In the months prior to diagnosis I had a brush with depression. Some other weird stuff happened and in hindsight, it’s tempting and more than a little convenient to see that as the gathering storm.
But at the time, I couldn’t make any sense of my uneasiness with the world. With three healthy and happy kids, a loving relationship, an amazing business and job, money and means, feeling down seemed ridiculously self-indulgent. I was the picture of “the worried well.” Ennui, defined as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction” is a word that both describes the emotion and speaks volumes of how pretentious and up my own arse I felt I was. I had no right to feel distressed.
The doctor put it down to hormone fluctuations from ending breastfeeding, tiredness from having a baby blah blah BUT she also diagnosed me with low iron. Supplements saw me ping back to life. It was brilliant. I felt so much better but things still weren’t all that. No proper reason presented itself and eventually, I chalked it down to a bog standard mid-life crisis. I was highly preoccupied by the fact 20 years had passed since starting University and that mum was 20 years older than me (59) when she died. With 20 years passing in the blink of an eye, I found myself having serious conversations with the universe which seemed to be casting a spotlight on all my choices and asking “Is this really what you want?” I distinctly remember having a panic attack when I realised that over a decade of packed-lunch making stretched out before me. Add a dash of Oh My God I’m Going to be 40 in February to the mix and there was, it seemed, a satisfactory recipe for melancholy.
Then came Angelina Jolie’s news and I found myself riding a fresh wave of grief over my mother. At last, something proper to hang my misery on, although I can’t honestly say for certain that’s what was going on. Still, I felt a genuine and urgent need to know about the woman my mother was and so wrote long letters to her three oldest friends, asking them to share their impressions of her with me. I also had teary conversations with bemused friends asking them to swear they’d continue a relationship with my kids if anything happened to me and that once they’d grown up, they’d let them know what sort of person I was.
Slowly and surely I was circling in on the life-altering moment, but that I may already have cancer was not even on my radar. Angelina got me thinking about gene testing, not about having a mammogram. This seems incredibly naive and irresponsible to me in hindsight and nowadays if any woman I’m conversing with lets slip that they have a family history I seize them by the forearm and hiss “Get screened!” But in my past world of denial I had always assumed that if I were to be struck down with cancer, it’d happen in my 50s, like mum was and what’s more I also secretly thought I wouldn’t succumb to it, because my lifestyle is a good deal healthier than mum’s was. So when I returned to the GP to ask about gene testing I got talked through the process to discover it started with, you guessed it, a mammogram.
One evening the week before the mammo I was briefly but extremely unwell, with a headache, nausea and an inability to control my temperature which saw me shivering violently even though I was wrapped in blankets with a hot water bottle. Whenever Ted checked on me I’d growl at him to fuck off. It was frightening. After a few hours, the symptoms subsided and I fell asleep.
The next day, we had lunch at a friend’s. I thought I was fine but Hels repeatedly asked if I was okay. I described the funny turn and the mid life crisis, the heartfelt letters and the impending mammogram.
I’ve since wondered whether the episode was a warning sign. This and all the other palaver may or may not explain how come when I had the mammogram and resultant biopsy, I actually felt calm. The specialist who took the sample was not one for sugar-coating, describing how what he saw was ‘very consistent with cancer’ so by the time I saw the GP for the results a few days later, I was totally ready to hear them and would describe myself as confronted, but not surprised.
Two weeks later, my breasts were gone.
I was not glad to get that result, but I was glad the angst and emotion I had suffered finally found a very reasonable target. Take THAT, ennui.
How lucky I am that now, rather than staring at my navel or my crows feet or my cellulite, I will approach 40 without caution or misery but with profound, unrestrained and well-earned joy.