There are at least two ways to live with sense of our mortality—one way is to marvel at the world, to enjoy it and love it and feel grateful for each precious and limited breath. The other way is to be terrified that you won’t get enough and to live with the dread of what horrors await you when the clock starts to tick down. I’ve done both and I can tell you one of those ways really is better.
I might be given to anxiety generally, but after I found the lump, I was consumed with fear. I was frightened about the surgery, scared about what I would find afterwards, afraid of the scars and the blood and the gore. I was afraid of infection, of having a fake breast, of dying on the table. I was terrified of the chemotherapy. The pain, the baldness, the side effects that can be permanent. I was afraid the cancer would come back, and when it did two years later, I was afraid it was already all through my body and would kill me fast.
These fears are normal, I think. It makes sense to be afraid of pain and scarring and death. But anxiety and fear grew to a recurring sense of dread. Dread amplified each piece of bad news into something more horrific, more deadly than it was. Dread shadowed each piece of good news with the bad news that might be around the corner. Worse, dread was my doorway to terror, the black hole of happiness, the spinning whirlpool of regret and sorrow. All of my other emotions seem to play nicely with the others—joy and grief are easy playfellows, and even fear and ease seem to braid together without effort—but dread plays alone. When dread calls me, every other emotion is silenced.
I found that dread was my way of bringing an unknown but dark future into my present and blotting out the sun. And it was so often wrong. I would have a sense of dread for weeks about one miserable outcome, and it wouldn’t happen. The relief was palpable but brief because there was always another thing to dread. But dread was wrong in other ways too. I would be spinning in dread about one horrible thing, and another horrible thing would happen, one I hadn’t seen coming at all. So dread wasn’t even protecting me from shock and misery by letting me get ahead of the game, as I had told myself. It was just bringing one horrible possibility from the future to life in my present in an unhelpful and unnecessary way.
I found that I couldn’t get dread to be quiet, but I could listen to its yelling less and less. Watching the ways it was so often wrong helped me treat it like the small frightened child it was rather than the big soothsaying monster I had imagined it to be. When believed in it, it was kryptonite and knocked me to my knees. When I felt sorry for it, it was a raging toddler to be held safely through the tantrum. Without my full attention, dread slinks back into the corner, and my fears and anxieties bubble along in the stew of my hopes and dreams. I don’t think I would have been able to keep dread in its proper place without giving into it so much for so long, though. Another benefit from the biggest gift I never wanted.