The Definition of Bittersweet

Yesterday I received the phone call that my Canada Pension Disability claim has been approved. It’s great news and a major relief. At the same time, the reality of my situation is all up in my face: I’ve stopped working and I have a terminal disease at 35 years old. WTF?

I’m happy to have money to give to my parents who support me in many ways financially. I’m thankful to be able to pay my bills and have money for pleasure. Hooray for the ability to use my savings for personal, well deserved, purchases instead of bill payments. Maybe I’ll buy that $100 art print or a new dress for my upcoming trip.

Not having to work is a privilege.

I can spend my days engaged in things that are necessary for my health and bring me joy, such as exercising, meditating, writing, reading, and spending time with family and friends. Oh, and napping!

However, there are women in my situation who can’t afford this luxury. They need to keep working to take care of the mortgage or support their family. And so they work throughout chemotherapy treatments or while experiencing lingering fatigue or pain.

Then there are the women who continue to work as long as possible in order to maintain a sense of purpose. They do this despite numerous appointments interrupting their days, and the mental anguish of their situation clouding over everything.

I did this. I kept my diagnosis private from the public. I kept working as long as I could.

I gripped tightly to normalcy.

I was a few months into starting my own business when I was diagnosed. Fortunately, my cancer is a sub-type that is driven by the Estrogen hormone. Meaning I have access to hormone-blocking pills before the big guns like chemotherapy or radiation. For 16 months, from late 2015 to mid-2016, the pill, Anastrozole was my best buddy. It kept my cancer stable and left me feeling and looking like myself (for the most part).

Looking back, I realize this time was an absolute gift - providing that sweet illusion of business as usual.

During this time, I continued to build my business and take on clients. I received grant funding. I travelled with clients to Germany for a conference. I launched a new website. I wrote “business how-to” and “creative process” blog posts. I was thriving. But then Anastrozole stopped working. And with serious progression in my lungs, chemotherapy was a necessary next step for treatment. Hello, roadblock, crossroad, disappointment, and major challenge.

Halfway through my chemo treatment, I wrote the blog post, “Perspectives on Failure In Our Creative Work And Life” where I got really vulnerable and revealed my diagnosis on my business website. At the time I didn’t know how chemotherapy would affect me. How enduring it and coming out the other side would leave me physically, mentally, and emotionally a different person.

Here are some excerpts from my post:  

“I’m at a crossroads. I’m deciding how I want to spend my days, and I’m faced with serious questions. What are my goals – in business and life? What kind of legacy do I want to leave? Where do I want to focus my energy, especially my creative energy?”

“I have compassion for myself. I’m proud of what I’ve created and accomplished, and I channel my perspective from writer, Elizabeth Gilbert. She suggests we often have an airport-sized hangar of all our failures and only a small storage space for our achievements. This perspective has given me the encouragement to keep doing what I can with my business. It’s given me the strength to know that when the time comes, and I can no longer work, that it will be okay.”

Five months out from posting that blog, do I still think it’s okay that I can no longer work? Am I okay with letting go of all that I’ve created and trained for?

Sorry, but I don’t even know how to answer these questions! Maybe it's still not real enough - my website is still live and I have yet to put "not accepting new clients" on the contact page. My facebook business page is still up too. 

Even when I’m happy to stay in the present and am grateful for all the Jen time, I still get painful reminders. Being downtown and seeing people rush around on their lunch breaks. Reading at a coffee shop and overhearing the women at the table next to me have a business meeting. Receiving requests to work on a project. Or seeing former industry colleagues attend conferences or events that I once would have.  

Getting the approval phone call of my CPD claim was a huge reminder and it definitely stirred up some repressed feelings. It’s the definition of bittersweet.

Imagine it as something like this - a scene from a gangster film:

RESTAURANT (late evening)

It is late. The atmosphere is tense. The restaurant is dimly light and empty. Except for a table where Jenny sits on one side and Johnny and Beverly on the other.

Well,  here we are. Face to face. You’ve kept me waiting long enough, Johnny.

Relax, Jenny. We’ve got your money.

Beverly opens a black briefcase revealing stacks of neatly piled cash. Jenny reaches forward to thumb through the money, but Beverly quickly closes the case. She smiles coyly.

Not so fast. Aren’t you forgetting about our arrangement?

You dirty bastard. I was hoping you'd forgotten.

Johnny scoffs and laughs diabolically. He knocks loudly on the table and two figures emerge from the back kitchen steadily holding Jenny at gunpoint.

Forgotten? No, I ain’t forgotten. Everything has its price doesn’t it, Jenny?

Johnny laughs again as the camera holds on Jenny who is distraught. We then zoom over her shoulder onto a painting hanging behind her on the wall. Gunfire is heard, but not seen as we transition to the next scene.

Despite career goals and expectations being shattered, the most important realization I’ve had is how much I want to foster my own creative endeavours and interests, rather than someone else's.

I want to dive deeper and have the time for them. I want to spend my mornings engaged in my body through exercise and meditation: I want to spend my afternoons reading about subjects like mythology or folklore. Or writing blog posts that include fake film scripts about Jenny the gangster and that bastard Johnny who done her wrong.

How will I feel six months or one year from now? Who knows. For now, I’m thrilled for the CPD approval. Grateful for the privilege of not having to work. And mindful of the shit sandwich my life has been served. 

Part II: Legacy Playlist

Gratitude for The Normal Things