I’ve been given horrible news before. The usual deal. Someone passes away, you find out over the phone and have no idea how to keep the conversation going. Oh gosh, I’m so sorry, that’s terribly sad. Something like that. It never feels sincere, even if it lands like you’ve taken a massive boot to the gut.
I hadn’t thought about how things might go down if the horrible news was about me. You don’t expect it. No one expects it. Getting the diagnosis was like someone stopping time just as you’re about to vomit. You’re stuck in that freezeframe, throat burning, eyes watering, nausea spreading from your stomach and turning into this deep and all-encompassing pounding in the centre of your head.
You wait for someone to start time again, to relieve you of that sick feeling, but it sticks to you like a damp shirt you can’t pull away from your skin. No one ever warns you of how truly fucking terrible it feels. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t plan for it. But here it was, this shitty diagnosis, burrowing itself deep within my gut, chewing away at my insides, devouring whatever was left of my future.
Before any of this, I had hopes and dreams like most young people. You look at the expanse of the world before you and imagine yourself somewhere in there, probably doing okay for yourself, and with luck – you’re happy. I had imagined some kind of future where I could work as one of those nice teachers everyone gets along with. The teacher kids tell their parents about when they’re reliving the better parts of their day at school.
I swear I tried. When I finished my degree, I had so much passion for teaching. I thought I could go straight into the job and absolutely ace it. Easing into it took time. People have cliques. Teachers more so than most. I guess I didn’t really know how to make myself seem interesting enough to truly infiltrate any of those social groups. You’d think that would be the worst of it, but I’m telling you now – things got so much fucking worse.
One thing you need to know is that it takes a stable mind to run a classroom. You can have your stresses and you can be sad under the right circumstances but if you don’t have your shit together you won’t make it. Maybe with a therapist you could manage but who has time for therapy when your day starts at five and probably ends at six or seven and there’s not a moment of time where you can stop between eating and dressing and teaching and marking and it just gets to be too damn much. It really does.
There’re coping mechanisms, ways you can handle the stress of the workload but this is all without factoring in the students. I taught in a private school for a short stint, with small classes, all the resources you could dream of, and a generally welcoming and supportive atmosphere. That was okay. I could deal with that. Public school is what tied the noose around my neck. Classrooms were never not filled to capacity. Lack of funding left us scrambling to supply resources out of our own pockets, and I swear to you, the teenagers were out for blood.
Long story short, I lost it. Absolutely left all sense of stability behind me, becoming the most nervous and useless graduate teacher to walk the halls of that cursed institution. I left the job in pursuit of that sweet, elusive therapy. My mind was a mush of melancholy and madness, requiring a large serving of rest and recovery before getting back on that feral horse.
I suppose the decision to leave full time work doesn’t really matter now. It’s not like I could go back to it. Unless of course they’d allow me to rock up to lessons with a chemo bag dangling from my waistband. Would going through all of this be easier if Kate had stuck around after the move? At least then I might be able to work out some way to pay for treatment while still making rent.
When Kate and I moved here, we had hoped for all the brighter things in life. Melbourne was supposed to be our escape from the lives we had grown tired of in New South Wales. Apartments were a little cheaper, the people seemed a little more down to earth. We found a home in a city that seemed wholly capable of supporting all our dreams of growing a future together.
Perhaps we were naive to believe the pictures that had been painted for us about the life we could live here. As soon as we moved, it was as if lenses had been peeled from our eyes, breaking the illusion of a better life. Melbourne was foreign, an unknown entity we had to learn to navigate. Worst of all, there was this crippling sense of isolation gnawing away at the edges of the happiness we had been trying to create. Every corner I turned, there it was, this shadow reminding me of how far away I was from my true home, implanting doubt that any of this was a good idea.
The shadow found its way into Kate’s thoughts and it wormed its way into the fragile foundations of the life we were trying to build together. I don’t know when things got as bad as they did. Maybe it was the stress of moving. Or maybe my own crippling doubt rubbed off on Kate and drove her away. She chose to leave, to find a place where the sun might shine again for her. I got that. I understood why she left but that didn’t stop it from fucking with me.
Everything already felt so lonely. It didn’t feel like things could get any worse. But there it was, that gaping hole where our love once existed, growing, festering, poisoning the well of my mind whose waters were already churning with the sickness of everything that had come before.
At some point I think I found my feet again. Taking casual relief jobs made paying rent almost manageable on my own. All things considered, I was stable enough to get by without any serious levels of difficulty. And I guess now I’m here. A place that could have been okay, a place where I might have been able to keep on going without having to worry too much.
Sure, I was alone, and yeah, maybe that dream of owning a home had been destroyed along with my relationship, but for the time being, I was okay with renting and working until I could figure things out. That was fine. It was fine and I was fine and things were going to be okay but for fuck’s sake, now everything has been absolutely turned on its goddamned head and I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to get by.
I thought maybe I was ill. Like the kind of ill where they give you Imodium and the stomach cramps go away and you can go to the toilet again. Why wouldn’t I think that? I’ve been healthy my whole life, save for the bullshit that goes on in my head. But physically – everything has been A-okay.
I don’t think it clicked fully at first. I was numb coming home from the doctors’. No tears, no screams into the void of Why me? Sitting here now though, I think someone has lifted their thumb off of the pause button of that freezeframe of sickness I was talking about. That feeling of sickness has moved on from being stuck in my throat and has found a new life in making me want to exorcise my body of this whole experience in violent episodes of regurgitation.
I search for distractions, anything to take my mind off the corrupt cells inside my gut that are feasting on my lifespan. Inevitably though, I find myself falling down the rabbit hole of Google searches and Web MDs. I guess it should have been obvious the internet would only make everything seem infinitely worse.
CHEMOTHERPAY COSTS ARE A SUCKERPUNCH FOR CANCER PATIENTS
…for most, treating cancers can leave patients paying upwards of $10,000 a month
Treatment costs place a huge burden on those suffering from cancer
It goes on and on and becomes clearer and clearer this is going to be an impossible battle to fight. Switching to emails is no better. The first item in my inbox is a reminder from my real estate agent. It’s all pleasantries and niceness and a big fat reminder that I have to somehow prepare for a house inspection and pay rent through all of this.
My mind hasn’t even had time to go there yet. Rent. RENT. For the love of god, how on earth am I supposed to afford treatment when I can only just barely pay my rent on time?! Fucking hell. JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. I can’t. I can’t do this. How am I supposed to do this? I won’t even be able to work. Is that even a thing? Do people do that? How can I work if I’m getting treatment? How can pay for treatment if I can’t work?
Maybe if I’d gotten a better job or maybe if I’d stayed in New South Wales. Maybe if Kate and I had never moved and we were still together and I’d have just one person to be here for me and help figure out all of this insanity.
I was stupid to move. Why didn’t I just stay put? Work a full-time job like a functional human being instead of being this pathetic waste of space who can’t even handle a classroom of fifteen-year-olds. Why didn’t someone tell me to just grow the fuck up? Maybe I could have put a down payment on a house by now, found an inkling of stability that could have made this the slightest bit easier. Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me how hard this was all going to be?
A pressure grows inside my head. I can’t slow my thoughts down. They get louder and louder; beating against my skull trying to escape. At some point the thoughts merge into a mass of screaming agony that pours from my eyes and mouth in sobs choked out between streams of tears spilling over my lips. My body cripples under the weight. Sleep finds me but there is no rest in the night of harrowing dreams that follows.
It is light the next time I open my eyes. My cheeks are damp. My limbs are heavy and refuse to cooperate with any effort I make at moving about the house. I rub at my swollen eyes and carry myself into the kitchen. On the bench, there are bills. In the cupboards, there is dust where food might once have been.
All my money has been put aside for rent.
To make matters even more fantastic, there’s work. If I go in, there is every chance I will lose my shit in front of a bunch of teenagers, or worse yet, my employers. If I don’t go in, I won’t get my fucking pay.
You’d think the right decision would be obvious.
Come twelve o’clock, I’ve been at work for going on four hours. It’s a solid distraction from crippling anxiety, until lunch break comes around, then it’s a little more difficult to ignore the fact you’re probably dying and there’s literally nothing you can do about it.
I make an attempt at swallowing bites of a sandwich but find myself with my head in a toilet bowl moments later, violently expelling both my vegemite sandwich and the accumulation of gut-wrenching nausea that has been festering inside me all morning.
Without a second thought, I wipe my face clean and get the hell out of there.
When I return home, there is only silence to greet me – a familiar yet unwelcome companion. I sit with it, staring at intricate veins of cracked plaster on the walls. I imagine the sound of a phone ringing – perhaps it is my mum, or maybe it’s the school. The sound of the answering machine struggles to reach me through the fog. Everything feels submerged.
I am floating in a black lake; no matter which way I turn, my eyes are touched by no light, no colours. There is nothing. The nothing goes on forever, surrounding me like a heavy blanket, weighing down my tired body, pulling me deeper and deeper into the darkness. It is so quiet, so cold and lifeless. I fall slowly, limbs cutting through the water, for hours, years even. I wonder if there is a bottom to all this darkness.
My phone buzzes with a deep vibration that breaks through the darkness. I reach for it, squinting at the bright screen.
Opening the bank app, I hope with all the strength left in me that someone has paid me. A cramp rips through my stomach as I read the dismal balance. My hands shake and a sound escapes me – a sigh of misery at the lack of funds, or an involuntary response to the sharp pain in my abdomen?
Perhaps it is a little of both.
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