“I think we can confidently say that you’re experiencing a major depressive episode,” my doctor recently told me during our virtual appointment, after listening to me describe my mood and asking me standard screening questions for depression. We made a plan to change my antidepressant and add more sessions with my therapist. “We’ll get you better soon,” she said. “I promise.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
After I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012, just after my 28th birthday, my projected path in life veered way off course as I underwent a series of toxic treatments and painful surgeries.
I watched my prized thick hair fall to the ground, screamed in pain from the various tortures thrust upon my body, and cried on my couch as the rest of the world continued to spin just outside my window. The agony of it all was enough to make even the most sane person completely unravel.
But guiding me throughout was the oft-touted narrative of the cancer survivor who eventually defeats the disease — someone who’s ultimately strong, healthy and happy, with a renewed and positive outlook on life.
A deeply dark hole
After all, if I made it out of such a deeply dark hole, what right did I have to crawl back inside ever again, when I was so unbelievably lucky to have gotten out alive? I had hit rock bottom, but believed I would soon rise up from the ashes, and I would live my life in peace and gratitude, knowing every day is a gift.
The picture-perfect survivor, all wrapped up in a pretty pink ribbon.
Unlike the desired Hollywood ending to my story, however, the months and years that followed were not as simple as rolling the credits and moving on. As I attempted to gain back a sense of normality, I was wrought with fear of the cancer returning, my bubble of invincibility having been forcibly punctured and impossible to repair.
My body and mind were still healing while I tried to rejoin a world where I no longer felt I belonged. I wrestled with a newfound pressure to live a more meaningful existence, struggling to figure out my purpose after overcoming such a traumatic event.
The weight of my “cancer friends” who never made it to the finish line was crushing, as I questioned why I survived and they didn’t, and felt guilty for not seizing life as much as I should.
With time, I adjusted to my new reality; cancer started to fade more and more into the background. After waiting a predetermined amount of time, I was given the go-ahead from my oncologist to pause my hormonal treatment (a pill taken each day to reduce the risk of recurrence) and try to have a baby.
A year later, my son was born — the miracle baby I had dreamed about for so long. I knew how incredibly fortunate I was to have made it to this moment, and I was determined to revel in the joy of this very welcome plot twist.
My brain, on the other hand, had different plans.
A new life
My little guy had terrible reflux, cried a lot and slept very little. I quickly spiralled into a frenzy of panic and misery, finding it impossible to eat or sleep, my body constantly vibrating with anxiety and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that things would never get better.
After being diagnosed with post-partum depression and anxiety, I met with a perinatal psychiatrist who asked me if I had experienced any joy since my son had been born. I thought for a minute.
“No,” I replied.
I was exhausted, depressed and defeated; it had been such a long road to get here and I had everything I ever wanted. So why wasn’t I happier? The guilt returned as I thought about the many women I knew or had known, who would have given anything to be able to have a child or be alive to watch them grow.
The doctor wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant and told me I needed to start eating again. “Eat a pint of ice cream if you want,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Just eat something.”
After consuming more Ben & Jerry’s than any human probably should, I climbed my way out again, the load eventually feeling lighter and my heart fuller with each day that passed. In fact, I fell so deeply in love with my son that I wanted to have another child, and I hit the jackpot once more with the birth of our second boy. A life brimming with blessings.
I’ve worked hard since to keep my mental health in check through a mix of medication, therapy and lots of deep breaths. I have a deep appreciation for the good days and the tiny moments of everyday living that probably would go unnoticed by most people.
As grateful as I am, that gratitude doesn’t preclude me from experiencing dips in my mood. The challenges that come with parenting a toddler and preschooler are enough on their own to frequently test my mental fortitude — throw in the multitude of stressors and anxieties that have burdened all parents who have been coping with pandemic life for far too long, and I once again have found myself hitting a wall.
As I make my way through this current interlude, I feel optimistic that better days are coming, as they inevitably always do. But I also know that this certainly won’t be the end of my struggles; simply because I survived cancer at a young age doesn’t mean I get a pass for avoiding all future pain and suffering.
I might not be the shining example of the triumphant warrior, but I’m learning to give myself some grace as I stumble my way around the roadblocks that continue to pop up. This may not have been exactly how I envisioned my post-cancer existence playing out, but there’s plenty of beauty to be found in this messy life of mine.
I’m so glad I’m here to see it all.
Stephanie Gilman is a freelancer and cancer survivor