Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Facing Fear. Pain, Panic and Relapse.

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For the first few months of treatment, I hated getting needles. 

I’d never been afraid of them before, it was only after getting so many (and having so many miss) that I became frightened of them. REALLY frightened… I’d sweat at the thought of having one.  
This fear got so bad, that one night I refused to have blood cultures done by anyone even though I'd spiked a fever while my white-cell counts were low... an infection then could KILL me.

And I found out what the consequences of that were the next day, when I got that infection that almost took my life.

It was after I recovered that I realised I’d be getting hundreds of those things, and worse, over the next year or so of treatment. I got scared again. Hints of panic came over me just thinking about them. But I stopped for a second, took a step back from all of that, and asked myself…  

Why I was scared?

It was on that day that I realised that the fear I'd work myself up to before they'd take blood was more painful than the actual jab could ever be. Indeed, that pain was over in a moment…

What REALLY hurt most was the Worry and Stress I’d feel before that. And in the end… that was all coming from ME.

When I kept asking myself why I was putting myself through that… I had no answer. At that moment I realised the biggest pain we feel is that which we put on ourselves.

That was a huge turning point for me. It was the night I learnt that it was ME who was harming myself.

It's not like I cut out that worry immediately after seeing that... I mean, it's not like I like getting needles now... I don't think anyone does.

But you know what? I no longer let things I can't change, or things that have to be, affect me. When I do think about things, even things much more substantial than a blood test (from bone marrow biopsies to bronchoscopies to asking a girl out – the hard things in life), I ask myself why I’m worrying, and then focus on doing everything to get me OUT of pain, misery (and rejection), and do that instead.

I can promise you that if you can take a step back, and question those fears and doubts in your mind, and do so the next 10 times you go through that, your mind automatically deals with those fears. It dismisses them. I didn't realise it when I first started doing this, but neuroplasticity will rewire your mind to make this happen. 

It's tough to do so at the start. It's impossible to do it right away. But if you can get your mind on your side, dealing with cancer, and the trauma it leaves behind, almost becomes easy. . 

Actually how I saw needles back then...
Still do sometimes.

But that’s the worry and anxiety you get BEFORE turmoil.

How do you keep calm, or stop yourself from stressing or panicking when you're in the middle of a crisis?

Well it was on 1 night, during the workup to a second bone marrow transplant I needed, that I REALLY put that thought-process to a test
I was getting some platelets, and after the bag was half empty, about twenty minutes in, I noticed my face was starting to itch. In fact, I found myself itching everywhere, and soon enough, my lips were swelling up to twice their normal size.

I pressed the emergency button and nurses and the emergency doctors started streaming in.

They were amazing, finding out what was wrong, getting medications up and ready and, most importantly, keeping me calm, so I didn't end up pulling out my lines or lapsing into unconsciousness.

It was all going fine... 
Until my throat began to swell.

That's when I felt myself start to panic. Eyes wide, I glanced around in all directions, looking for help. I tried to sputter out what was happening, but panicked even more as I found my words weren't even coming out. My mind was telling me to lurch out, to pull away at the nebuliser that felt like it was constricting me, to kick at the nurses and doctors who, despite all their assurances and calmness, were scaring me with their sudden presence.

Then, in the middle of all of this, I took as deep a breath as I could. I stepped back and asked myself WHY. 

Why did I want to pull the nebuliser away? The mask may feel constricting to my face, but it was the only thing keeping my airways open. Why was I scared that there were so many doctors and nurses in the room? That they were here was actually a good sign and that they were calm and focussed meant they'd been through this all before and that I'd be fine. Why was I panicking about it all? It may be uncomfortable at the moment, but by simply laying back and observing things as they went along, and being curious about what was happening (I'll probably have to be the one administering the care to someone going through something similar in the future as a doctor-to-be), I'd distract myself from all those things and recover quicker from this episode.

By doing that, in my mind, I changed that experience from a frightening, traumatising one into a lesson.

And I knew, when I did that, that I could do that in the most difficult circumstances.

And I have! That same principle… the same way I got through that, I used to get through my fear of needles, the exams I had to sit for medical school (when life got back to normal – or as normal as life after cancer can) and even helped me to not worry as much about the terrible R-word. It really did.You couldn't help but feel that pang of dread as your doctor called you with results, or as you glimpsed your hospital on the way to work or as you were (and this is something you'd think people would NEVER do) told, yet again, by that aunty of yours about that friend of hers who'd died after relapsing

What you can control is how you let that control your life. 

I still have dreams of me being back in hospital. 

But instead of letting my mind run circles about something I couldn't control, I decided to focus on the things I could instead. My eating habits, exercise (however much I could) and just focusing on seeing the good and the fun in everything.

And soon enough, that does become a habit. You do get out of it. 
Trust me, you do.
And it makes that anxious time that much better.

Amen, random person!
But it’s harder to deal with when your mind is rigged to making you feel scared at the slightest threat. Real anxiety can be crippling... And I went through that for a while…Luckily it was only that.

During one of my treatments, I developed an allergy to one of my drugs, a severe one that gave me seizures, hallucinations and thescariest two weeks of my pretty scary life.

But it was after that, when the care of the ICU and my neurologist dropped away, that I got REALLY scared. Post-hallucination perception disorder is something REALLY scary. Hallucinations are so life-like, so real, that after seeing things like I had, I’d not know what was real or not. When cars sped by, I’d be baffled by how something could move so fast, when my brother and I played basketball, I’d wonder why it was so hard to jump up and dunk… I was lost, in all senses of the word.

A few times, it got really bad. I’d see something weird and ask myself if this was real or not? Why was I feeling weird? Why I wasn’t in a bed anymore? Is leukaemia actually a thing? Was this all a conspiracy or some sick prank?? And soon enough, I’d start going through a panic attack.

I had a few of these over that time. I don’t even know how long it went for.

But after a time, one day, when I started panicking after I couldn’t puzzle out something I was reading (as you can imagine, novels and movies weren’t the easiest things for me then…), I stepped back from it all and took on that observer space again, and thought, “Why not use my hyperactive mind to pull myself out of this”. After thinking how I could calm my racing mind down for a bit – making radical plans, becoming fearful of everything as this happened – I barked at my brother who was standing nearby to get me the iPad and put on an episode of Tom n Jerry. 

As I watched the thoughtless humour that abounds when a senseless enemy tries to corner its wily foe, my mind slo-wed down to a point where I could manage it, and I realised that this was something that could help!

I watched what must have been hundreds of Tom-n-Jerry videos in those times, but what really got me through that is something you need to deal with any mental illness.

A plan.

After thinking about it, with a clear mind, it wasn’t just the watching of mindless things that helped me get through an attack. It was having my family on the side - having someone to talk to. It was stopping myself from getting an attack, or getting stressed out in the first place – not worrying about the things I couldn’t control. It was telling the doctors about it, and getting help. Trust me – seeing a psychologist isn’t as scary or weird as it seems. In truth – it was just us having a chat for me. The fact that they weren't going to judge me, that, hell, I didn't have to see them again was comforting. 

And after that chat, I realised that those steps are exactly what you need to get through this. They don’t require any crazy amount of willpower or bravery. They’re something ANYONE can do.

And if you do those things, you can beat any demons that plague you!