Although I’ve been on the up-and-up over the past several years, I’ve never claimed to be out of recovery from pervasive and life-limiting mental illness. Bearing my history in mind, I was acutely aware of the risk of post-operative depression. So much so that I actually deferred my admission into my counseling program after factoring it into my 2017 summer/autumnal schedule. (With total compassion and understanding, mind you.)
I still radically underestimated what impact post-op depression would have on my life after the revelations from my tissue pathology.
Just before I went into the OR, the inimitable Sonya Vatomsky (author and poet) wrote a piece about my work in local death awareness/activism and set the bar for me. I’m absolutely mortified that I won’t live up to it, and I’m equally mortified that I’ll die by it too directly. Because in the same interim that I found out about my cancerous dx, Death Café founder Jon Underwood died suddenly due to complications from a cancer he didn’t even know he had.
At the risk of broaching an old taboo of speaking ill of the dead, Jon is the pinnacle of everything I fear ever becoming: he lived and died by his brand, and his brand was Death Cafè (well, technically, his brand was Impermanence, and Death Café was his product): a loosely appropriated sociological concept that he monetarily gained from despite maintaining a philosophy that all locally affiliated death cafés must not profit in any monetary way. Since his sudden death, the Death Café social media presence has become a platform to promote every aspect of Jon’s post-mortem “life” as the illustrated gospel of the death positive manifesto, right down to the new funeral initiative that he was planning to launch at his buddhist center and the custom eco-friendly coffin for his passage into the abyss. (I’d show you what that looks like here in my post, but to use the images taken at the funeral, I’d have to pay $575 for the standard editorial rights.)
The news of Jon’s succumbing to mortality from an unknown disease that was festering inside of him was enough to give me palpitations, but with respect to what I’ve internalized from my first go at grad school, it’s the unabashed marriage of his memory to his brand legacy has me shook.
Years ago, when I was in my first MA and working with the instructor who was my mentor and contact for my first thesis, she gave me several criticisms warning me that I came across as overly passionate in my work and overly confident in my claims. This detracted from the objective nature of my writing voice. Allegedly. It may or may not have, but the criticism certainly did serve as a turning point for me.
Through the remainder of my degree, I became more and more dissociated from my focus and more distanced from my motivation. I was on the track to move into a doctorate, and I was massively depressed.
Since my pathology came back, I disconnected abruptly from the life I constructed for myself and disengaged from virtually everything that was defining my personhood–at least from my perspective. I let emails and messages go unread. I let appointments pass. I let course work pile up. I avoided even the most menial of obligations. I couldn’t even look at any of my books I had on my to-read list or any of my theology material, because it was all death-and-dying related. I didn’t feel uncomfortable from a fear perspective as I felt too intimate with the subject matter to be an objective and upright ‘authority’ on the matter.
Today, I’m massively depressed to be on the cusp of something new and (potentially) great and to already feel as though I’m mucking it all up.
I want to devote as much of myself and my blossoming career as inhumanly possible to improving death support and death services to persons who haven’t even been able to glimpse the promise of the Good Death. I want to be as involved in as many aspects of death activism as I can be, whether it’s best served in facilitating Orlando’s own death café or in advocating for the historic preservation of central Florida’s disappearing cemeteries or in lending my occupational services to my local hospice. I want to survive by it as well as thrive by it. But I’m afraid to become synonymous to it.
All the while of my post-surgery period, I’ve stayed in contact with my instructor in my palliative ministry course. Unsurprisingly, he’s been very compassionate to my plight; with his knowledge, I started to make concessions to the quality of the work I intended to turn in to him. They weren’t intentional, but they were handicaps that stopped me from becoming too invested in my coursework.
That exhaustion has extended beyond the page as well; my body has been fatigued by the duress of reading about death, and that fatigue haunted me–still haunts me–in my waking hours. Tasks that leave me immobile, but hyperactive in my thoughts, (such as sitting up in bed or riding in the car) exhaust me to the brink of wilting.
Can you believe that in this period of time I’ve also become very physically unfit as well? (Where’s the code command for ‘dripping sarcasm?’)
I’m a huge aficionado of yoga. I’m by no means a “yogi,” but I’m very passionate about the history and applied philosophy of yoga–especially with regards to its defiance toward the limits of mortality. Granted, this comes from a rather “death negative” perspective, where corpses are profane objects–but that’s what nuance is for. (And maybe also a bit of humor with respect to cemetery yoga.)
It was also during my post-op depression period that the disability advocates of YooCan Do Anything (and their advantage club for disabled folk, Alto) decided to promote my story, where I talked candidly about fitness, mental (in)stability, physical disability and transition. I was red in the face when a yoocan rep contacted me, because I had no idea how to tell them that I had actually been physically inactive for several weeks due to surgery and was on a serious limitation of activity until my final post-op clearance However, there seems to be a trend of people who aren’t me being quite forgiving about my rate of activity–physical, emotional, professional, academic or otherwise.
Since my cross-platform promotion, I’ve become re-inspired by the story of my past-self to re-commit to an active lifestyle regimen, even though I’m anticipating going through another round of gender confirmation/cancer preventive surgery sooner rather than later. Even if it a procedure was slated to tomorrow, I’d feel more confident knowing that for at least one day prior, I had that brief sense of autonomy.
And although I’m physically back in the field at Page Jackson cemetery, getting myself into that same headspace for my intellectual and professional integrity is a bit more challenging. On the last day of my semester, I caved and applied for a course extension (which was granted as of this morning). I’m reticent to quantify my emotional recovery, but as of today I’m stepping back in from dissociation into having difficulty with reading about self-care as a care provider without feeling an intense sense of guilt (or maybe gluttony).
As I come to close this (very long) personal essay, I find myself still plagued by conflict. I feel motivated by the pride in my ideology that I’m rekindling, but I’m also terrified by it. Maybe that’s good ol’ Catholic guilt talking. Maybe that’s unearthed trauma from a lifetime ago. Maybe I need it (or at least think I need it) to keep myself conscious and aware, but if I do need it motivate me to stay on course, then I need to learn how not to let it cripple my whole personhood–mind and body–particularly not when other aspects of my neurotype and physiology have already done that well enough.