Blogging for Mental Health

It is rather late here in Yangon on a Wednesday evening. I am sitting under the fan, the air damp and humid as I am catching up with the rest of the world online.

I pour yet another glass of chilled water from the fridge, squeeze a sliver of lime into it, as I have done since chemo distorted my tastebuds and I found this was the only way I could suffer the dishwater taste. It is a habit I have kept up since then.

I check the twitter feed just one last time before sleeping, and see that there is an “interaction”. Always curious, I click on the icon and see a tweet from Marie of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.

Will you join me for #mhblogday?

She asks?

I follow the link and find out about the “Blogging for Mental Health” Challenge.

It may be late here, but this is something I have a view and feelings on. I especially have a view because I believe that there is so much focus on the physical side when we have a cancer diagnosis. Everyone knows that the disease is dangerous, and that the treatments cause all manner of difficult side effects. Everyone expects someone with cancer to look ill and haggard. But the emotional and psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis hits us with the force of a physical blow. We all remember the moment we heard the life changing words. We are caught up in a whirlwind which sweeps us up and we hurtle through treatment. But alongside the physical demands of trying to banish the cancer invader, there is a more sinister and pernicious effect which I have found grows and thrives in the troubled mind that a cancer diagnosis brings.

As the hour is late and the connection painfully slow, I prefer to paste below an earlier discussion about Captain Paranoia. (The links are not working tonight, I can always edit later…) This post sets out the troubled frame of mind which cancer has brought me, and the challenge to emotional and mental well being.

The tone of my post may be light, but the topic itself is not. My fears are real and all I ask is that they are respected and validated.

Thank you, Marie, for prompting late evening thoughts and for highlighting the serious question of mental health.

Captain Paranoia (posted June 2011)

He’s back! I woke up in the night this week and there he was, on my pillow, sitting cross-legged, feeding snippets of paranoia into my mind through my ears!
I felt my stomach clenching, as the fears rose to the surface. I am always quick to feed a worry and Captain P knows this. He was in his element, planting a snippet of suspicion in my mind and watching it gather speed and make me jump.

I overdid the treadmill in the gym a little the other day and have a pain in my heel. I also bumped my shoulder against a van’s wing mirror a few days earlier and have a tender spot on my shoulder. Add to that the combination of dark, scary, night time hours and voila – there is Capt P whispering “bone mets” in my ear.

I know that this is his peak season. I am only 2 weeks away from the next round of checks so this is the most difficult time mentally. I have already heard those “you have cancer” words once. I know it can happen and I know I am at risk.

So who is this Capt Paranoia who is part of this post diagnosis life? Does he warrant a whole posting devoted to him? Yes, I believe he does, so that we can combine forces to send him packing when he tries to come visiting.

I am not able to take the credit for creating Capt Paranoia. I borrowed him from a friend, and have seen him discussed on some of the discussion pages of Breast Cancer Care. I have developed him in my mind though, into a kind of anti-hero. In my mind. he has appalling dress sense, with an orange polyester sweatshirt with “The Captain” on its chest, and bright blue leggings and matching cloak, both of which clash terribly with his sweat shirt. And of course, he has the obligatory underwear over his leggings and his untidy hair smoothed back with Bryl Cream. Not the kind of guy you really want to find sitting on your pillow!

This personification (as insulting as possible) helps me to compartmentalise the fear and try and put it in its place. In a corner. Preferably the “Naughty Corner”
I have been developing ways of minimising Captain Paranoia’s activities. My favourite is to play memory games in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep and worry comes my way. Perhaps they are senility games. I save up little puzzles, especially little exercises of trying to remember certain things from my past which I can’t quite bring to mind. For example, the surname of a colleague from 20 years ago, the name of the band who sang a particular song in the 70s, features of a town I have visited many years ago……… I love this kind of puzzles and they are not new to me. When I find that some detail is evading me, I love to ponder and puzzle over it until finally I retrieve it from the very dusty shelves in my memory bank. Occasionally a detail may elude me for weeks, as was the case a couple of years ago. I had been trying to remember the surname of a colleague I had worked with in the 80s and search as I might I just could not remember it. Incredibly, when I was back in Scotland several weeks later, I bumped into him in Glasgow’s very busy Queen Street Station on the only day that I passed through Glasgow! Happily I was able to solve that puzzle with his assistance because I have a feeling that it was not going to come back to me ever without some help. I recently had another puzzle which kept me going for ages. There was a tune which I just could not identify, and try as I might to hum it and retrieve the lyrics for a clue, I could not get more than a few disjointed and unclear words. This one lasted for months and was finally solved when I was last in Thailand. I don’t have a mobile phone here, but I do in Thailand and when trying to change the ring tone, I suddenly realised that the evasive tune was the ring tone on my previous phone! No wonder I could not find the lyrics.

Happily when you get to my age, there are plenty of little details like this that you can’t quite retrieve. So there is plenty of material for me to use in the dark hours when Capt Paranoia is trying to elbow his way into my head. That is why I was lying awake in the early hours this morning, mumbling tunelessly that old number “tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree”, amazed that I seemed to remember all the lyrics (a dangerous confession I know) and trying to remember who on earth sang it! It defeated Captain P and I eventually dozed off again with the lyrics going round and round in my head, trying to pin down the name of the band which was responsible for making it so popular so many years ago.

I have realised that this is a good strategy which I can use against Capt P from now on. I will make sure I have a stock of these puzzles. Luckily that is not a problem thanks to chemobrain’s support in fuddling the memory chips. And I will make a conscious effort to search and solve these in a way of distracting my mind from the mean stuff that he is providing. This is a tactic which I think will help in what is going to be a long relationship and tussle between myself and Capt P. I know that this will be a protracted connection thanks to this ever present fear that the cancer beast will launch a comeback. I also know that it won’t always work.

This is not the same as denial, and vigilance is critical. I know that I have to remain proactive and seriously check anything which is worrying as opposed to worrying about something which is easily explainable, or quickly disappears.

The thing is though, I have to be right EVERY time. Capt Paranoia only needs to be right once. And that is his trump card. That is why he is able to keep reasserting his presence on my pillow.

On the positive side? Going over and over “Tie a yellow ribbon” in my head kept producing a cryptic repetition of “Dawn”. Unconvinced, I googled the song in the light of day and guess what? (I am sure you know this already). We have to thank Tony Orlando and Dawn for bringing us this classic. Now while I am sorry that Tony was far from surfacing in my mind, I was quite delighted that Dawn made itself appear in my mind before the dawn itself did. Now is that a victory against senility, memory loss and Captain Paranoia? I think it just might be!

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27 thoughts on “Blogging for Mental Health

  1. P, this is such a good piece. As Marie also stated, cancer doesn’t just affect us physically. In fact, I think the psychological and psychosomatic effects are worse than the physical effects, if only because they get dismissed more by those who are “not in the know.”

    Thanks for sharing your post from last summer on Captain P. I try not to dwell on his trump card, but whenever I do, I override my thoughts with some soothing song lyrics. Songs can heal our hearts, or wound them irreparably. My repertoire is limited only to songs I’ve found uplifting through the decades, such as “Climb Every Mountain”. xx

    • Thanks J, yes, it is so hard to convey how tough the emotional and psychological side of cancer is. And I know what you mean about the emotional power of music – so true. What a great idea to control your repertoire 🙂

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  4. I can’t tell you how many times I have used this personification of Captain Paranoia in my mind. It really helps me when certain thoughts creep into my head to remember this post and that name. I like the idea of keeping him in the naughty corner. I actually have an appointment today, so I’ll probably be utilizing it more than a few times this morning. Thanks so much for posting this again.

    • I am glad this helps you too N, and I especially wish you well for your appointment today. I hope the Captain is nowhere in sight xoxox

    • Thank you so much Marie – this was an inspiring experience as well as a shocking one in a way. Our mental health is seriously impacted in cancer land and as you say, the more we bring this out in the open, the less I hope, it will be allowed to fester.

  5. Well done! I love that you didn’t let the late hour or the slow connection keep you from adding your thoughts to the party, just as we don’t let Captain Paranoia keep us from moving forward.

    • Thanks 🙂 – it was too tempting to resist joining the discussion! And I did take the easy route, by re-posting a previous piece. I am in such good company – and the Capt is NOT welcome in our party!

  6. Had a bought with the Captain the other night. Couldn’t fall asleep, kept crying for about 45 minutes. Has been 8 months since my treatment ended, and I keep wondering. Am I done? Or will cancer rear its ugly head in my life again. Damn that Captain!

    • I am so sorry to hear this – those hours of darkness are dark in every sense. It is a strange place post treatment, and different to our expectations. But you have many friends in this online space, and we stand together as we face up to Capt P. Wishing you healing and recovery, and a disappearing Captain!

  7. Captain Paranoia does get around, doesn’t he? He’s camped out here way too many times. The fact of the matter is he’s a bully! He only exists by filling us with doubt and fear, but unlike most bullies, he doesn’t go away when you get him back.

    • Oh you are so right – he is a nasty, horrible bully who feeds on our fears and anxiety. Thank goodness we all have each other in this.

  8. Philippa, this is perfect! The sneaky, insidious presence of Captain Paranoia is one we can all relate to, and it can certaiinly make us feel crazy! Cancer throws all our normal filters out of whack, so that we might forget how to get down the street suddenly, but instead obsessively focus on every wart and wobble until our hair (if we have any!!) stands on end. It’s almost impossible to explain this to someone who has not be traumatized by something like cancer.

    Years ago, I heard and laughed about a quote by William Burroughs: ‘Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.’ I’ve reminded myself of this bit of splendid, oddly wise absurdity many times since by diagnosis, believe me!

    • Thanks for your words and wisdom K, you are right it is very hard to imagine what strange things a troubled mind can do. And once you cross over the cancer threshold there is no going back. I love the Burroughs quote 😉 – it is wickedly cheeky!

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  10. Ah, I remember your earlier mention of Captain Paranoia – he sits on many shoulders for such a little guy. Cancer and treatment challenge us physically, emotionally, mentally . . . I think perhaps on the mental aspect, we’re quite lucky to have so much support online (and in our communities, if we have the energy to find it!). Catherine

    • Thanks Catherine – yes, I am not sure if/how I would have coped only a few years ago before the online community evolved… It is hard to “keep cancer in its place” as it does, as you say, impact on every domain of our selves, physical, emotional and mental. Cheers to our support and managing Capt Paranoia’s unwelcome and uninvited visits 🙂

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  12. Outstanding post on this important topic. Yes, Captain Paranoia does get around — he/she visits and haunts me. I’ve had doctors ignore the psychological repercussions of cancer, and it really hurts because that part — the emotional component — needs to be validated. Your feelings are surely validated.

    • Thanks Beth – yes, I think that is the crux of it, that the emotional/psychlogical aspect should be validated and respected.

  13. I just LOVE your characterization of Capt Paranoia. He continues to stick in my head. Thinking of you from my tiny room in a little house in Peru. Wish I could pop over for a visit. Big hugs and thanks for continuing to bring light to the psychological as well as physical battle we all fight! T xo

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  16. Thanks T – he is a sleasy character isn’t he? 😉 I hope that he gets a nasty dose of altitude sickness if he bugs you in Peru 😉

    I love hearing your updates, and thinking of you too in Peru. I look forward to hearing all the details.

    I’m so thankful to have your company in this struggle, mental and physical. Big big hugs xoxox

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