Back in law school (way back when), I took a class called "Faking It." It was one of my favorite classes in law school, primarily because it had nothing to do with the law. The course description:
What I am after is the myriad circumstances in which we are not quite sure we are sufficiently immersed in the roles we are playing. You smile politely at a person you loathe, you feign interest in whining complaints of your friends, you go through all the moves of grieving, being in love, etc, etc and are still not sure all of you is there; you feel, in other words, that you are acting, playing a role... No, you don't feel this way all the time, but you fear the feeling when it comes, because you feel it might blow your cover. And there are times when you wonder who or what you are amidst all the various roles you are asked to play, from mourner, to lover, to barely competent lawyer...I want to discuss issues ranging variously among hypocrisy, politeness, courtship, apology, flattery, praise, self-deception, ritual observance, propriety and emotion display.You have to love a law school course with the express goal of examining the role of "barely competent lawyer."
We spent a lot of time discussing common, recognizable social phenomenons: The way your eyes dart around for another partner in conversation when you're trapped in a boring or undesirable with a particular person at a bar or party; the way we signal our desire to end phone calls; the anxiety associated with approaching a six-seat table with five of your friends and not wanting to get stuck surrounded by the more uninteresting people in the group.
We spent some time discussing emotions, and how the propriety of an emotion depends on three things: the correct emotion, at the correct time, in the correct degree. Excitement at a funeral is not appropriate. Grief is acceptable at a funeral; not so much at a baseball game. Getting a bad grade in a class is mildly disappointing, but not exactly worthy of screaming and crying. And we often judge the propriety of emotions by what we would expect to feel in a similar situation.
And we discussed the issue of "performing." The (really meta) issue of whether there is such a thing as your true "self," or if you're just a bundle of performances layered on top of one another.
The explicit goal of the professor was to make us all "self-conscious wrecks." My final paper (entitled "I Won't Put a Title on a Paper with No Subject, with a Kanye West quote as a subhead) concluded that while I wasn't exactly a self-conscious wreck, I was exponentially more self-aware, and the course had pretty much destroyed my capacity for self-delusion.
And then I was diagnosed with cancer. Then I became a self-conscious wreck.
The most difficult question for me to contemplate during cancer was this: Was I really the person I was on this blog, or was it all just a performance? Was I really ok, or was I just pretending that I was ok to keep up a strong face for my audience, my friends, and my family? I alluded to this in October:
But I've always believed that the real test for me is not how I act around other people or how I write on this blog. Those things can be faked. I could put on a great performance. The real test for me is how I deal with this when I'm alone, lying in bed, stuffed in a PET Scan machine, sitting around watching TV when there's nobody around. No audience.At the time, I gave this answer:
That stuff just does not bother me. That's one of the things that has really stunned me about this whole experience. I don't know if I'm denial or just being delusional...I just know that sometimes, I sit there and try to make myself feel bad just for kicks, and then I go on and tell that part of me to STFU and go somewhere else for a few months because I am busy and I don't need his negativity right now.One week later, I would head up to U-M hospital. Two weeks later, there would be questions about my treatment. Three weeks later, I would have a second diagnosis. And then a third. Two months later, I'd be "done" with treatment, but I would have five doctors attempting to answer one question that could land me in the hospital for another two months. I answered the question at the time. But I asked it to myself every single day for four months.
I mentioned above that in judging the propriety of another's emotion, one tends to use their own emotions as a guide. For example, when a police officer testifies about how a wife reacted upon hearing that her husband was killed, he's using his own emotions as a baseline - how was he react to the loss of a spouse.
Well...that doesn't really apply in this case. I'm sure it's very, very difficult for many of you to empathize with me. How on earth are you supposed to judge my emotions when you have absolutely nothing to compare my situation to?
It's the same way for me. If you're 80, you've probably seen several of your peers deal with cancer, and you have some idea how the process goes. Me...I'm flying blind. I have no idea how this is done. I have no clue what I'm supposed to feel like. Talking to older cancer patients doesn't help. Reading books doesn't help. The internet is a horrible idea for cancer patients. And so on.
The bottom line is that nobody has any clue what the "proper" way to respond to this is. And there probably isn't a "proper" way to do this. That's why I started this blog: The experience is very unique, actually rather interesting, and I thought it might make for good content. On top of that, it helped me organize my thoughts and emotions into something more usable than the jumbled mess inside my head.
The upshot of this is that nobody - including myself - knows if I'm being true or putting on a performance here. There's a lack of data. There's no baseline. I have no idea if I'm supposed to be scared as hell and I'm just overlooking something, or if it's very common to project strength, or if this is really no big deal, and so on. How the hell should I know? How should you know? We're all in the dark. So it's quite reasonable to think that while I project an air of confidence and strength and grace (or whatever else you want to call it) here, I'm actually a mess behind the scenes. I wondered the exact same thing. Was I a member of my audience of a show in which I was the sole actor? How would I know?
The toughest thing was this: looking at all of you. As I wrote in October:
Sometimes, certain things precipitate it. Like Facebook photo albums of somebody's awesome bar trip, a vacation, or a night at the bar. Or hearing about people moving to and getting settled in a new city. Or hearing people complain about a hangover, or having to work late, or their "rough day."And this from August:
But you add a whole new element when you are surrounded by literally hundreds of people who don't have to deal with I have to deal with. They don't have to worry about their appointment with a radiation oncologist on Monday, they don't have to carry nausea pills in their pocket, any pain they will feel the next day will be self-induced, and they can engage in whatever cancer-causing activities they wish because odds are overwhelming that it won't catch up with them anytime soon.As a cancer patient, being surrounded by your able-bodied friends is like watching somebody dump a plate of food into the trash while you're starving.
I continue to believe that anybody who plays the "I never once asked 'Why me?'" card is full of crap. Maybe if you're 93 and everyone you know has passed on and you've lived a long and fulfilling life. But not at 25. You don't walk amongst thousands upon thousands of people who don't have to deal with your daily, universe-imposed but wholly undeserved struggle and not stop for a second and ask, "Why?"
But I know there's no answer. I know I'm Kent Dorfman asking the universe, "Why Flounder?", as it belches back "Why not?" I know it, but it's not very satisfying.
And it was times like this when I really wondered. When I really wondered if I was ok. If you can handle getting smacked with something that had a .00001% chance of happening and not think that God had you in his crosshairs.
All of that bothered me to the point where I really spent a lot of time wondering if I was really ok, or if it was all just an act I was putting on for myself and others.
This brings up one of the central questions I discussed in my final paper: Whether there is any concept of a true "self" or whether we are always acting, always putting on a show for our audience, even if there's only one member of that audience: ourselves. When I wrote that paper, I really didn't expect to be in a situation where I would debate that very issue every single day.
I did reach some sort of conclusion in that paper:
I believe the “presentation of self” is simply a combination of our immutable characteristics – largely subconscious – and our conscious effort to put on the correct façade in a particular situation. The people that we describe as “true to themselves” are those who more often exert their immutable characteristics. Those we describe as “fake” are those who too obvious in their acting.And here's what I wrote while analyzing myself:
Of course, members of all of the above groups would probably use similar words to describe me. I am, for example, a cynic. I like to call myself a realist...I do not do well around optimists; especially blind optimists. I believe one of the few people I can rely on is myself – and even he isn’t that reliable...I am relentlessly sarcastic. This irritates other people at times; it is a source of pride for me.So this was the opportunity to test this hypothesis: Was I truly ok with all this, or was I projecting?
And I really, honestly, believe I'm ok. And here's why: I think most people who know me would agree that this blog is very..."me." It is still, at its heart, a cancer blog. But I don't think it resembles a typical "cancer blog" in any way, shape or form. Maybe you're surprised at the degree to which I've openly discussed my feelings on the internet for the past four months, but I think this thing is probably what you would have expected if you said, "If Nick Cheolas gets cancer, what would his cancer blog look like?" I don't know why you'd be asking yourself questions, but fantasize with me for a moment.
It's the reason I receive messages like this:
I'm enjoying the blog, the tone is definitely youAnd this:
First off I have to say you might be the only person who can make me laugh and cry simultaneously.And conversations like this appear when my blog is mentioned on other places on the internet:
There was a time way back when when I might have been offended by this stuff. The "never been normal" thing. The words "asshole" or "smartass" used to describe me. But then I stopped. Because I realized 1) those were true statements and 2) If they were true in a negative sense - if I was really truly an asshole - then the friends that used those words to describe me wouldn't be my friends. And these are many of the same people who have said some of the kindest words imaginable over the last few months.
Anyway, all this here...it isn't an act. It's not a performance. I crack jokes around here and screw around because that's what I do. I crack jokes during treatment all the time. On more than one occasion, I've made comments that have put everyone else in the room in that awkward, "A cancer patient just made a really morbid joke. Should we laugh?" position. I do make people laugh and cry because I'm somebody who likes to make people laugh who has suffered something that is pretty cry-worthy. My realism leads to my frequent snapping at optimists and people who tell me to "stay positive" or people who admire my "positive attitude." And the "toughness" with which I've handled this crap - or whatever you want to call it - is part Napoleon complex (except I think my handicap is real, not imagined), part competitiveness.
Basically, you can tell it's me writing. I mean, I certainly didn't expect to be in this position - proprietor of the Internet's Most Popular Cancer Blog (I'm just running with that title now) - but in the end, this whole thing shouldn't really surprise anybody. It seems like you could have guessed this would be a reasonable outcome if I was ever diagnosed with cancer.
In that paper, I concluded that:
These characteristics are always with me. What varies greatly is the way in which they manifest themselves in various scenarios.And that, I think, is what you have here. And that's what also finally convinced me that I was going to beat this and endure this just fine. Because I couldn't fake all those posts and all those words I wrote. You can only write fake crap for so long. You can get away with feigned bullshit if you only have to write weekly, 700-word columns with one-sentence paragraphs and three-word sentences. You can't write as much as I have if it's not true. At some point, you'll run out of stuff or blow your cover.
So all the stuff you've seen here - the sarcasm, the humor, the emotion, the complexity, and so on - that wasn't made up. And likewise, the "I'm OK" sentiment displayed here wasn't made up. Believe me, I tried like hell to convince myself that I was scared, that I was angry at the universe, that I wasn't ok with what happened to me, that I wouldn't be able to handle everyone else running around just fine while I was sitting in doctor's offices discussing "survival rates" and losing my hair. And while there's a little bit of truth to those things, those aren't my predominant feelings. I'm more in the, "Shit happens. Deal with it camp." Because you know...shit happens. And you have to deal with it.
And this is how I deal with it. If I was running around here talking about how blessed I am and how I don't think about relapse toxicity and all that bad stuff, well then I would be lying to you and myself. If I wrote about how I'm not bothered by the "more treatment" issue, how I was waiting for God to show me the right answer, and how I wasn't thinking about any of the negative stuff, I would be lying. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, it just wouldn't be me, and it wouldn't reflect the way I chose to handle all this. If I was doing that stuff, then I'd be concerned that I was just putting on a show and repressing the things I really wanted to feel.
Many of you know about five stages of grief: Denial - Anger - Bargaining - Depression - Acceptance. I consider myself - rightly or wrongly - a bit too cerebral for the whole thing. I was never in "denial," so to speak. There was a pathology report that said "you have cancer" (I'm paraphrasing). I guess I was angry, but that sort of dies out when you realize you don't have a target. I'm not even sure what bargaining means. And I certainly wasn't depressed.
But I really do agree that "acceptance" is the final stage. And I think Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had it right:
Kübler-Ross claimed these steps do not necessarily come in the order noted above, nor are all steps experienced by all patients, though she stated a person will always experience at least two. Often, people will experience several stages in a "roller coaster" effect—switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through it.
Significantly, people experiencing (or caretakers observing) the stages should not force the process. The grief process is highly personal and should not be rushed, nor lengthened, on the basis of an individual's imposed time frame or opinion. One should merely be aware that the stages will be worked through and the ultimate stage of "Acceptance" will be reached.What I've been struggling with these past few months is figuring out whether I'm actually there. And my conclusion is that yes, I am there, and I've been there since about August 5th, when I first starting telling people about my diagnosis. There was no big "process" for me. No ongoing battle to get to "acceptance." It was just, "you have cancer, now go get rid of it." And that was that.
So this whole thing - everything you've seen here - is just me being me. Some of you have seen law school Nick, or high school Nick, or professional Nick, or family Nick and so on. But now all of you have seen cancer Nick, which is a title I don't really care for, but one I have to live with. It's the combination of characteristics you've all seen over the years with a situation you (and I) never expected. But it's still me. And I've come to accept that.
There is, however, one thing I'm not quite sure I can explain...