So after a weekend full of snot and teary eyes (and they were not of my own doing, purely cold driven!), I have had to mentally prepare for my first ever appointment in my life with a mental health care professional. I am absolutely not against looking after mental health and seeking help when needed. I have been very blessed and lucky not to have tapped into professional help in my life until now. However, now it is something that I have come to realise I may very well need to move me forward with this journey once I have completed the medical side of things.
This is probably the hardest thing I have written about (closely followed by my hair, and you lovely folk know how much I struggled with that). I feel a little bit broken and a little bit weaker in myself knowing that I need some stranger (albeit a very qualified professional) to identify for me what I am struggling with and enabling me to cope with the changes in my thinking and my mindset going forward with and living with cancer. I am a pragmatist by nature, as likely shown by my previous musings. I spent the first four weeks of having a ‘lump’ sitting in the camp that it wouldn’t be anything significant (likely PASH – a non cancerous mass) and that at worst case scenario I would need an operation to get it out but not cancer. I remained pragmatic when I was told it was cancer, although I had my down days, and kept focussed on ‘the next appointment’ and how I could ‘get through it’.
However, as time has gone on and my health has been battered with medical inducement (who ever knew that the worst part of this journey for me would be caused by the drugs that will help me), my mental health has also took a battering. As my previous standard physical health has tried to help me retain a level of an immune system that allows me to still get up, be a mama bear and work everyday; my functioning mental health has started a slide into unhelpful thoughts and thinking that I didn’t think I would ever deal with. Because this is so alien to me, and following my desperate sadness around hair loss and how annoyed I was about something so innocuous in this journey I knew I needed to do something. I need to come out of this mentally strong. I’m certainly going to be physically weaker, but if I can do something for my mental health while I’m at it, surely I owe it to myself and my cubs to take the reins and see what I can do.
My poor dad has to take me to the appointment as its miles from work – I mean he loves being useful but the hospital canteen shuts early, so he just manages to get a coffee and scone and then sits in the car for the whole time! I however get to meet a very lovely clinical psychologist, sat with my back to a clock (its funny the little things you notice when you’re avoiding the big picture!) and I proceeded to have verbal diarrhoea for the next twenty minutes!! I felt that if I just talked at him then I wouldn’t get any awkward questions back! How naïve am I?! He’s probably watched that trick a million times!!!
I ranted on for a long time about how pragmatic I am, how I can cope with most things, how I haven’t had any huge issues in my life that I have had to work through, how I am amazingly stubborn (honestly, that’s not just me speak – my psych eval at work contests that I really am!), how task driven, focus driven, objective and rational I am at approaching problems. Then the kicker – all of this doesn’t quite work with a cancer diagnosis.
My pragmatic approach let me down -cancer happened.
No previous huge issues in my life – cancer happened.
Stubbornness – didn’t stop cancer.
Task, focus, objective, rational – none of that stopped cancer either.
That’s when I fall apart. Right there – all of my hard wired, works for everything / anything approach fails. Spectacularly fails. I do not know how to deal with this. Because something that is unlikely to happen to folk actually happened to me. And my computer says NO (typing this did just make me chuckle though!).
Once I’d calmed down (about halfway through the session!) and let the poor man speak, he started to make a lot of sense! I appreciate he is paid too and has also spent a lot of time training too, but I listened and it made sense so I liked him!! He said I needed to change my thinking and control issues……. Oh, I didn’t quite like the sound of that. I mean, I know my thinking is a little bit off with this cancer malarkey, but control issues – oh no – I like my control!!!
Then he broke my psyche down a little bit more. He uttered the words out loud – I am hard wired to be stubborn.
At this point a few people I know will be rolling about laughing. As was I at the time. Shocking state of affairs that he got that in 20 mins! Too funny in fact that he mentioned it was hard wired. Harder to deal with that I actually need to do something about that and to be honest I already know that moving that mindset will actually be harder than dealing with some of the physical side effects of chemo!
At that moment right there, I connect the sentiment to reality and know that going forward my wonderful CP (as I shall affectionately call him) and I are going to do a bit of a dance. He knows this too, I’m sure, and is way too clever to get caught up in it but will let me pretend! I’m going to do bluster and bravado at every appointment, like I’ve still got this, and anything he says is something I already know. He’s going to let me think this but subtlety drop little thought bombs for me to go away and deal with. I know he is going to test me and my thinking in ways that have never been challenged before (apart from the good old ‘getting older and realising better’ craic!). He is going to enable me to deal with this negative thinking in a way that is so alien to me at this moment in time that I am going to rebel (I’m still 21 at heart).
BUT. I know I need this. I know I need to be strong, to be able to deal with negative thoughts, to be able to challenge my emotions in a positive way, to live every day to the fullest, to move on from cancer and not dwell on the ‘what ifs’. I know I need help with that now – I may have had moments of ‘what if’ before, but I have never felt it weigh me down like cancer has and stay with me for so long.
CP’s parting homework task (who knew you got homework?) was to start looking into ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy); a psychotherapy that stops the avoidance, denying and struggling with emotions and instead accepts them while being more optimistic about my other goals and values. This is deep for even me to even comprehend at this moment in time. So the appointment we have in two weeks is going to be a real treat!!! To add to the homework he also asks me to scan a list of thirty values and pick five that I strongly resonate with. I think my day jobs are easier than mental health management all day long at this point.
I’ve made it though; I made the first step in improving my mental health following this devastating diagnosis and subsequent medical interventions. I will not let cancer beat my mental health and I have got this. Certainly a different area of my health, but I’ve got it.