This challenging time also reminds me of a good friend and schoolmate of mine who suffered several years after my sudden and life-threatening illness. His wife, Julia Liss, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., Recently told me that she had addressed the uncertainty about her husband's prognosis by aiming to “control what's going on – understanding it, making treatment decisions to find out the course to recovery. "As his illness worsened, she increasingly relied on" order as a coping mechanism. " When shopping for groceries, for example, "I would walk down any aisle even if I didn't need it," she said.
"Then there was the time they reorganized the hallways and it was chaos," she continued with a sense of humor about the limits of obsessive control.
During phase 2 of my own recovery, I tried the same control-oriented strategy. Not by shopping for groceries, but by creating a detailed daily calendar at 30-minute intervals, starting with my first cup of tea at 6:30 a.m. and ending 14 hours later in front of the TV for an hour break. I wanted to believe that by ordering the day I could control my life and my illness again. Ultimately, the exercise turned out to be tiring and stupid.
Reluctantly at the time, I came to the conclusion that I had to accept uncertainty as a part of life. Instead of boxing my feelings about insecurity – what psychologists call "subdivision" – I devised a strategy to let go of those fears from time to time. In my mind, I likened this new response to a dam release, where a rising river is slowly discharged rather than waiting for a catastrophic flood.
If I hadn't found a way to escape the uncertainty, I feared that I would drown in it. I developed an arsenal of weapons to fight it: I slept forever. I saw a psychotherapist where I put words on "it". On bad days, I would practice breathing exercises to calm the nervous system. (Inhale four times, hold seven times, and let go eight times.) On the worst of days, I would pop a high-dose blue valium.
Three decades later, these lessons about living with uncertainty help me through my cancer healing through the uncertainties of the pandemic. I feel the strong urge to control again. If only I could see the virus, I could avoid it. If I only knew when life would return to normal, I could make plans for fall or next year. As with my cancer, I want to bring order out of the chaos. But I see that I am also trying to create hope out of the darkness.
Again I learned from Professor Liss. As her husband continued to fail and his chances of survival dwindled and his end drew nearer, she realized, "When things are overwhelmingly difficult and scary and the prognosis is generally not good, sometimes hope lies in the unknown," she told me. It took me a few minutes to understand what she meant as she went on: "Uncertainty and unpredictability – sudden and surprising – is the place where hope can be opened."