If you’ve ever found yourself being chased down Regent’s Street by an angry mob of drooling zombies baying for your blood, tarmac melting beneath your feet, while Eros swoops down from Piccadilly Circus taking aim at your forehead – you’re either starring in the latest George A. Romero project, or more likely, you woke up several moments later reconsidering the wisdom of downing three glasses of Merlot before bed. Some situations are so implausible they could only be a hallucination or celluloid projections on a silver screen. Sometimes, however, a real life event can be so difficult for the mind to assimilate that despite all the evidence, the participant is convinced it must be a dream.
A scene in the new film Waltz With Bashir looks at how one Israeli soldier coped with his involvement in the traumatic events of the 1982 Lebanon war. The narrator explains that the soldier had disassociated himself from the unspeakable reality by seeing events as if they were a film of someone else’s life. The movie left me wondering whether I too had been ‘disassociating’ in the way I had dealt with two recent health scares.
The first of my health scares came the day after I had my tonsils taken out, five months ago. I woke at 2.30am to find thick, hot blood streaming from my mouth. An incessant out-pouring fast covered my sheets and hands in a sticky coating of crimson goo. The back of my throat had not healed sufficiently and I was haemorrhaging worse than an extra in a Tarantino film. Leaving a snail-like trail of glistening blood in my wake, I lurched to my mother’s room, waking her with shouts that sounded more like gurgles, whereupon she jumped out of bed and rushed me to the car. We raced to the A&E where, still gushing, I was seated on a trolley bed and wheeled to a cubicle. Around my head nurses and doctors flapped and buzzed. A white-gowned woman materialised with a drip while an attending nurse looked at the bucket I was clutching and mildly said, “heavens, that’s a lot of blood you’ve lost.”
While others would panic in such circumstances, my recurrent thought was how exhilarating this all was. It felt like I was living out a scene of ER. It was surreal and exciting and the fact that I was choking on my own blood only added to my grim fascination. Three subsequent weeks of excruciating throat pain were less thrilling and had me wishing the credits of this now tedious episode would roll.
The second health scare was my cancer diagnosis. Never once did I consider my mortality in those first weeks. Instead I worried about making good use of my time off work. I began writing light hearted blogs and articles for the JC and set up a fund-raising website for Chai Cancer Care to channel people’s sympathy for me. I joined an art class and enjoyed visiting London’s museums. Some people found it strange when I told them I felt like I was on holiday, but for me that’s exactly how it was. In some ways having cancer also gave my life meaning because I now had something that distinguished me, like scars that give a face character.
When side effects of chemotherapy were at their worst I tried not to stay at home despite the debilitating nausea. And even after the fourth treatment when the queasiness was amplified, I remained, on the whole, upbeat - telling myself that this too was an experience.
Some people’s reactions to my cancer suggested they thought I should be depressed and wracked with worry. A fellow patient and I often laughed at how often we were called ‘brave’. I had always thought that accolade was reserved for those who save children and cats from burning buildings. But watching Waltz With Bashir, I began to think that perhaps everyone else was right; maybe I was ignoring the severity of my situation, living in fantasy.
This question troubled me until I realised how at peace I had felt lately. I wasn’t ignoring the stresses in my life; I certainly know how unpleasant it is having last night’s dinner reappear in the sick-bucket every morning of the week after chemotherapy. So it was obvious to me I wasn’t disassociating from my reality. I had just been focussing on the benefits rather than the difficulties. And even if my mind had been steering me from a bleak reality, that would seem a much better way of dealing with things than wallowing in self pity and despair.