The Physical Experience of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or how having cancer made me really fucking angry for no obvious reason)

What follow is a guest post written by a friend, James, which arose out of a discussion we were having about the connection between body and mind. It’s a fascinating account of his experience. I’d like to thank James profusely for allowing me to publish it here.

Abstract – Discussion of the disjunction between mental processes/physical sensations and the resultant emotional states and some thoughts on possible causal links.

The theory advanced is that serious illness produces a physical sub-rational understanding that the body is dying which is manifested directly in pre-rational emotional states and occur as a surprise to the rational reasoning intellect.

Illustrated with examples from living with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and with parallels drawn with the character of Walter White/Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, who accurately reflects the otherwise inexplicable rage and will to power of a previously mild mannered individual suffering from Cancer.

 

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I was coughing a lot, which as it turns out was because of the fist sized tumour in my neck constricting my windpipe.[1]   My wife demanded I see the Doctor, partly out of concern and partly because the coughing was annoying her so off to the GP I went. They decided to refer me to the hospital for ‘tests’ and were unhelpfully vague as to the details.

The first sign of what later became fairly frequent outbursts of irrational anger happened as I was standing outside a record shop on my mobile phone. The fact that I wanted to get inside and look for records probably didn’t help my levels of patience and tolerance.

The GP had written me a referral letter. I wanted to know what it said so I phoned to ask for a copy. The receptionist who I spoke to said I couldn’t have a copy as it ‘wasn’t policy’ or some such bullshit. At this point I saw red. I told her in a calm but threatening voice that I was going to have a copy, that she could either put a copy in the post to me right now or I would come and get a copy and I suspected that she would prefer the former option. She agreed to do the former and I immediately hung up on her.

As I type this I can feel a surge of adrenalin pumping through my body, triggered by the memory of this conversation.[2] Combined with the usual large amount of coffee I had this morning I feel quite light headed and am shaking a little. I presume this is the standard ‘fight or flight’ response but it amazes me still that thinking back to a short telephone conversation two years ago can still trigger an immediate physical response which is otherwise unheralded by any present physical stimulus.

It turned out to be Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, in my case in the neck, requiring a course of Chemotherapy followed by Radiotherapy. As I am not stupid and can use the internet I worked out what it probably was before I got to the appointment where somebody sat me down and said ‘You have Cancer’. The prognosis was good, they had caught it fairly early and it was eminently treatable. So far so good. At the time I was entirely fine about it and didn’t really feel much at all about the situation other than it was going to be annoying to have to take however many months off work. Or so I thought.

The next incident I recall was over lunch at a local pub. I ordered a sandwich which I was underwhelmed by but because I am English and don’t complain and because it wasn’t actually inedible and I was hungry I ate it anyway. On leaving and paying I was asked by the unsuspecting manager/staff member whether we had enjoyed our meal. So I told her exactly what I thought of it, which was vehemently negative and borderline psychotic in tone, albeit very quiet and without swearing, making it impossible for her to cut the conversation short and have us thrown out. She was shocked to the point of speechlessness and I recall ending the conversation by telling her that the offer of a free meal in future would be entirely useless, because I would never set foot in the place again and that I would be telling everyone I knew to do likewise because their food was unfit for human consumption. I may also have said that I wouldn’t feed it to my dog.[3]

This again came as a total surprise to me as I had not previously been in the habit of complaining at all and certainly not in such a manner. What in hindsight seems to have happened is that any social conditioning and previous strictures of politeness that I had previously felt bound by had entirely fallen away. I just said exactly what I thought without any concern for social niceties. My response was also wildly disproportionate; I was enraged over a somewhat disappointing sandwich.

There are other similar episodes which I won’t detail further here, save for the one whilst I was having chemotherapy where I was only dissuaded from physically assaulting another patient in a row over the volume on his television in a public area, because I had so many drip lines in I couldn’t’ physically get up and across the room to beat the living shit out of him. Whether I would have managed it, I’m not sure, but I was pretty set on trying. The medical staff clearly saw the writing on the wall after that and got me a private room. Which was nice.

To put this into context I have never, until the point of my illness, been a violent person; neither in temperament nor action. I had never been in a fight and had never felt the need to be. I had never really been in a row – my usual impulse in any threatening or confrontational situation being to walk away. And this is still my usual position, what I had hitherto assumed was an integral part of my character.

What the onset of my illness seems to have done is to release an alternate mode of acting in which the part of me that gave a shit about appearances, consequences or social mores is almost entirely absent. The interesting part of all this being that outwardly I had no emotional reaction to being diagnosed with cancer; at all. Not only as an outward expression to others, but to my own conscious mind I was really not bothered. Which in hindsight of course seems odd but at the time I didn’t really think about it.

So with the benefit of hindsight a couple of years down the line what strikes me is that whilst my mind appeared then and now to have very little concern about the matter at hand, some other part of me certainly did and was very pissed off. My best assumption here is that it was my body which was pissed off and that it demonstrated this by breaking through the veneer of my conscious rational mind in a violent and unpredictable way.

What crystallised my thinking on this point and made me realise the links to my illness was in the most prosaic of fashions, watching Breaking Bad. I primarily started watching the series on DVD because I had heard good things about it and having a certain professional interest in narratives dealing with the criminal underworld[4] and because everyone said it was good. The point being that I didn’t primarily choose it because the main protagonist was suffering from cancer. However almost immediately I recognised myself in Walter White/Heisenberg. In particular I recognised the way he switched from one persona to the other at the drop of a hat. I thought then and still do now, although I haven’t checked, that somebody who worked on writing and developing the show must have had first-hand experience of a similar illness because they got the reality it spot on and turned his psychological shifts into the central psychological fulcrum of the series.

The scene that particularly sticks in my mind is where WW is in a supermarket buying various hardware items and sees somebody else buying various things which are clearly and obviously intended to make Crystal Meth with. WW goes over to him and in an entirely pleasant and helpful way points out that he is doing it wrong and should buy different items in different stores. The other person is understandably freaked out to have their purpose revealed as so publicly obvious and transparent and leaves the shop as quickly as possible.

At this point you can clearly see a cloud pass over WW’s face as if an internal switch has been thrown as he goes out in the parking spot and follows the man who is talking to his accomplice. WW walks up to them and says “Stay out of my territory.” At this crucial juncture there is something about the tone of WW’s voice and the look on his face that makes the other two men do exactly that. It is that look and that voice that is so spot on.

So, no, I don’t make drugs in my cellar and I don’t blow up drug dealers with homemade explosives (although it does look kind of fun) but I do absolutely recognise a certain sudden change of approach to people and situations which is portrayed in breaking bad and which in my experience is very real.

What I think, in summary, is this. My conscious mind dealt with being told I had cancer just fine; it rationalised it into consideration of survival rate, benefit/detriment analysis of treatment options and general concern for outward appearances. My body however was confronted for the first time with the reality of its imminent death.

Of course everyone dies[5] we know this as a general fact but mostly don’t think about it that much at least I don’t. What is of interest to me amongst all of this is the realisation that the sub-rational part of me, the ‘spinal intelligence’, is very concerned with its own survival and when that is threatened it steps outside the usual bounds set by the intellect and erupts at unpredictable and inopportune moments.

So in answer to the usual and tedious question of whether I ‘learned’ anything from my illness or gained any great insight into the world the answer is in fact yes[6]. My fancy intellect pretends not to care whether I live or die but my body knows better and since one can’t exist without the other we had better learn to get along.

 

[1] Every time I see my Oncologist he reminds me that the first time I saw him the tumour was sufficiently large to be pushing my head to one side to a very obvious degree, as in ‘You are such a dumbass not to notice you had a fist sized tumour in your neck when it was pushing your head to one side’. It seems to amuse him but he is a nice bloke so I humour him.

[2] Which I was not expecting at all.

[3] This is unfair. I would have done and he probably would have eaten it with no ill effects. He does however have appreciably lower standard than me.

[4] By profession I am a lawyer; for an insight into the kind of cases I first cut my teeth on read this http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gang-War-Inside-Story-Manchester/dp/1903854296

[5] Religious belief aside pretty much everyone as far as I can make out accepts that they are at some point going to die. The question of what if anything happens after that is a separate issue.

[6] The other thing I learned is that you only find out why you need hair when it all falls out but you probably don’t want to know about that.

 

James Moss

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One thought on “The Physical Experience of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or how having cancer made me really fucking angry for no obvious reason)

  1. Thank you for sharing these experiences and insights. Having recently accompanied a family member on their journey to death, I can absolutely see the moment when their ‘spinal intelligence’ kicked in.

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