIND HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE OUTLETS
When I was diagnosed with cancer, there was little time to be stressed, or sit around and worry. I had chemotherapy sessions, surgeries to prep for, consultations, and tons of other appointments with this doctor or that doctor while struggling to keep my body afloat through treatments. Now, I was just waiting around and going crazy. I needed outlets, and I needed them now, or else I was just going to burn up inside. I couldn't even sit still long enough to go out to lunch, it was that bad! I felt threatened constantly, and like a sitting duck if I was waiting around in some restaurant. I had to keep busy, and I had to keep moving.
RUNNING. I had just started running at the tail end of 2012, which as it turned out, happened to be the origin of all of the strange pains I had been having when I was suddenly exercising muscles that hadn’t gotten much if any use in quite some time. Running would prove to have many benefits for me, such as helping control terrible nerve pain issues I was having, and keeping my hormonal levels cranked up. Most importantly, there was something very primal about running, specifically outside with the wind on my face, and trees and scenery passing me by. It gave all this energy inside of me a place to go, and fulfilled a sub-conscious desire to literally just run away from everything that I had been experiencing. No matter how anxious I had been that day, running would always help to bring back some calm without fail, and I needed that.
While dedicating an hour of time to go running or walking, it was also an hour of OFF time just for me where I could shut out the rest of the world and focus within. Running over lunch became my private "FU Cancer" time. I never listened to music when I went running, but rather got myself into semi-meditative states where I could playback a particular moment, or re-experience something awful that I had felt in a more controlled and safe environment. I could either process it, or just allow myself to feel something for the first time while in my "safe zone." I told myself that as long as I kept running, that cancer couldn't catch me. I knew this wasn't how things worked, but cancer plays the most terrible head games with you, and you have to play head games back! I knew it wasn't true, but it felt good to say it!
Taking up running is one of the best things I ever did for myself after cancer. It’s an entire chapter of my life, going from hardly being able to get up a single flight of stairs without wheezing after cancer, to being able to run 5K's in well under 30 minutes.
RANGE THERAPY. A little shooting range therapy went a long ways too. I just couldn’t get this terrible flashback sequence of all of the worst moments of my 5 month cancer fight out of my head. It replayed itself over and over and over again, traumatizing me every time. It was so bad one day that I just had to leave work. I went to the NRA Headquarters shooting range in Fairfax, VA and put up a bunch of paper testicular carcinoma targets that a friend from NIH had hooked me up with. With the terrible imagery of these cancer fight flashbacks playing through my head and tears streaming down my face, I rapidly unloaded magazine after magazine into these cancer targets. I fucking hated cancer with all that I had at this point, and with every fiber of my being. I took great pleasure in ripping these stupid cancer cell prints to shreds. Cancer had caused my body to betray me, had taken my life hostage, and now even after cancer it was still finding ways to fuck with my mind. From then on, whenever this terrible cancer fight flashback sequence would start playing through my mind, I would immediately roll the new clip of shredding paper cancer targets with a 9mm pistol in its place, and I was never tormented by this flashback sequence again.
VIDEO GAMES. Yes, I even turned to video games as a form of therapy! I laughed out loud when I saw an article in 2015 talking about the potential benefits of video games for cancer survivors and those experiencing post-traumatic stress, because I knew how true it was. I would wake up in the middle of the night either naturally or due to a nightmare, and then my mind would just start racing with cancer-related thoughts and worries, and wouldn't stop. I had terrible insomnia, but there was no way I was going to sit around and worry about cancer all night long, so I would fire up my PS3 and play Gran Turismo 5 in the middle of the night, and race myself to oblivion. It forced my mind to focus externally, and any sort of video game that requires intense external concentration will do that! In the article they had mentioned Tetris, but a good racing game would keep my petrolhead mind just as occupied. It would stop the cancer thoughts from flowing, and I would go until I was so damned tired that I could drag myself back up to bed, and immediately crash and fall back to sleep. Taking drugs like Lunesta would help reduce the cancer insomnia, but just made my day miserable by making my peripheral neuropathy and muscle fatigue issues so much worse. Video games were an ingenious distraction for these middle of the night mind games. My mind was already racing about cancer, why not give it something else to race?
WRITING. I had been inspired by an article or two that Kim had been writing for the hypo-parathyroid association magazine that she had joined in the aftermath of her thyroid cancer. It just seemed like such a good way to vent, as I proofread a piece she had prepared in which she was venting her frustrations with her own young adult cancer experience. I knew I always had a knack for writing, and that it was an untapped talent that would never get any real use in engineering world in which I worked. Cancer sure as hell had given me plenty of material to write about, and so I started journaling my thoughts almost every single day.
Whatever terrible thoughts I was having, I dumped them into my journal in hopefully semi-coherent thoughts. There were a lot of terrible thoughts, and my journal quickly reached tens of thousands of words. It was through this private writing to myself that I started to get in touch with my true spiritual-self for the first time, and I began to understand who exactly I was, what my needs as a person really were, and all that was lurking inside of me. I took it all raw and head-on, numbed only by a bit of wine. I was never on an anti-depressant of any sort, and didn't want to be. I wanted to know exactly what was lurking inside of me so that I could learn how to grasp it, and then beat the shit out of it.
FEEL WHAT YOU NEED TO FEEL, AND JUST LET IT OUT
On a run in early 2013, a huge and paralyzing wave of anxiety suddenly swept over me to the point that I had to stop mid-run. I sat down on the curb right where I had stopped because I couldn't even make it to a park bench that was a short distance away, and just started sobbing uncontrollably. I was completely paralyzed by fear, and it still boggles my mind to this day what I was even afraid of. I was afraid of having to get the dreaded retroperitoneal lymph-node dissection (RPLND) surgery done, except that this was January 2013, and I had already had this surgery done 18 months ago in June of 2011!!! I completed chemotherapy in May of 2011, and was so disappointed that my post-chemo CT scans showed that I hadn't gotten a complete radiological response from the chemotherapy alone, as we all had hoped. There was still a lymph node or two showing on those post-chemo scans that were greater than 1cm, which met the standard of care for recommending this terrible RPLND surgery. Because my tumor markers had always been negative, it was purely a guessing game as to what exactly was still in these lymph nodes. It could have still been active cancer, and I was so terrified and disappointed by this, but at the time I didn't blink an eye. "Well, guess I'm getting cut," I responded to my wife on a text message.
I carried my warrior mentality with me straight from three months of chemotherapy hell, and right through the RPLND surgery that I had on June 22nd, 2011. I wasn't afraid of the surgery back then. When you're fighting for your life, a different mentality takes hold, and you just do whatever you need to do. My desire to fight and my desire to beat this stupid cancer and live far exceeded my fears. I never felt even an ounce of fear at the time, but it doesn't mean that I was never afraid. People have called me brave and heroic, but I've never felt that way about myself. We suppress our fears in order to get through extremely challenging life situations, whether we're fighting cancer or a war. I didn't know it, but I was absolutely horrified inside beneath this warrior spirit, and sitting on the curb on that freezing cold day January day, there all of those emotions finally came pouring out.
I didn't understand what was happening in the days that followed this particular episode, but through writing in my journal I came to realize the above, that I had simply been in a warrior mindset throughout my cancer fight, and that I had so many more emotions like these locked away inside that I just needed to release. I came to understand that I was hurting as I had been because I had never allowed myself to feel or express such powerful emotions, and that they were better out than in. After I sat on that curb for 10 or 20 minutes just letting all of that out, I was never afraid of that wretched RPLND surgery again, nor did memories from it haunt me as they had been.
I officially called bullshit on the notion that men aren’t supposed to cry or feel anything.
I no longer told myself that there was something wrong with me for feeling what I was. For the first time, I just allowed myself to feel whatever I needed to feel without judgement. I cried more in the first half of 2013 than I ever had in all the rest of my life combined. Every time I cried, I released a little bit more pain from the dark corners of my mind, and felt better after I did. All of the frustrations, all of the fears, all of the disappointments about life when your own body betrays you in such a terrible way, I just let them all fly out of my body through tears. I journaled them all, with a bottle of wine in front of me at 2am, and a heaping pile of paper towels overflowing the trash can I parked next to the couch. Mere tissues weren’t nearly enough to absorb this big boy’s tears.
LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING
In this first half of 2013, two years after my cancer diagnosis and six months away from hitting the all important two years cancer free point, I just had this innate fear that it was inevitable that my cancer was going to come back. I couldn’t shake it no matter what I did. I had six months of active surveillance to go, and just felt like something was going to happen The closer I got to this two year finish line, the worse my anxiety became. I felt like if something was going to happen, it was going to happen sooner rather than later, and that my "last good day" could be any day now. Even when my PTS issues were switched off, I just couldn't shake this feeling. I was genuinely afraid that this was my time, and wanted to live the best possible last six months of my healthy life that I could. No rational or logical thought mattered. The high five year survival rates for testicular cancer were comforting at the conscious level, but we're always afraid that we're going to be one of those few percent that have something happened. When you’re spooked, you’re spooked.
FUN WITH FRIENDS. In February of 2013, I had tickets to go to the Wizards-Rockets game with some friends that had been planned a few months in advance. Bad thoughts were finding me that day and I almost didn’t go, but I refused to allow cancer and post-traumatic stress issues rule me. I forced myself to go, and it was a wonderful few hours spent with a long-time friend talking trash, seeing who could get the best photos of the cheerleaders, and maybe watching a little bit of the game. It was a few hours where my mind was solidly engaged on things external to the turmoil of my inner world. I enjoyed this time away from my own mind immensely. I don't think my pal Richard realizes just how important of a moment getting out for this game was for me, but he will now. It was the first time I said, "Fuck you cancer and post-traumatic stress, you're NOT going to stop me from living and enjoying my life." It was a huge moment that set me off on the right foot not just for the year, but for my entire life after cancer.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS. I had always wanted to give hiking a try, but never found the time in my 35 years. My long time friend Amit took me on a hike around Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland that spring. I loved it and took to it immediately, and enjoyed the fresh air and the scenery immensely. Taking all of this in while concentrating on the hike, and enjoying the company of another long-time friend meant another few hours where my mind was solidly focused externally, and away from the complete turmoil of my inner world. Amit and I followed this hike up with the 8-mile Catoctin Mountain loop, which was another few hours of solid external engagement for my mind, fresh air, great scenery, great company, and exercise as well. I'd loved to have gone hiking every single day if I could.
THE COMFORT AND JOY OF MY FAMILY. My wife and I went on our first private post-cancer getaway sans kids to St. Lucia in October of 2012 to celebrate our anniversary, and then went as a family to Disneyland over Thanksgiving. These were the most wonderful times of our lives, and I needed more of them. I needed to double down! We went to DisneyWorld in Orlando over spring break of 2013 where we were blessed with a week of absolutely perfect weather, and it was such a fun and wonderful time. Funny how it can be so easy to take family trips like these for granted. I loved and enjoyed every single second, feeling inside like this could be the last Disney trip I'd ever go on with my family.
We immediately hit the beach over Memorial Day weekend to our favorite beach, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, and enjoyed a blissful beach weekend. Over the summer we finally went on the midwestern road trip that we had planned for 2011, but that my cancer fight spoiled the plans for. We spent a few days in Chicago, and finally paid a visit to Wisconsin Dells for the very first time. My wife and I had criss-crossed the Dells nearly every weekend for two years when she was in Rochester, Minnesota, and I was in Libertyville, Illinois. We had always wanted to meet halfway there one weekend, but we were young and had little money, and just didn’t want to spend it like that. We went to the Great Wolf Lodge waterpark and had an incredible few days, and became waterpark addicts. Our kids had so much fun that they didn’t want to leave even after a few days, but we continued on our way to Rochester, MN for my wife to meet up with some old friends, and then finally landed in Minneapolis for the Minnesota State Fair. It was a fantastic road trip, there was never a dull moment, and despite having travelled nearly a thousand miles by car, our kids were little angels the whole way and hardly complained.
My family was my heaven on earth, and I never wanted to leave them or be apart from them.
Living like you were dying wasn’t just about going on big trips, though. Hiking was free, and going to a basketball game with friends was minimal cost as well. Every weekend we had things going on such as trips to museums, trips to the zoo, and other places of interest. Every minute my mind spent planning for, anticipating, or being engaged with an enjoyable activity, was a minute it wasn’t spending in a state of complete distress worrying about things I had no control over. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t still afraid because I was, and it didn’t mean that I didn’t still have terrifying thoughts because I did. Staying solidly engaged with living and enjoying life as much as possible had the effect of slowing down the awful thoughts I was having to a trickle. At that rate I could process them one by one, as opposed to being flooded with them to the point of drowning in them as I had before.
IT TAKES AN ENTIRE VILLAGE TO KEEP CANCER SURVIVORS FEELING WHOLE
As wonderful as my wife, family, and friends were, I still needed more. Amit and his wife had just had their first baby and were busy with that, and my friend Richard and I were just on slightly different life rhythms, with kids just different enough in age that it made it difficult to connect. I was still too afraid to be alone, my wife commonly had to work on weekends and couldn’t literally be by my side at every moment, and too many of my other friends were scattered about the country.
If ever there was a time that I really needed a brother or a sister, someone dedicated to me and that knew me, and that I would feel totally and completely safe and comfortable around, this was the time. I needed someone that could fly in for a weekend if needed just to keep me company, because I was still hurting this badly inside, and couldn't be left alone. I actually do have a sister that most people don’t even realize that I have, but for whatever reason she’s just chosen not to be a part of my or my family’s lives, and I haven’t had any sort of relationship with her in over 20 years now. At best, my sister has just never really cared that I’ve existed, or at worst she's resented me. Not once have I ever felt like my sister has actually cared about me, all throughout my cancer fight I hardly even got a text message or an email from her, and as far as I know she never read even a single one of my CaringBridge online journal updates. For 20 years it didn’t really matter, but now, going through this, I really needed a brother or a sister in my life. Knowing that I had one but didn’t really have one just hurt, and it made the feelings of isolation and abandonment that I was already experiencing so much worse.
This was a herding instinct coming to the surface, and the feeling of safety in numbers. I had always been a very independent person, but suddenly became a people person out of nowhere. I needed my 'herd' to surround me and protect me, but who was my herd? There were definitely people that I felt close to, but weren't nearly physically close enough. I needed someone right down the street that I could feel this way about. I needed a miracle.
THE MIRACLE OF THE RIGHT PEOPLE, AND THE RIGHT SOULS IN YOUR LIFE, EXACTLY WHEN YOU NEED THEM
On Saturday, February 9th, 2013 what I consider to be a miracle happened. My son William had a birthday party to go to for one of his daycare classmates, Josie Way. This was the very first week that I had managed to get my PTS turned “off” in the early days, although that does have to be used in quotations. PTS is like a trick light switch that wants to keep flipping itself back on. You can flip it off, only to have it flip itself back on again. I was still feeling so raw and vulnerable, and bad thoughts had been finding me again that morning. I didn't want to go. I was afraid, but it was all up to me. Due to a scheduling conflict with something that my wife and daughter needed to go to at the same time, if I didn’t take Will to his classmate's birthday party, he wasn’t going to get to go. I wasn’t ready to be around people yet, but I refused to give in, I refused to allow cancer to rule me like this, and I forced myself to go.
The party went almost exactly as I thought it would. I was struggling to hold back bad thoughts, I had tears welling up in my eyes, and I was still so spooked. I almost thought I was going to have to leave the room, but my attention started focusing on the hosts of the party, Natalie and Mark Way. They just seemed like a carbon copy of my wife and I, a very pretty and petite western appearing Asian woman, and a tall and goofy looking white guy. I had seen their daughter in Will’s class for at least a year and a half, but never remembered meeting them. I wondered how on earth I hadn’t until now, despite having been to dozens upon dozens of school birthday parties in the past.
It turns out that I have a very good sense for people, and if someone is supposed to be a part of my life or not. I knew within a week of meeting my wife that she was the one for me, and I've also sensed people that would be trouble well in advance as well. I took one look at Natalie and Mark, and whatever this sense that I have is, pegged the needle positively in a way that it rarely if ever has in my life. I had this huge sense that these were people that I was supposed to know, but was afraid to initiate a friendship. I had been hurt by others and couldn't afford to be hurt again, and I knew they’d quickly learn of my cancer story and issues with PTS. I was so afraid of being rejected, but listened to what my instincts were telling me, and took a huge leap of faith to initiate a new friendship the week after the birthday party.
It didn’t take too long to realize that our new friends did practically all of the same things that we did! Seeing social media updates, our first few comments towards each other were along the lines of "hey, we just did that yesterday," or "we were just there last week!" Natalie and I got to talking a bit more, wondering how we had missed each other all these years, only to realize that we were just missing each other by not even 5 minutes most days in the afternoon for pickup, and that we actually lived in the same neighborhood right down the street from each other! And when they started seeing my cancer related updates on the struggles I was facing in life, they didn't run away from me as I feared they would, but actually ran towards me and were immediately supportive in a very positive way. My mind was blown.
We had our first family playdate together a month or so later, after our schedules finally cleared. We met at a local park early in the spring of 2013 and then went to dinner together, and from there the most wonderful of friendships was born. Museum trips, hiking adventures, countless dinners, foodie adventures, park playdates, weekend trips, Game of Thrones, and even a co-coordinated vacation or two, and the list goes on and on. Whenever Debbie was tied up with work on a weekend, I could always sync up with these new friends of mine just a 5 minute walk down the street, and Debbie knew that I would be in good hands.
One of the first things anybody will notice about Natalie is that she just radiates positive energy, and that she has a laugh that can fill a room. She’s also the most wonderful of hosts, and never leaves anyone in her presence unattended for even a moment. If she’s engaged with several people and someone steps away, you might suddenly find all of this positive energy that she has beaming solely onto you, which has actually caught me off guard on an occasion or two! But most importantly for me, Natalie is a very present person. Maybe we were getting just a bit of special attention, but you’ll rarely if ever catch her fiddling with her phone in the presence of others, and her mind never drifts months ahead or back to months ago. She’s just present and accounted for at all times with whomever she happens to be engaged with, and that's exactly what I needed in a friend and companion. As Natalie was fully present with me, it forced me to stay fully present as well. This kept my mind from drifting to the dark and rotten places it would go on it own, and having such similar lives and so many common interests made this unthinkably easy and natural!
As for Natalie’s husband Mark, all I can say is that the man is a riot. He's one of those people without a filter that takes a certain type of person, with a certain sense of humor to be able to appreciate, and I was one of those people. On more than one occasion, my mind had been slipping back into the negative, only for Mark to say something completely off the wall funny, or he would send a funny text message that was so “out there," that it would snap me right back into the present. It would focus my mind on something far more engaging, like coming up with a witty reply or comeback! Natalie and Mark were a magical one-two combo that could keep the terrible darkness within me fully in check. It’s not that my other friends weren’t good enough. I was just in that bad of shape, had little to no control over my internal thoughts and emotions, and needed a level of friendship and companionship that was above and beyond anything else.
I'm so blessed to have found this level of friendship that I was so badly in need of with Natalie and Mark, at exactly the time I needed it the most. It quickly became the sort of friendship where you feel like you've known each other for your entire lives, despite only having known each other for a short time. The icing on the cake was that Natalie actually has a twin sister, Norma, who has the same energy and is just as amazing as she is. Natalie is everything I ever dreamed a sister ought to be, and now it was like getting a bonus sister for free! I very quickly fell in love with these two totally awesome Libra twins and their families, and they became beloved second families to me.
A Huge Milestone
A year later on Martin Luther King Jr Day in 2014, our kids all had the day off from school and we had all planned to take the day off, except for Debbie who forgot! I went with the Ways to the National Air & Space Museum in Dulles, VA and spent a few hours there, and then we got lunch together on the way back. We had only planned to spend half a day together, but it was such a nice and unseasonably warm pre-spring day that we ended up hanging out at the neighborhood park during the afternoon too, and then we all got dinner together after Debbie finished up at work. This might seem like a fairly ordinary thing to do to many, but for me something hugely significant occurred on this day. It was the very first time in the three years since my cancer diagnosis that I had managed to go an entire day without even a single thought about cancer, without my wife being by my side for the whole day. It was then that I realized just what a huge blessing these friends of mine had been. Time and time again throughout this cancer journey of mine, it's been the power of the right people, and the right souls in my life at the right time, that have ended up making the biggest differences for me.
I’d wondered for the longest time over the years why we hadn’t ever met even in the grocery store right in our neighborhood in the previous six years, and the answer is because the time wasn’t right. I had contemplated suicide just weeks before we finally met, and needed the maximum benefit of the powerful new friendships that these two would provide to kick in exactly when I needed it the most. If their daughter's birthday party had been even a week prior, I simply wouldn’t have been able to go as I was in that bad of shape, and in no condition for any public appearance at all. I had zero control whatsoever over my emotions, and could be a wreck and in tears at any moment. And had I not flat out forced myself to take Will to his classmate’s birthday party even though I wasn’t feeling up for it, I’d have missed out on what has been the best and greatest friendships I’ve ever known thus far in life. Life is amazing. God winks.
Recovering from PTS after Cancer was an all-hands, all of the above effort. It took everything that I had, and everything that everybody else in my life had to help pull me out of it. It took every bit of love that my wife had for me just to keep me afloat. It took a deep commitment to self-care and self-healing, and finding healthy and productive outlets for such terrible energy I had inside. It also took great sacrifice, as my priorities and my focus in life had to change completely in order to handle this. There were people that just couldn’t be in my life anymore and that I had to say goodbye to, and others that I simply didn't have the time for anymore while having to put almost every bit of spare time and energy that I had into self-care and recovering, as I slowly nurtured my way back to good mental and physical health. I'm sorry to those that I had to leave behind. It doesn't mean that they weren't good people, they just weren't 'good for me' through this phase of my life and cancer survivorship. There were only a precious few seats for passengers on this ride, and I had to make sure that every single one of them was filled with the very best people for me. Nothing less would do, because I knew it was going to take everything to pull me out of this crisis.
As for these most dear and beloved friends of mine that were able to be by my side during this crucial time in my life, none have had the physical experience or memories of helping to rescue me from my burning house. They also won't have any memories of helping me to put the flames out and then rebuilding, yet this is exactly what these friends of mine have managed to accomplish, just by being themselves. I know what I feel inside towards these friends of mine, and there is no greater love, no greater friendship, and no greater appreciation. There are simply no stronger feelings that one can feel. I don't know how to express in words exactly how strongly I feel, but it's a very deep and soulful love and appreciation that I know transcends the limits of our physical world. I'm indebted and adoring, and will love these friends of mine forever.
To my wife Debbie, my soulmate, and to my two totally awesome kids Katie and William, that never cease to put smiles on my face. To Claudia and Trish, to Amit and Richard, to Kim and Kelly, and to Natalie, Mark, and Norma. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for being the right people, and the right souls in my life, at exactly the time that I needed you. Some of you I had only just met or known for a very short time. When others had failed me or just weren't what I needed, here you were, and not only did you help to rescue me from something terrible, but you helped me to find my footing, show me the way, and rebuild my life into something truly wonderful. I consider you all to be blessings, but the gifts of your love and friendships through such a crisis is not something that I can ever hope to repay. It's a blessing that can only be paid forward to others, to the next Steve Pake who needs it. This is all for you, in the hopes that it will inspire others to be that blessing to those struggling in their own lives, and to help those struggling find their way as you've helped me to find mine. Thank you for allowing me to share our stories together. Your support of me through such a terrible ordeal and period of my life will never be forgotten ever, and my love for you all shall be eternal.
Continue to PTSD After Cancer Part III - Managing Life After