I often think about a wonderful woman who was a patient of mine a few years ago. Let’s call her Lucy.
She demonstrated the life-changing magic of Presence
When she first came to see me she was already seriously ill with stage four breast cancer. This means that the tumour cells had spread beyond the original site, or “metastased”. In her case they were lodged in nearby lymph nodes, in her back and it was thought perhaps, in her brain.
It was this last location that bothered her the most. There was something “metaphysical” as she described it, at the idea that her brain could act in ways that she may not be able to control. That somehow her sense of self would be altered as a result.
Would she still be Lucy if, as a result of the tumour cells growing in her brain, her personality might alter? She was an extremely well educated and well rounded person, and had read accounts of people becoming aggressive or docile, erratic or rude, impatient or too plain-speaking as a result of tumour cells in the brain.
We had long and fascinating conversations about what indeed constituted the “self”, conversations that took us down many a road, into Meister Eckhardt, St Augustin, Eastern religions, non-duality and Buddhism.
The thing I remember most clearly was the day she came to see me and said, “F*** it Barbara. I think everybody should get cancer for a week. I feel so liberated!”
It was as if the knowledge and certainty of her imminent death had woken her up. She saw all the ways she had kept herself small, lied to others in order to maintain the status quo, fed petty family feuds in order to be right and play “pay back” for being treated, as she felt it, as the lesser, little sister who will never amount to much.
She was raging that day. Raging with anger and delight simultaneously.
Anger at the time she felt she had lost “messing about in the corner of a pocket handkerchief”, at the way we all do that. How could we? We must all cease, desist, stop, immediately
Delight that she could feel herself lifting her very self free from some invisible, intangible, but all too real, imaginary prison. Some notions of what she should be, of who she should be, of right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure – to find herself soaring in the wide wide sky beyond.
“I want to tell the world to Wake Up!” she added with excitement.
She continued to grow and laugh and love and live. Fully. Expressively. With huge waves of joy and immense swells of tears. But alive. Always honest, witty, giving, fun-filled, irreverent, energised. FULL ON.
She was switched on to life in a way and with a commitment to never get back in her prison. In a way that brought great joy, energy and love to all of us who were privileged to be touched by her presence.
And yet here was a dying woman. Her health was appalling. She was thin. Her hair was that weird kind of post-chemo fluff some people get. Some weeks she could hardly climb the stairs to my consulting room.
But she was alive. FULL ON alive. In conceptual terms, and here we come down to earth a bit, her levels of wellbeing were sky high whilst her health was pitiful.
Lucy taught me so much.
One thing that has stuck with to this day is the life-changing magic of Presence.
The other is that health and wellbeing are separate dimensions. We need to remember this, especially in the field of mental illness where the language gets so confused by the euphemistic evasions, the stigma and prejudice that disavow plain speaking, parity of respect, and equality of resources, funding, and care.
But that’s another story.