This challenging time also reminds me of a good friend and grad school colleague of mine who faced a sudden and life-threatening illness several years after mine. His wife, Julia Liss, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., recently told me that she faced the uncertainty of her husband’s prognosis by aiming to “master what was going on — understand it, make decisions about treatment, figure out the course to recovery.” As his illness worsened, she relied increasingly on “order as a coping mechanism.” When food shopping, for example, “I’d go down every single aisle, even if I didn’t need to,” she recounted.
“Then there was the time they reorganized the aisles, and it was chaos,” she continued with a sense of humor about the limits of being obsessively controlling.
During Phase 2 of my own recovery, I found myself trying the same control-focused strategy. Not by grocery shopping, but by creating a detailed daily calendar, in 30-minute intervals, starting with my first cup of tea at 6:30 a.m. and ending 14 hours later in front of the TV for an hour break. I wanted to believe that by ordering the day, I could regain mastery of my life — and my illness. Ultimately, the exercise proved exhausting and foolish.
Reluctantly back then, I concluded that I had to accept uncertainty as part of life. Instead of boxing in my feelings about uncertainty — what psychologists refer to as “compartmentalization” — I devised a strategy of letting those fears out from time to time. In my mind, I likened this new response to a dam release, in which a rising river is discharged slowly, instead of waiting for a catastrophic flood.
If I didn’t find a way to let the uncertainty escape, I feared I’d drown in it. I developed an arsenal of weapons to combat it: I slept forever. I saw a psychotherapist, where I gave words to “it.” On bad days, I would practice breathing exercises to calm the nervous system. (Inhale for four counts, hold for seven and release for eight.) On the worst days, I’d pop a high-dose blue Valium.
Three decades later, those lessons about living with uncertainty during my cancer recovery help guide me through the uncertainties of the pandemic. I feel the powerful urge to control, yet again. If only I could see the virus, I could avoid it. If only I knew when life would go back to normal, I could make plans for the fall or next year. As with my cancer, I want to create order out of chaos. But I see that I’m also trying to create hope out of darkness.
Again, I learned from Professor Liss. As her husband continued to fail, with his odds of survival lessening and his end drawing near, she realized, “When things are overwhelmingly hard and scary, and the prognosis is generally not good, sometimes hope lies in the unknown,” she told me. It took me a few minutes to grasp what she meant as she continued, “Uncertainty and unpredictability — suddenly and surprisingly — are where there’s an opening for hope.”