Vomitus, vertigo and venting (Or, my answer to the questions about my writing ‘process’. For Susan.)

A friend of mine tagged me in a post about her writing process last week. Flattered to be in that circle. As per her request, I am now answering the four questions, and asking T, R, and M (in my circle) (you know who you are) to become the next three to write about their writing process. You’re welcome, girls. 


1. What am I working on?

What am I working on right now? Aside from navigating my recovery, re-establishing my connection with the woods and creating a connection with my new body, I am working at my blog, at creating a unique voice to share what’s been a unique experience with a common disease. I’ve just given up the column I used to write for the local paper, because I felt it was time to move a little bit out of the local public eye. I also found I wasn’t a fan of the ‘Write about your most intimate vulnerabilities, – and could you do it by noon on Wednesday please ‘ aspect of column-writing, especially when said intimate vulnerabilities were particularly painful. That’s not at all to say it wasn’t worth it and I wouldn’t do it again. But it was time to go inward a bit. I would like to continue to write on my blog, but I look forward to the day when I can write about something other than the C word. I’m also considering writing a 30 minute talk on mortality, which scares the hell out of me but I feel like it might be important and so I may do it. Stay tuned.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

As it turns out, there are a lot of cancer blogs out there. And they’re all a little bit different, and all a little bit similar. They’re all by people who have been driven to write because of a force they didn’t see coming. We all find that we’re suddenly overcome by something that feels heavier than us and we need to let something out. We all realize we have something big going on that merits sharing. We also, on some level, fear that we may have limited time to say something important. To let people in. We have faced something that only those given diagnoses of potentially terminal conditions have faced. Mortality. For me, having this knowledge put in my hands – this recognition of the fact that my time here is limited, (as all of our time is), made me want to reach out. I know I have the ability to be very forthright and I keep very few things close to my (insert bad joke here) chest. I know that I can share things in a particular way that allows people who don’t find the expression of difficult emotion, of complicated fears, of vulnerability like hope, to read a line that I have written and know they’re not alone. I have been told that I say in my writing things that some hesitate to admit that they think.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write for several reasons. The first is rather primal in nature. I find that every time I am facing a new hurdle, or have been through a rough patch, anxiety starts to build. It builds until I feel it physically, and most of the time, I instinctively try to find the silver lining in whatever it is I’m facing. I try to find a way to make it make sense. I look for some way to pull myself away from the dark place. I look for connections – little things of significance that bring meaning to what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a lesson; sometimes it’s growth on some emotional level. I write when I’m struck with the ‘there it is’ moment. Sometimes it hits when I’m walking down the street – like the other day when I was walking to a friend’s place, feeling pretty crappy and watching the cars go by and trying to find rhythm in my steps and the right song on my playlist to bring me out of my funk. At one, perfect moment, I looked up from my iPhone and a woman coming from the opposite direction on the sidewalk looked me straight in the eye and grinned at me. Like the big toothy grin kind, not the ‘I’m acknowledging your presence’ variety. That smile, in an instant, became my hook on that day. The hook out of the dark place. And right away I wanted to teleport to my computer because the compulsion to write was so strong that I couldn’t think of anything else. I contented myself with a ‘note’ to serve as a reminder of what I needed to do when I got home. The smile blog. Haven’t written it yet. It’s coming.


(I kind of love that I remembered to put that thing about the auto correct in. I had remembered about the smile. Not the trees. My phone obviously agrees with me about the urban walk vs. forest walk thing.)

I often say writing is my therapy. It is. When I sit down and write it’s fast, because it’s been building for days. I write because I need to.

I also write, now, because I know that people get something out of it. That there are many out there, quietly going through what I am, and not talking about it. Needing to and not knowing how. I write what I write because I have the opportunity and the ability to share in a way that many can’t, and that because in this instance, my ability to share makes some others who are suffering feel relief, feel connected, and feel like what they’re feeling makes sense. And that means something to me.

4. How does my writing process work?

My writing ‘process’ is kind of like having the flu. You feel a little ill, then a lot ill, then you vomit and you feel better. I’m not really trying to liken writing to illness, but for me the need to write is really something that comes out of a need to work something out of my body. Or at least that’s how it feels. By the time I sit down to write, my shoulders are up around my ears, I’m shaky, I’ve paced the floor a zillion times, I may have cried (most of the time that comes during the writing). By the time I sit down whatever I have to write is essentially already written in my head. The ideas are there, the form has taken shape, the hook has been identified. I write because it’s time. I have to. I always laugh when people express shock at how quickly I write – and my answer is usually the same – writing for me is almost like vomiting on the keyboard, but it’s words, and with them a whole lot of emotional pressure released. It sorts me out. While I’m writing the rest of the world is blocked out. If my kids are around they get the hand block and the ‘I’m writing.’ They know now that that means to back away slowly and refrain from talking to me until I’m done. And when I am done, I have, at times, typed the last period and pressed ‘publish’ without even glancing back at what I’ve written. When I stand up and walk away from the computer I generally feel about 100 lbs lighter, and like I can breathe again. I am working at being more mindful and I am trying to do more editing. Trying to see if there is a better way to craft a phrase here and there. But if I’m honest, I edit very little – because who wants to examine vomitus, really?


Motherhood, Mayhem and Mindfulness

I took my family for a walk today – a good long one, around the lake and back, which means just over 9km. The boys rode their bikes; I walked and ran intermittently to keep up.  We met up with a friend of mine and her girls – sort of a pre-Mother’s Day get together, an unspoken celebration of the fact that we have brought these strong little bodies of boundless energy into the world, and that we too feel strong. Full of energy enough to keep up with them, run after them or push them along, whatever the occasion demands. Aside from a few sprints down some hills in the woods, today was the first time I have run for anything over a minute in months and months. It felt good. It’s good to feel joy. I feel thankful. Thankful to be able to run alongside my son’s bike and laugh with him. Thankful to be able to let my muddy dog off her leash for her second and third swims of the day. Thankful that today I get to be their mother. 


On a walk I did earlier in the week I talked with a friend about how good it is to feel the sun shining, and that even if it’s only been in small doses thus far, every little bit helps and everyone is starting to feel like we have our energy back. It changes the way we see things. We talked about the way the mist looked over the water, we marvelled at the juxtaposition between the water on either side of the dam we walked over. Sighed at the texture in the foam collecting on the water. Talked at some length about the different mosses growing in the concrete wall, the colour of the dead bullrushes in the swamp we passed, and rolled cedar branches between our fingers and made primal happy sounds at the smell it produced. And we laughed at how obvious it was that Spring is finally pulling us out of our ruts. Allowing us to surface a little, to breathe a little more deeply. Maybe even making us a little giddy. And I will take giddy over the way I felt a month ago, thank you very much. To be able to see my way through grief to beauty and joy is somewhat akin to sliding on that second-skin pair of jeans I thought I lost behind a dresser, or catching the scent of Oscar de la Renta in the air and flashing back to hugging my mother as a child, or reconnecting with my inhale-2-3-exhale-2-3 running pace like I did today. It’s the ‘ooohhhh I remember you’ feeling that makes my shoulders relax just a little more and yanks the corners of my mouth into a smile. 


Last week a friend of mine was in town, one who has just lost her mother suddenly and who is breathing her way through that grief minute by minute, day by day.  I have another who is slowly losing her mother, and who is doing an entirely different kind of grieving. For yet another friend, tomorrow will mark the first Mother’s Day without her mother. Fresh pain. These friends of mine have to be commended for their ability to see joy through their grief. I watch them do it whenever I see them, parenting, laughing, skipping rather than walking when the mood strikes. I love them for this; I know how challenging it can be. I know that they will spend their days tomorrow pushing their grief to the side so that they can mother their children and stepchildren. And it will be crushing and profoundly sad, and I will be thinking of them. I cannot fully comprehend that pain, but on some level I can relate. This Mother’s Day will be the second one that is changed for me. I remember last year wondering if it were going to be my last and being completely paralyzed by the terror that this particular reality slammed into my chest. This year I wonder the same. That’s just my new reality. But I am going to spend it filled with gratitude and I am going to make every effort to see the beauty wherever I can on my hike tomorrow with my boys, just like my beautiful friends find ways to laugh through the haze of grief. 



I’m going to leave the dishes unwashed after I blissfully enjoy every morsel of the avocado and cheese on toast that my ten year old is currently concocting in his head for me. I am going to be purposefully oblivious to the war that will likely erupt between him and his brother when they compete to be the one to carry the plate upstairs to me. I am going to deliriously ignore the unmatched socks with holes in them they will likely wear even though I folded 62 pairs of socks a week ago. I will not bat an eye when my eight year old insists on wearing a bow tie and suspenders on our hike. I will pack extra marshmallows for the hot chocolate. I will not ‘hurry and miss everything’, like my youngest has, rightfully, accused me of doing. Tomorrow, I will be mindful in my making of memories with them. 


When we are done our hike, I will go and see my own mother, who has had one hell of a year as a mom. She once said to me that it didn’t matter how old you were when you lost your mother, that no matter how ready you think you are to lose your mom, you are never ready. That on some level we still feel like an orphaned child when our mother leaves us, even if we are mothers or grandmothers ourselves. Tomorrow, after our hike, my boys and I will go and hug the pillar of strength that is mother to me, and Nana to them. And maybe I might hug her a little tighter this year. Because I can. And for that I am ever so grateful. 

Spanish, Cedar and Surfacing (Or, PTSD – not just for the shell-shocked)

I knew something was up when I started to jump at loud sounds. I started to make a mental list of the new symptoms I was feeling a few weeks after the second ‘awake’ emergency surgery. It went something like this:

I’m not sleeping. I can’t nap. When my body tries to fall asleep I am jolted awake by what feels like an electric current, every time.
i have NO patience. I go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Things that I can normally navigate are making me exasperated. Angry. Irritated.
I can’t handle being around a lot of people at a time. I break into a sweat and feel twitchy and want out.
I am jumpy. Loud noises make me feel that electric current feeling. I physically jump and startle at anything unexpected, even a hello from someone that I’m not expecting. I want to turn the volume down on my phone.
I feel like I haven’t taken a deep breath in weeks.
My neck and back are so tight that it is beyond sore – deep tissue pain. I know this is where my body holds all of my stress. Usually.
When people ask me how I am, I am often unable to talk about it, and I cry.
I’m not writing. Can’t write.

My system has taken a hit, in more ways than one. When I went in for my physical with my doctor, I brought some of this up, and fell apart, completely, in her office. The words that kept coming out of my mouth were the same.
‘I’m not okay.’
‘I’m not myself. This isn’t me.’

40 minutes later, I left her office with prescriptions for massage therapy, physiotherapy, and an anti-anxiety medication. And maybe a little bit of hope.

I have some pretty strong feelings about these types of medications – I do feel that they are over-prescribed. I do think they can be bandaid solutions. Also, I like to think I’m strong enough to handle just about anything. And I am. I also think that there are some times when some sort of chemical re-balancing needs to take place in order to get ourselves to the state where we can do the things we need to do in order to work some stuff out and move forward.

Now is that time for me.

I was worried about taking it. I was scared it would zombify me, numb me out, change my personality, take away my fire, flatten me, kill my libido. The pharmacist suggested I start by taking half a dose, which is 5mg. I dutifully cut my first pill in half and told myself I would give it two weeks and see how I felt.

I really hesitated to share this part of my journey. Worried that others would see it as weakness. Concerned about the stigma I feared would attach itself to me. Now, a few weeks in, I think, like much of the other super-private-bordering-on-gory-personal detail I’ve chosen to share in this forum, someone else may find it useful. I have already had two conversations with people who are going to their doctors to check it out because they need a bit of help coping with the relentless anxiety that hovers constantly.
I have stuck with the half dose, because I like what it’s doing and I see no need to go to the full dose. My doctor agrees. What I have noticed thus far is this:
Four days or so after starting it, I was standing in my kitchen at about 4 in the afternoon and I yawned. Stretched. Felt like I could lie down and take a nap. In my pre-cancer life, I was always tired in the late-afternoon. It was the first time in almost a year that I felt normal fatigue, at a normal time for me. To feel my body relax enough to yawn actually brought a smile to my face. And some joy. It felt so normal! I took note of it and moved on with my day. Later that night, at about 9:30 or so, I felt it again. Normal tired. (!!)

Over the next few days, I did have a couple of dizzy spells. I had two days of persistent headaches. They’re gone now.

Here’s what I find really interesting. In the past two weeks:
I have cleaned out closets and drawers.
I cleaned out my basement.
I moved my son’s bedroom.
I filled 5 recycling bags and several boxes of things to give away to the Sally Ann.
I had a door that’s been broken for weeks repaired.
I did my taxes.
I have begun to learn Spanish and have completed 20 lessons and corresponding quizzes and oral labs.
I have done yoga.
I have done pilates.
I have walked approximately 50km in the past two weeks.
My television has not been turned on this week.
I feel productive.
I feel (most of the time) like I’m in control.


Having spent the last couple of months in recovery mode (anxious-twitchy-healing-bandaged-not-allowed-to-‘resume normal activity’-being-un-bandaged-and-then-re-bandaged-and-barely-keeping-a-lid-on-things), I cannot say enough about how good it feels to get back to doing the things I love. To sleep in in the mornings. To organize my day around exercise and getting into the woods or close to rapidly melting ice and fast-moving water. To cook. To plan. To look forward.


I was in the woods today, on a messy-muddy-icy-wet hike with two girlfriends, and I stopped in my favourite spot on the trail and told them this was the part I liked the most. One of them, in on a visit from out of town, noted that we were standing in a cedar grove. It’s funny; I’ve never even thought about what kind of trees they were. I like that it feels dark, haunted, that the ground is almost always black littered with yellow. I like that the trees are almost all uniform. I like the bark. I feel small there; the trees are tall. The light is at best filtered in that grove; in the summer it’s always just a bit cooler than on the rest of the trail. The air changes. It feels quieter, lower than the hillier part of the trail. It’s almost always a place where I stop and take a few really deep breaths, in through the nose, and breathe in the smell. There is something about the smell in that one spot. I have always been drawn to dark, woody smells. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Cedar. They make me feel connected. Being in that particular cedar grove, I feel like I’ve been invited in on someone’s secret. I love it there.

When I got home today I thought it would be worthwhile to look up cedar and see if there was anything new I could learn about it, something that would tell me why I am so drawn to it. I found some of the information interesting, and it made me smile.

Cedar trees often live a long time. (I like that.)
They are used for making canoes and other boats, boxes, bowls and baskets. (My nest is full of baskets, and the canoe is an obvious connection for me.)
The wood of cedar trees is very resistant to disease. (Sounds good to me.)
The wood of cedar trees has a very pleasant smell. (Maybe I’ll look into adding this to my perfume concoction in France?)
The part about mature trees cedars often having hollow trunks was not, I found, without its irony. (I can still find the funny. Check.)

I feel, overall, like I’m starting to surface. I feel, almost completely, like me.