You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.
Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
Henry David Thoreau
The highest, most decisive experience is to be alone with one’s own self. You must be alone to find out what supports you, when you find that you can not support yourself. Only this experience can give you an indestructible foundation.
Carl Gustav Jung
There is something both stabilising and terrifying about knowing ourselves. It is confronting to face the limits of our strength or patience or generosity in a certain situation, as well as gratifying to find previously unearthed depths of resilience.
In cardiology, the contractility of the myocardium, or heart muscle, is demonstrated by the Frank-Starling mechanism. The ventricles (the two largest chambers in the heart which pump ‘old’ deoxygenated blood into the lungs, and ‘new’ oxygenated blood round the body) are very adept at responding to increased metabolic requirements. As we exercise or are dehydrated or fight an infection, our hearts work harder, pumping faster and with increased pressure. In the young and fit, the heart’s residual capacity to increase its output can be considerable. However, in certain states such as diseases of the heart muscle, increased systemic resistance (i.e. high blood pressure), or increased pulmonary pressures, the ability of the heart to keep pumping harder and faster starts to become compromised. Whereas the myocardium previously impressed with its ability to keep up with the body’s demands, it now starts to drop off – the downward trajectory of the Frank-Starling curve.
We all have an optimum point of operation and varying residual powers to increase our output in response to life’s demands. Applying for a new job, completing exams, raising children, getting over a broken relationship; these life stressors test our ability to rise to the challenge and increase our output for what is required in that circumstance. Some people have marathon runner’s hearts and the resting pulse rate of 40 only gets above 70 after a lot of stress. Others maybe have an underlying structural abnormality, or a defect in the heart wall which limits their ability to increase their metabolic demands in the face of stress. Likewise, some people have the biological make-up, which has flourished in a nurturing environment, to be able to operate effectively under certain levels of stress. On the other hand, those who have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, a personality or temperament, which does not tolerate stress well, and who may have been raised in an environment which has not fostered resilience, will not be as able to easily rise to the demands of common, if difficult life stressors.
What the shit am I saying? Why is a psychiatrist dredging up his undergraduate cardiac physiology?
I suppose I am diplomatically trying to say I feel like, over the last three weeks, I have tipped over the edge of optimum function and appear to be slipping down Starling’s curve. I’m feeling a bit flabby and puffy, and like my lungs are becoming soggy with some extracellular fluid which my heart is not optimally pumping out anymore. Perhaps a touch of heart failure; not yet cardiogenic shock.
Yes, stress, uncertainty, anxiety, tiredness are taking their toll. Much easier – but perhaps more dramatic? – to describe it as heart failure.¹
It’s two and a half weeks since we bid part of Eva’s body goodbye. The surgeon removed 29 lymph nodes from her right axilla; five of them were found to be affected by cancer. She’s been left with a beautifully tidy scar, recurrent collections of fluid (seroma) which need drained weekly, the beginning of cording (tightness and pain in the connective tissues in her right arm), and lots of pain. The pain is now much improving, but she will be unable to lift our hefty toddler for another couple of weeks to allow the wound to fully heal.
In a sense, Eva’s bilateral mastectomy and the removal of the lymph nodes felt like some sort of climax in this whole palava. The chemotherapy was an arduous, life-sapping, undulating experience. The surgery posed itself as a definitive, life-changing, disease-ridding, body-redefining moment, which was infused with nerves, inevitability, hope, and anticipation. She, and I, were aware that the full psychological impact of the change in her body may not be apparent for a long period of time as the immediate concern is with recuperating from the post-operative period.
But what we did not foresee was the sudden decline into feeling stretched and stressed and anxious. It coincided with the arrival of a close family member of Eva’s, who has been very accommodating and helpful, and whom we very much appreciate having here. However, we were really rocked by how this changed the dynamics of our bubble which we had created for ourselves the last months to deal with everything. Our management strategy had been of slowing down, acceptance, making room, and alleviating what pressures we could. The introduction of someone else at this time, regardless of how helpful they are, changed this little world, and it is something that we both initially struggled to cope with. We became ratty and irritable with one another, hypersensitive and hyper-reactive. Funsies.
Rather than it being a reflection on anyone else, it appears to be a reflection on us. The security and ‘comfort’ we created for our family during this time was dependent on having firm boundaries and accepting external help openly and willingly. It has been unnerving and, I suppose, scary to allow someone else in to the midst of the little world to care for and be involved in looking after us.
So I feel I have decompensated somewhat. Decompensated is a perfect descriptor; in cardiology, decompensated heart failure is heart failure which has previously been stable and well-managed, but which is worsened in the acute setting of another insult (e.g. infection, ischaemic heart disease, etc); in psychiatry, decompensation refers to someone’s emotional and mental well-being deteriorating in the context of an external stressor (e.g. relationship break-down, perceived rejection, or substance use). I feel like my mental resources, and my stamina to exponentially increase my output, are plateauing and dipping.²
On Monday we met the medical oncologist (chemo doctor) who started Eva on tamoxifen, an oestrogen-blocking drug; hello menopause. On Tuesday, Eva saw her GP and practice nurse (for an hour, which involved a lot of crying and talking. Best. GP. Ever). In the afternoon we met the lymphoedema specialist OT, and then went to meet the surgeon who removed Eva’s dressing and drained lots of fluid from her chest. Eva cancelled an appointment yesterday as she was all appointmented out. In an hour we are going to meet the radiation oncologist (radiotherapy doctor) who will inform us about the next stage of treatment (five weeks of radiotherapy, five days per week).
In the interim I have accepted a new job working as a medical editor of a medical journal for three days per week from home, and I will return to clinical psychiatry for the other two days per week. I’ll start back there in about three weeks’ time.
And in all of this there are deep existential experiences; obviously and foremost for Eva, but that is her business. Mine have evolved round defining my role as a carer in addition to being a husband and dad. Soon I will resume the role of doctor, and will learn a new role as an academic journal editor. These are the ‘surface’ demonstrations of what I do and who I am in relation to others.
On a deeper level, I have been vaguely aware of my dissipating patience and forbearance. There’s nothing like having an argument and being impatient with one’s recently surgically mutilated wife to make one feel like a bit of a bastard, or mimicking my daughter’s whining because IF I HEAR ONE MORE WHINE ABOUT BRUSHING HER HAIR BEFORE SCHOOL I WILL LOSE MY SHIT. (Postal address at the bottom for Father of the Year Award.)
So I need to acknowledge my limits. I need to give space to the other carer in our midst. I need to reach out for support so that I can be the supporter that I need to be. I need to take time for myself that I can give of my time to others. And this awareness can cause discomfort; a real, growing awareness of my own limits and tiredness.
I am knowing myself in ways that I didn’t ask for, and which are profound (to me). It’s my experience of my wife’s illness and its effects on her and our family. If it were quantifiable, it is ‘less’ than the suffering of millions – billions – of people around the world. But it is our suffering for the time being, and there is some solace in the effect of shared experience. We are all deeply, unchangingly, unanimously human. We are all idiots at times; we are all selfish and impatient and unkind and thoughtless. And it is our duty to know and recognise this. It is my job to figure out why I have reacted in an impatient, unkind manner; it is my choice as to whether I acknowledge my own limits and weakness, to make room for them, and find the help and support I need to be the husband or father I’ve committed to be. It’s my job to figure out when I am isolating and not investing in relationship with others because it is too much work, or too embarrassing, or vulnerability-inducing, and to ask myself, why?
Until we know ourselves it is difficult to help others wholeheartedly. Until we know ourselves – our drivers and passions, prejudices and leanings, strengths and weaknesses, and helpful and destructive patterns of thinking – until we have tolerated being alone with this knowledge, like Jung said, it is only then we can develop an indestructible foundation.
¹Just to clarify, I do NOT have heart failure.
²Just to clarify, I have NOT (completely) psychologically decompensated.