Briony Benjamin was only 31 when she received a life-changing diagnosis. She’d been feeling tired and crappy all the time, but doctors simply told her to rest more and stress less. Until one particular doctor’s appointment changed her life. Briony, as it turned out, had Hodgkins Lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system. The following is an extract from Briony’s brand new book, Life Is Tough (But So Are You).
Assemble your A-team
You’re a strong, independent and super-capable human. So it can be very unnerving to ask for help and lean on your people. But you don’t have to do this alone, nor should you, and helping each other is really what life is all about. This season is one when you can lean on those around you (and, trust me, they really want to help get you through this). Don’t worry, in the ebbs and flows of life you’ll get a chance to lift up the ones you love, further down the line. For now, though, surrender.
Who’s on your team?
Your nearest and dearest
One of the coolest things about a curveball is that you know instantly who are the most important people in your world. (It’s a suboptimal yet super-efficient way to sort out the chaff from the real deal in your life. Ahh, silver linings.) I was so worried about being a burden – and it’s not easy to be back in your childhood room at your parents’ house, complete with fetching animal-print wallpaper (selected by my wholesome 15-year-old self) and an extensive pig collection to boot – but sometimes you just have to surrender and lean on your people.
You find when you go through a crisis that some people really step up and become super friends – they bring joy and delight into your day. Others fade away and are disappointing. Either way, it’s actually a gift! You get to find out who really matters and who is always there for you, and you learn the value of your kind friends. As hard as it is, try not to get caught up in the people who disappoint you; it doesn’t help you face the task ahead. Instead, focus on the excellent, awesome people and the lovely ways they are supporting you.
Remember that this is also a tough time for the people who love you (although you still get the gold medal of crappiness) and being a good support person is a delicate job. Inevitably, someone is going to say something silly, accidentally or because they don’t know better or because they’re human. Like the day after shaving off my hair, when my dad told me I looked like a monk, although he ‘meant it in a really good way’. It was not taken in a ‘really good way’! Poor Dad was mortified to upset me, but we can laugh about it now.
Ninja tip: If someone says the wrong thing to you, try to breathe and keep calm before you respond. (Sure, you’re allowed to spit the dummy here and there if you really need to, but it never makes you feel better. Trust me!)
If you don’t have family or friends around and are feeling very isolated, I’m so sorry, that is really tough. Instead, try connecting with some of the excellent services and hotlines available.
- Who are the most important people in your world?
- Who do you need around you right now?
- Who might you need to see less of?
A trusted psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor
Having access to a professional counsellor during a challenging time can be incredibly beneficial and it’s not a sign of weakness. In fact, I’m going to say it’s a must do! It’s a sign of strength to ask for guidance and support. Make sure it’s someone you really click with. For example, the first psychologist I saw, well, let’s just say we didn’t exactly gel.
Psychologist: Why are you sad?
Me: I’m three weeks into chemo, I feel like vomiting and today my hair started falling out.
Psychologist: Why does that make you sad?
Me: I don’t want to be bald.
Me: (Thought bubble: Why the hell do you think? Are you a robot disguised as a human?)
Cue uncontrollable tears . . .
(Okay, if you’re from a military background, that brutal line of inquiry might work for you, but I needed someone a little more Zen and soft around the edges, who would treat me like the delicate little millennial ball of cotton fluff that I am.)
I left bawling and determined never to see a psychologist ever again. It scared me off for a long time and, honestly, even though I was going through cancer I still wanted to PROVE to myself I was tough and didn’t need help, and to show everyone how strong and awesome I was.
Do you think you could benefit from speaking with a professional who has helped many others navigate what you’re going through right now?
Please don’t be like me! Sure, you might be able to wade your way through it, OR you could shortcut that process by speaking to someone who has helped hundreds of people go through what you are going through now. They might just have a better idea than you, who has dealt with this approximately zero times. A long way down the line I found someone with a style that was much more suited to me, who was gentle and sympathetic and got to know me before they started advising me. It was really helpful and I wish I’d done it sooner.
There are also great services and hotlines for whatever you are experiencing that can be a helpful starting point if you don’t know where to find a counsellor.
Ninja tip: Psychologist v psychiatrist
A psychologist is a professional who has studied psychology at university, followed by further practical work and study. They will work in conjunction with your specialist or GP who can prescribe drugs if they are required.
A psychiatrist is a professional who has studied medicine, followed by psychiatry (they can prescribe drugs if you need them).
Your personal superhero
There is nothing like the catharsis of chatting to someone who has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and emerged out the other side like a sparkly shiny legend. They truly get it and give you hope that, like them, one day you will be on the other side of this big old mess; be that a divorce, a health crisis or a gut-wrenching loss. So when you’re ready, connect with someone you trust and respect who has already been through something similar to what you are experiencing. If you don’t know anyone, ask friends to help you find someone.
My personal superhero was Luke, the lovely guy I’d worked with years before who had been through testicular cancer. Although we’d never really spoken of his experience before, I reached out to him and he became such an important person whom I knew I could call on any time to mull things over.
On my first call to Luke, I said to him, ‘I don’t want to know about chemo or treatment yet, I just want to have a chat and talk about how I’m feeling.’ Everyone is different, some people might want to know every single bit of information possible. For me, I needed it to come in dribs and drabs. Remember, you’re allowed to take in information at a pace that feels good to you. It’s your crisis: you get to do what you want.
Ninja tip: It’s important to be really clear upfront about what you’d like to discuss and what areas might still be in the I’m-not-ready-for-this-yet camp.
There are so many online support groups these days that it should be easy to find one, but here’s a word of warning: while these groups can be useful sources of information, they can also be a little overwhelming and daunting. There will be people on the full spectrum of suffering sharing their experiences in these groups, so you have no real control over the extent of what you are exposed to. You might hear stories of relapse in the case of illness, or people who have never been able to move on from the grief or trauma of their experience, and it can be very confronting. It might be handy to have a friend or family member enter the group for you and extract the information you require (my sister Molly did this for me) or just to test the waters for you before you dive on in.
- Who is in your A-team? Write down their names (and contact details) on a note on your phone or in your diary.
- Do you feel like you have the support you need?
- What else would make you feel secure and happy right now?
- Are there any other services you need to connect with? Can you ask someone in your A-team to help with that?
Ninja tip: Start a WhatsApp group
When a crisis first strikes, everyone will want to know what is happening and how they can help. Keeping everyone in the loop can become a full-time job. I recommend setting up a group on a communication platform such as WhatsApp or making a private Facebook page, and adding anyone who is reaching out, so you can easily update everyone at once.
Extract from Life Is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.