I wrote this piece about disease and resulting depression a few months ago, and a lot of people responded. Being open about illness, disease, depression, fear, anxiety is tricky – it can feel very vulnerable, too vulnerable, and while I appreciate that vulnerability can be really useful, like many people I too find it hard (depending on circumstances) to make myself vulnerable, to be fully open. But it can also result in a huge amount of support.
Someone I don’t know in the world, in actuality, but do know on twitter, has today spoken about her diagnosis of breast cancer. And Suzanne Moore has written today about social media being a connection, not a hindrance or something that gets in the way of connection – but another connection, depending on how we use it.
I’m just back from a long, wide-ranging conversation with a woman I know a little, and am happy to know more, about disease (cancer and not), arts for our sake (not art for art’s sake), about illness and fear and living WITH it, not living despite it, about choosing not to ‘fight’ our bodies or our illnesses but to work with them, about where support is to be found and how sometimes even reaching out at all, for any help, can be terrifying. It was a great conversation.
Since I posted that piece in March I have been doing more mindfulness work, reading more existential stuff (psychotherapy and philosophy), Pema Chodron (as ever), Paul Tillich, Rollo May, loads of others, and I’m thinking more about what the ‘abyss’ is, to me.
With my first cancer, 16 years ago, the analogy that worked for me was that of a journey, one where I was changed when I came out the other side. In my solo show about that illness, I compared cancer (surgery, chemo, radiotherapy, infertility) to the time I swam across a lake when I was 14. I kept going to the other side, and when I came out I was the same, and I was also changed.
This time round, with the more recent cancer, it feels different. I think age is part of this, the fact that in my 30s I was one of a few friends with disease, now in my 50s it is increasingly prevalent. We are aging more obviously, we are dying more readily. I no longer have my years to live again. At 36 I might have made it to 72 (recurrence, accidents etc notwithstanding). At 53 I will definitely not make it to 106. Time feels more solid.
So the analogy that’s working for me now is swimming in the abyss. There’s no “other side”, there’s no getting out of it. I am the same, and I am changed, IN it. The etymology of ‘abyss’ says it means bottomless pool. I don’t think there are any sides either. I don’t think there is anywhere else to go. I’m not always fine with this, but if there is nowhere else to go, then it makes sense to try to be with it, than to fight it. (Again, what is sensible is not always what any of us feel or do!)
Joseph Campbell said “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” And I like Campbell’s work, I have found all the variations on the hero’s journey very useful – in life and in writing – BUT the hero’s journey usually includes the idea that the hero finds the treasure (in stumbling, in falling, in being at her darkest, most painful place) and then she brings it back – to home, to us, to the tribe, to the ordinary world. And yes, the hero is changed by that journey and so are we. The redemption thing so over-played in the Hollywood cliche, and yet also so much a part of our mythology and storytelling.
Now I’m thinking that perhaps the abyss itself is the treasure. The stumble is the treasure, the letting go, ceding, giving in, the letting be is the treasure. And, because there is no getting out of the abyss (other than death), learning to swim in the abyss actually involves learning to stop swimming. To stop trying to get somewhere else. That is, it’s not Hades and there is no tunnel with light at the end, even if you only eat three pomegranate seeds, there’s no getting out, not even for six months. There’s just this, abyss.
There’s just this, whatever this is – a sunny day, a crap diagnosis, a week that’s too busy, a bunch of bills to pay, people to see, places to travel to, things to do. Just all of this, in an abyss with no bottom and no sides and nowhere else to go.
Weirdly I find this notion both enormously daunting and comforting. Because on the (rare) occasions I’m ok with there being just this – just this moment of being alive – I’m content. Even if the next moment is full of anxiety, fear, pain.
I have no skill in this letting-be yet, I suspect it might take all the life I have left, however much that is. I can’t imagine that I will ever get great at it. (I enjoy achieving, doing, ticking-off-lists so much I can’t imagine ever not wanting to DO.) But I like it as an idea – the possibility that there is only the abyss, and we’re all in it, connected and alone, learning to swim in the abyss, learning to BE in the abyss.
And I’m grateful for the connections, actual and digital, they do help. Phosphorescent sparks in dark water.