Sunday, 13 July 2014

15. How Owl helped me

Three months ago, when I first took Owl to hospital, I realised that he could be my alter ego, channelling feelings and emotions that would take me quite a while to access otherwise.

I had never been a patient before.

The loss of control was (and still is) incredibly difficult for someone who is used to being on the other side of the staff-patient divide.

I was used to supporting patients at their most vulnerable times, discussing their situation with other nurses, doctors and social workers. My way of coping with this sudden reversal of roles was to stay as competent as possible and to keep talking to my doctors and nurses as if they were colleagues.

There I was during my biopsy, lying on my back, breasts exposed, huge needle inserted into my lump in order to grab a few cells, which made such a loud noise that I’m being shot! sprang to mind.

Did I close my eyes and think about the implications of the fact that this lump, clearly, was not the cyst I had anticipated?

No. I lay there discussing the challenges the staff faced last week, when a patient with autism found it difficult to cope with having a mammogram. (Didn’t they know that there were picture books available to help women like her? They didn’t, and the staff found this so interesting that I lay there just a little bit longer than was usual, talking about my work.)

There I was in the surgeon’s office, discussing the ins and outs of my cancer, dry-eyed. So this is an invasive ductal carcinoma with lobular components? What grade? What is the hormone status? And the HER2 status? Will she make sure that the lump is removed with adequate surgical margins? Yes, OK, I see. That sounds fine.

It wasn’t fine. Of course it wasn’t.

But I could not allow myself to be a “non-coper” around cancer, crumpling in a heap on the floor of the doctor's office. I couldn’t accept that sometimes, coping takes the shape of collapsing into bed with the duvet over your head, relinquishing all responsibilities.

Shouldn’t I, of all people, be able to stay upright in the light of cancer? Had I not spent years and years supporting others in this situation, learning and learning what they needed in order to keep going? Hadn't I learnt to talk about cancer and loss in an intelligent, compassionate but sensible way?

In stepped Owl.

When I emailed the photographs of his MRI scan to the few friends who knew his story, one of them responded:

“Having a surrogate to be the patient sounds fascinating. Will you let him feel and say things that you usually wouldn’t?”

I thought about this, and the response I tapped into my iPhone was new to me, bringing fresh tears to my eyes (they flowed very easily during that time).

“Owl wouldn’t say boo to a goose and would never ask questions of doctors and nurses. He lets everything happen to him and is completely powerless (which doesn’t upset him the way it would upset me, because he doesn’t know any different). He is very frightened but accepting. He knows that he is loved unconditionally by Pig and Bear, and that they love him not despite but because of his vulnerability, and that because of this love, it doesn’t matter whether he lives or dies.”

I was flabbergasted by all this: the powerful way in which expressing Owl’s feelings instantly reached that part of myself that dared not show itself.

If I were to say “I am frightened” it didn’t ring true, because I didn’t recognise myself as a frightened woman.

But when I said “Owl is frightened” I was immediately filled with compassion for him, for myself. Choked with compassion. Poor, poor Owl. Of course he was frightened. Of course I was. I also knew that no amount of reassurance or shows of strength could take his fear away. It was no use saying that thousands of owls before him had survived cancer. He knew that. But still, he was frightened, and all I could do was sit with him - sit with myself - and allow him his fear.

When I said “I don’t want to be a cancer patient” it sounded petulant, complaining, angry perhaps. Yet I knew I wasn’t angry. (I have never asked Why me?  Rather, on hearing my diagnosis, I immediately thought: Well, it happens to millions of women, so why not me?)

But when Owl said he didn’t want to be a cancer patient, it was not a statement born of petulance or rebellion against life. It was a frightened whisper.

I didn’t want to be a cancer patient, not because it clashed with my role as competent and in-control woman, but because during those terrible first weeks, I felt completely floored by my diagnosis. I was shaking and shaking inside, and that clashed with my sense of self. It turned my world inside out.

So many people have credited owls with wisdom, and yet here he was, toppled over (quite literally) by the slightest breeze. I kept telling myself that early (and eminently curable) breast cancer hardly ranked highly on the list of possible life disasters. I kept thinking that there were so many worse things in the world, but like Owl, I was blown over.

There have been many moments like that. Times when I thought I was fine, then looked at my Owl, imagined how he was feeling, and realised that I was not fine at all.

It may sound bizarre and possibly even childish, but having this “cuddly toy” has helped me enormously, not only in understanding my emotions, but also in allowing myself to feel them.

Here is a comment from one of my lifelong friends, who has spent three decades nursing patients in a major cancer centre.

“You know,” she said, “when you were telling me about Owl, the thought struck me that so many of our cancer patients have a soft toy in bed with them. There is a little shop in the hospital where their grandchildren buy them as a present, but then they keep and keep them. They even tie them onto the drip stand that holds their chemo drugs. I always just thought that was quite fun, but now I’m suddenly thinking: perhaps there is more to it than that? Perhaps they need them as a companion during their treatment?”


Are we onto something here, Owl and I?

In any case, I am not going into the chemotherapy lounge without him. Then I can feel sorry for him, so that I won't have to feel sorry for myself. And if anything is particularly unpleasant, I can let him do the moaning on my behalf.

You see, I could easily accuse myself of being a wimp, and worry that others think so too. But surely, nobody would dream of accusing a helpless little owl of being a shirker and not coping well?

Perhaps I can even take a leaf out of my older daughter's book, when she pretended to be Pig and therefore suddenly dared ask scary dinner ladies for the food she wanted. I could perhaps pretend to be Owl, and be helpless and scared...

So if you meet me, and I tell you that I want to hide in my bedroom because I am frightened, don't be fooled. I'm just pretending.

I am NOT feeling helpless. It's Owl who is helpless.

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