The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Finding and Losing Myself

by Adar HiggsSurvivor, Papillary Thyroid CancerJanuary 30, 2024View more posts from Adar Higgs

In 2012 I was invited to a celebration for cancer survivors at which I spoke about finding my sense of self again after cancer. I still have a printed photograph from the event. On that glossy paper I was captured wearing a sleeveless white dress with a red sash. I looked healthy, and I was smiling. I was 22 years old. A friend accompanied me, and we are pictured walking across the stage, which was really the floor of a high school gymnasium, but no matter. While we walked towards the podium the audience clapped for me. I wore the purple ribbon for survivors that was given to me that day, and I am in the middle of doing a spin and a bow. This photograph gives me a way to connect back to a bright moment—but like a camera flash interrupts darkness, freezing time into an image that is lasting, that afternoon in that fluorescent-lit gymnasium was only one bright moment in a long string of dark ones. Most of that time in my life was gray, mundane, and lonely.

I was 21 when I was diagnosed with cancer and also Rheumatoid Arthritis within six weeks of each other. I was 24 when my mom died of lung cancer on a gloomy February day, completing a slow, 14 month progression in which she moved first from her job at a bookstore where she fell unconscious, to the ER, then briefly back to her apartment, then to the hospital, and next to a hospice facility, before finally (her body) moved into its final resting position in a cemetery in Queens. That was 14 months of me writing letters, making plane trips and phone calls, and figuring out how to support her from afar. That was the same 14 months in which I underwent radiation treatment, graduated from oncology, went into remission, and started looking ahead to how I might define the life ahead of me.

That friend linking arms with me in the photograph was my coworker Shannon, who stepped up time and again to offer me support and some sense of community during what was a hard and lonely year. I spent most of those few years alone. Time moved at a snail’s pace. Getting up in front of a crowd and giving a speech that I had typed up, printed out, and rehearsed allowed me to feel a sense of poise that came from controlling my own narrative, and even pride, but with most people I did not talk about what was happening to my body and my life. Cancer was an invisible force that shaped the dimensions of my life, but I did not know how to speak about it, and I did not want to. Some of G-d’s names are unspeakable too. Some forces are too powerful, too hard to describe.

At that event I spoke about “finding myself” again, particularly about how long of a process that was shaping out to be. The length of the surgery in which one of my organs was removed was one short afternoon. I remember learning at some point during those years about how when a bee’s hive is opened and disturbed, there can be noticeable, negative impacts on the hive’s honey production that are measurable for months. I latched onto this factoid as a metaphor for what had happened to my body. Finding myself was taking months stretching into years. I had to find a way to come back to my body. I could still viscerally remember what it felt like to be a bright burning candle, young and strong and beautiful, suddenly blown out without warning. I had to build a new sense of self that could somehow feel robust. I had to shift the timeline of when I would achieve certain milestones in life, or, more realistically, get comfortable with an altogether absence of clear trajectory. I also had to find the sweetness and the strength that came through my cancer story, so that cancer became something I wanted to own and to speak about. During those years I did lots of yoga. I became a vegan. I wrote poems and made collages. I learned how to make curry, fried rice with fresh herbs, so many different kinds of soups, gluten free bread, baba ganoush, cilantro pesto, scallion pancakes, hummus, white bean dip, flourless chocolate cake, and chia jam. The key ingredient, as I have said, was time.

I moved around a fair amount in my early twenties, skating between New Mexico, where my home had been during college and where I pictured building a life for myself, and the East Coast. There, my authoritative city doctors, my family’s concerns, and also family illness (my mom’s) pulled me back. I took trips to visit Maine where my mom was; car rides to Santa Fe to eat vegan pastries and go out dancing. I spent innumerable hours riding transit from North Jersey into Brooklyn for weekend trips to my best friends’ apartment to break up the monotony of life at my parent’s house.

During the winter my mom was nearing her end, I got a job as a nude model at a graduate school of fine arts in Manhattan. I stood naked for days on end, silently holding the same pose. This felt easy to me—one because my life felt so stagnant, and two because I had spent so many hours in doctors’ waiting rooms bored out of my mind before the days of smartphones. I was proud that I could stand all day. That made me feel strong. Then maybe I would ride the bus back home, writing in my journal and listening to a podcast. Or maybe I would take the G to meet my friends at an art museum or a neighborhood dive bar. The $21 round trip bus rides didn’t make sense to my parents. I was broke, far too broke to move to the city, and desperate to get some kind of job anywhere that seemed befit for a college grad—I wanted to start proving myself, but my days and weekends in NYC gave me things that felt like life blood. They gave me the chance to pick out clothes that made me feel sexy and to stand in a sweaty bar bathing in youthful glow, candlelight, and diffuse sexual energy. A dimension to my life that was something more than practicing self-care and obeying doctor’s orders. A break from the heady, tender, deep grief that I spent my days swimming in. Grief was my ocean. It was the air. It was transforming me, while I was just getting to know it for the first time, really. Those years were like if grief was a neighbor who I had only ever seen before from catty-corner across the street, who came over one day out of the blue, wrapped me in an embrace, and didn’t let go for years.

For eight years I have lived in the same small town in Southwest Colorado only 60 miles from where I gave that speech. Although I felt stopped in my tracks by cancer, trapped in place, the irony is that I was. As inevitably one does, I built a life and a story for myself right where I was inside of the storm. I now work for an organization that supports cancer survivors, and I am training to be a licensed counselor specializing in chronic illness and grief. Sometimes I have to ask, am I just a footprint in the sand, made up of things that happened to me, or am I more? I have a home now and a Master’s degree. I am a dog mom. I did not know if I would ever have any of these things, and I worked hard to get them. What stuck with me are the labels of “vagabond” “free spirit” and “wanderer.” Yes, I lived in 4 or 5 states within the same number of years, and I took a little while to find a path forward in life. Somehow it doesn’t seem to compute for people that cancer knocked me so sideways, shook my sense of self so fundamentally, that it took me years to feel solid and to land upright.

At 25 I moved to a new city, determined to make up for lost time and live out my twenties in a way that had been inaccessible to me up until that point. I lived my youth hard, knowing in a visceral, too-real way that it was temporary. Have I found myself? My life has become a story that makes a lot of sense on paper, one that comes across as coherent, into which I am still living. Cancer is a big part of that story. It has shaped my life and my growing into adulthood in so many ways, although I never chose this for myself. I will never be able to separate, for example, the memory of my first time hooking up with a girl outside of a bar in Tel-Aviv, from the knowledge that at the time I was 10 or 15 pounds below my normal weight, from the knowledge that at the time I was waiting on the results of my biopsy, praying every morning and night, even though I did not think I knew how to pray.

It complicates things now that I have lived long enough to know that I’ll keep losing myself. I lost myself when I stopped dating because it felt too weird to be a nauseous, gray cancer patient on the apps exploring who I was and what I was into. I lost myself during the pandemic when I could no longer teach yoga or go rock climbing. I lost myself again when less than halfway through the CDC’s stay-at-home order most people started to go out without vaccines or masks, and, as an immunocompromised person who had for a long time situated herself within “wellness” communities centered around “healing,” I could no longer find my sense of belonging. In so many long and short segments of time, I have lost myself in my illness symptoms when they flare up. The word “flare” reminds me of a firestorm. When these storms come, symptoms wreak havoc not just on my body but on my life. During a storm, everything stops. It doesn’t matter what the plans were for the day. Bees can’t come out of their hives when it is raining. Sometimes the phone lines go down and the power goes out. When I was a child and this would happen, all we could do was light some candles and sit on the floor in the dark. Time stops, but it also keeps moving. With everything I go through, I will keep changing.

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