There is something missing in my life. Everything feels flat. No fizz. I can’t explain it and I don’t know why I feel this way. It makes no sense.
My counsellor from the Cross Cancer Institute told me that to some degree that is what depression is. Unexplainable feelings that you can’t get over. A sense of loss. She suggested that I was experiencing low grade depression.
When I went in to see her, I started by talking about where I was with cancer recovery and in my life. As I outlined it for her it occurred to me, as it often does, that I have a pretty good life. There is really no good reason for me to be seeing a psychologist. So, I told her I felt guilty taking up valuable time when she could be seeing someone else. (Her services are provided free to cancer patients.)
Her response was that her cancer patients often tell her that. “Do not worry” she said, “You are the type of patient we are here for. This is just another stage of your cancer recovery.”
She explained that when she came to work with cancer patients she was all prepared to deal with trauma patients suffering through operations and radiation, chemo and full on drama. What she has found is that most of her patients were people like me; over the physical illness essentially, but dealing with low grade depression.
She said that cancer recovery was not often the big ‘triumph of the human spirit’ story that people expect. The arch of psychological recovery is longer than the physical recovery, and it is not dramatic.
The feelings I have are not dramatic either, but they are pervasive. It’s actually more of a lack of feeling. No one would notice, except probably Linda. I don’t mope. I get around and do all the normal things and look like a success. Looking good is still important to me so I keep up with appearances. But there is something missing.
My world is flat. Well, not flat but flatter. I am not as interested as I used to be. I have lost some of my lust for life.
Let’s deal with the “lust” part first. It’s not something we dwell on, but both Linda and I know I do not have my usual sex drive. I have the physical energy but I have lost some of my “interest”. That is a huge loss. I really should be depressed.
Will I get it back? I am sure I will. If I don’t, we will adjust, but……
Right. What do I say now? Hmmm.
My psychologist used the word ‘anhedonia’ to describe what I feel or don’t feel. The opposite of hedonism. If hedonism is the seeking pleasure and the full on embracing of life, then anhedonia is its opposite. Seems like a good word for what I am not feeling, what I call flatness.
Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, singing, sexual activities or social interactions.
The flatness is pervasive. I can sense it in almost everything.
When I go snowboarding, I am not as driven. I get out to the ski hill later in the day. I quit earlier. I am not as interested in improving. And don’t push myself as hard. It’s not as much fun.
I buy new books and only read the first chapter. I know that is common for lots of people but for me it’s worse than it used to be. I am interested at first, but the interest is not sustained.
I used to be a hound for finding new music and adding it to my I-tunes lists. Now, not so much. I hear new songs I like. I add them to my I-tunes, but then I rarely go back to them and listen again. Many of you know that, for the last 15 years, every year, I burn my favourite new songs CD’s and give them to friends and relatives. Like inflicting my bad taste on them. This year I probably won’t do it. I have no interest. No new songs to reveal.
When I am out riding my mountain bike, I wonder when the magic is going to kick in again. Riding is more like work than the teenager fun it used to be.
I don’t drink alcohol any more, and I don’t miss it. To be honest, drinking was a source of pleasure for me. That is gone. A sign of anhedonia; flatness.
Do I find this loss of joy in life debilitating? No, I am quite functional. It’s just that I don’t seem to care as much. I care, or I want to care. It’s just that I am not present. Not there. Dull.
I think that is what Linda notices. I am not present. OK, those of you who know me are going to say, “That’s not new.” I have always been absent minded. That is not what it is. It is more than being absent minded. It’s more like being absent.
Now, when I miss the thread of a conversation I am having with two or three people, I don’t take the trouble to make sure I understand so I can participate fully. I just let the others carry on knowing the conversation will go on without me. This is not how I used to operate.
I used to be full on. It’s bad enough in social situations but in business meetings it can get worse. When Linda and I are dealing with financial planners or our accountant, people like that, I notice myself just letting the conversation go. Sort of like I don’t care enough, even when I know there is money on the line and I know I really should care. It’s kind of irresponsible behaviour.
So how do I get it back?
My psychologist seemed to say that the trick is to, “Not give in to giving in”. Participate as fully as I can. “Fake it till I make it.” Nurture myself back to life I guess.
And I guess I have to be patient. Let the healing happen in its own time.
I don’t want any of you to worry about me or feel concerned. It’s not going to ruin me, but I did want to acknowledge in my blog that this is happening.
I had expected to be back to normal by now. I think everyone sort of expects me to be normal now that I am recovered. Those expectations now seem to be unrealistic. Apparently, this is normal according to my psychologist. Recovery does not happen on a schedule. I am not going to be over this by exactly a year from the end of my radiation treatments. Everyone thinks they will get back to where they used to be, and that is unrealistic.
If you think of depression as coming from a sense of loss, then my low-grade depression is probably explainable. I can’t put my finger on what I have lost exactly, but I have certainly changed and I miss the me I used to be.
Maybe that explains it. I am not as engaged as I used to be, so I am not as engaging. I want to get that back.
My counsellor also pointed out the obvious. I have been through a lot of stress in the last year. Cancer, selling my business, retirement. Three high stress life events.
Yes, I can say that I conquered cancer, and I did. Yes, I can say I sold my business, and I should be proud of that. I can say I have every reason to look forward to a successful retirement. Logically that is all true, thank god, and I acknowledge it but…. parts of me are reacting is to some other truths. I lost my health. I lost my business. I didn’t really want to retire. I am feeling diminished by it all, not energized. I have lost something.
Most importantly I feel like I have lost something in my relationship with Linda. Fortunately, she is very understanding and we will get back on track. But she has been patient with me for a long time and her patience is wearing thin.
This visit to the psychologist came about because of a family fight that did not even seem to involve me. Linda and my son Mike had a huge blow up a couple of weeks ago. The yelling was worse than anything the three of us have experienced since the kids were teenagers. Both Linda and Mike were unreasonably mad at each other and it simmered for a long time. It brought out the worst in both of them.
Linda decided she would get some help. I agreed to do the same. Hence my trip to the psychologist.
Linda’s visit to her counsellor revealed that her anger is towards me. And it is justified. I have recovered but I have not adjusted. I am not carrying my weight around here. She is still the caregiver.
Linda needs a wife like her, and she certainly does not have one. I am not a helpful guy around the house. She is better at everything than I am, so she does almost everything around here. Cooking, shopping, banking, travel planning, tech work, household management, everything. I am a passenger.
When my son Mike asked me what I do around the house, I had to answer, “Not much really” Then I smiled and said, ” I have my blog to look after. I am a blogger.” Funny, sort of, but not really.
This is may be a retirement issue. Us – being together every day; all day long. Her – being more competent than me at everything. A common retirement issue, yes, but it’s compounded by Linda becoming my care giver before I retired. Our relationship was changed by the cancer experience, and not for the better.
Add this to the fact that I am not as engaged, or engaging, as I used to be. I am not as much fun to be with. That is how I used add value around here, but I have lost some of that charm.
Actually, I think a lot of this started when I was not able to talk. For three or four months, I did not talk and had to communicate by writing everything down. I got used to the silence somehow and our communication patterns changed. I lost some of my comic timing so I did not try to amuse her. We did not have as much fun together during that quiet period. Of course, I was sick then too, so that’s no fun either. Since then we have picked it up and we still have fun, but it has diminished.
There is also the issue of Linda’s hearing. She now has hearing aids and frequently does not hear what I say. It is a bit of work for me to make sure she hears me, and for her to make sure she understands what I am saying. Sometimes we just don’t make the effort.
Linda is experiencing these three major life events just like I am. Taking care of me as a cancer patient is only one of them. Selling a business was a huge stressor. She has been a big part of that. Facing retirement is also a huge. It’s not surprising that Linda and I have challenges.
We are also getting old. I am having some trouble adjusting to that fact of life. Illness, selling my business and retirement have compounded that concern for me. I can feel myself slowly drifting into irrelevance. Is that one of the feelings retirement brings?
Good thing we are still optimistic and energetic. Good thing we both have good life habits that will carry us forward.
I should end this on a hopeful note. After I saw the psychologist, less than a week ago, I immediately started feeling better. Knowing that this ‘anhedonia’ was fairly normal for cancer patients is comforting. This is just a stage of recovery that I did not anticipate. I will recover from it too.
Writing all of this down today has been therapeutic. The whole blog experience has been therapeutic. When I get into the flow of writing, there is joy. I also really enjoy getting your responses and knowing there are people like you out there reading this.
Of course, there is also the aspect of the blog being, all me, all the time. I am kind of addicted to that. There is hedonism in this blogging. I need more of that. I need more hedonism.
Bring it on.