When you least expect it, life can and will throw you some lemons. From losing a job to facing a major health scare – be prepared to deal instead of avoid.
Note to self: don’t assume it will never happen to me. In this case, ‘it’ does not refer to winning the lottery or finding the dream guy who also loves to give foot massages. Unfortunate turn of events, unexpected emergencies, the uh-oh’s – these are the sour fruits that drop without warning to candy crush your comfort zone.
While optimism has never been my middle name, I’m also not one to dwell on the what-ifs or anticipate the worst outcome. I was simply chugging along, hurtling towards mid-life with a healthy dose of moxie, utterly unprepared for bad news or any other shoe to drop. In 2017, while shuttling between a long-distance relationship, a woodwork course and 2 jobs, I was diagnosed with cancer.
Up until then, I was juggling several jobs and commitments while getting by on just 2 hours of sleep every night. I considered myself fortunate to enjoy what I do and contented to be cruising towards being ‘in a good place’ financially.
I was methodical about stretching my waking hours; work aside, I made time for friends and family, and even carved out some weekend hours to date. And if that wasn’t enough, I adopted some homeless pooches too. Well-meaning warnings from concerned friends, and a bestie who subtly but persistently sent articles about stress and burnout did not deter, and I continued to believe I was had to be an invincible warrior of sorts. Or die trying.
Growing up in a strict Asian household with the usual plethora of high expectations, I felt compelled to strive for status as a multi-hyphenate perfectionist who can multi-task in her sleep. I mitigated the pressure by exercising heartily (in the wee hours) and watching my diet carefully. I didn’t think too much about why I was losing weight and feeling tired all the time. I wasn’t listening to my body, or my mind. I was just grinding away. I had serious FOMO.
So life decided it was apt to squeeze me some lemons.
People talk about how a personal crisis can be life-changing; the ‘aha!’ moment where metaphorical clouds part for them. Through this baptism of fire, many survivors say they find newfound strength and purpose.
I’ll be perfectly honest – that was not how it felt for me. I probably missed the clouds parting while crying and feeling sorry for myself. Up until now, I am still unsure about where I am headed or what the future holds. Clarity is a hazy concept – I think I get it but a bad day comes along and trips me up. Logic is simply not enough because emotions often cloud the path to self realisation. Put plainly, squeezing these proverbial lemons is hard work. It takes more than blood and sweat (tears were easy!), it needs patience and time. Playing the long game means committing to change, getting rid of bad habits and embracing new ways. Even when you don’t feel like it. Because frankly (and scarily), it’s easier to give up.
During a year-long treatment of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and medication, I tried the “let’s be positive and look for the silver lining” approach where I congratulated myself on running to the toilet 6 times instead of 9. When my hair and nails fell out, I declared solemnly to my despairing mother that early retirement was possible as I no longer needed the salon or toiletries. And to my partner, I congratulated him with a round-the-world ticket since we no longer had to save up for our future children.
Sometimes the mood in the room would feel lighter. But not always.
So I tried the distraction method by focusing on something other than my illness. I didn’t stop going to work, threw out the scratchy wigs and spent hours on YouTube learning to wrap fashionable head scarves that won’t raise eyebrows at meetings. I was also slower, weaker and more forgetful, but I just kept going. I even started school. I convinced myself that a professional certificate in creating Virtual Reality games was more important than rest.
Predictably, this method also didn’t pan out too well.
My blood pressure went sky high, I lapsed into a sad and dark funk. My oncologist wearily warned me that without proper rest or managing my stress, I would relapse in a few years. I was well and truly lost. There wasn’t a pill for the existential crisis that came after. I couldn’t find the balance of being kind to my body and finding myself again. I struggled with accepting my new normal. And just when I thought nothing else could go wrong, my partner had his own meltdown that put him out of work. Another note to self: we must not forget that sometimes those who care for us have no support or avenue for release. They too can fall apart.
So this is where I tell you about the good thing about hitting rock bottom. As stubbles appeared on my shiny head, so did hope. I learnt that it was survival 101 to accept change and let go of old expectations and the status quo. I started getting comfortable showing vulnerability. Actually that’s a lie, it still feels like pulling teeth but I persevere – I see a psychologist and join support groups to discuss self doubt, hot flashes of early menopause, and the struggle to feel sexy again.
Change is hard but we are resilient. And our relationships are going to be what pull us through tough times. My struggle also belongs to those around me and it has changed them for the better too. My friends have started watching their diets and stress levels. My family spend less time squabbling over where to go for our next meal. Sometimes, we even hug each other.
The whole point of telling this story is not to elicit fear or pity. I just thought to share a simple but much overlooked reminder of how important it is to understand that life is not always going to go the way we want. It’s far better to learn how to deal with adversity. Face it, fix it, f#*k it – this is a simple phrase I currently choose to live by. Because before you know it, life serves you lemons. Then what will you do?