On Cancer Relapses and Dealing With Depression

When I experienced an alcohol and cancer relapse, I fell into a depression. Thankfully, clinicians, loved ones and medicine helped.

I realize joy and health are intertwined. However, having experienced clinical depression and wanting to expire during a rough period of my life, I came to believe that peace and joy trump everything. Ideally, I would live a long, healthy and happy life.

Dealing with cancer or depression is intensely challenging. Having both at the same time requires multiple exigent professional interventions. Or a divine intervention. I got both.

The onset of a ghastly depression was on the other side of my first treatment for leukemia. Something happened to my brain.

I thought I was crazy. My cancer was so-called “cured.” I made great money (from my perspective), I had a lovely brand-new home, my dog was precious, and my family and friends loved me. Yet, this ugliness seeped cruelly into the fabric of my being. It was nasty.

“Now I know what they are talking about!” I said out loud about depression.” It is a real thing, and it is horrid.”

I experienced a level of depression when I was an active alcoholic and during my early time in rehab treatment. I also had a level of depression when I got divorced, and when I was first diagnosed with cancer. All those experiences were different. The withdrawal from alcohol was physically and mentally diabolical, but I was eventually comforted through fellowship. With the divorce, I had bouts of misery that held hands with a fiery passion. With the first cancer diagnosis, I teeter-tottered between frustration and spiritedness.

After recovering I experienced a period of joy.Then, a new depression crept in that was constant and satanic.

Without going into details, a few specific factors contributed to my depression. My dog was suffering from old age. My idea of a good work culture was at odds with my employer. I was recruited and took a position at a new company but was just as miserable.I worked from home and had almost no human contact. The worst part was, I did not long for human contact.

And then my dog, Payton, passed away. Losing Payton pushed me over the edge.

When I returned home from a business trip, I became upset when the plane landed safely.

I wouldn’t be flying again for a while: I was let go from my new job for being “enigmatic.”

I felt sapped of any hope. I tested many remedies to no avail. I even tried that brain-zapping transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy with no positive results. A mysterious shift in brain chemistry coupled with insecurities predestined professional help.

But I didn’t get help. Not right away. Instead, after 19 years and nine months of sobriety, I picked up vanilla extract and took a swig. (It was on hand.) In no time, I had an array of liquor options to see which one I could keep down. (None.) I sipped for hours while staring at the TV. (It was not turned on.)

In seven months, I was a wreck.

My brother and his wife got me into a treatment, bless their souls. Godsends, those two. I once had joy in sobriety and was eager to experience and cherish that again.

After three months of intensive addiction treatment, and many more months of continued therapy, I started to see the light. I made gratitude lists, went walking, used a meditation app, journaled, created artworksand talked. I also took effective medicines.

My rehab care team recommended that I stay in a sober living house. I went to a small, moldy home where two other recovering addicts and cockroaches resided. I never ate there. I went to a lot of AA meetings while I tried to find a job. Optimism returned.

My recovery care team also helped me schedule doctor appointments that I missed during my relapse. I saw my primary care doctor, had a mammogram, completed OB-GYN tests, visited the dentistand scheduled an appointment with Moffitt Cancer Center for a routine checkup. I was starting anew.

Masked to contain the cold I had for over a month that would not go away, I sat opposite Dr. Sallman at Moffitt Cancer Center. He delivered the results of my complete blood count test. After a pause, he sadly informed me that, after a three-year remission, my acute myeloid leukemia was back. The next day, a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. This time, I would need a bone marrow transplant.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Immunosuppression meant no visitors. The bone marrow transplant ward would be locked.

WHAM.

But here is the kicker: Treatment for mental health worked. I was not depressed.

Miraculously, having no job turned out to be a blessing. I felt free. I had COBRA insurance and other resources that would help me financially. Rehab strengthened my coping skills; I had psychological and emotional dexterities in my toolbox. I maintained my mental health with prescriptions that worked. I had the 12 Steps of AA to apply to this struggle. I had a phone and Zoom for community connections. I had an angelic support team.

Here comes the cliché: God works in mysterious ways.

To anyone with depression, with or without cancer, you are not alone. One of the infinite ways that God can help is through psychiatrists and psychologists, tried-and-true self-care, and yes – medicine.

I was so finished with relapsing.

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