It’s been six months since I finished chemo, and a year since I got out of the hospital post-surgery. I’m doing very well physically: walking, doing yoga, no longer exhausted all the time. I had two fairly demanding vacations back-to-back, Viable Paradise and World Fantasy, and enjoyed them both, and worked and played hard. I have long-term and possibly permanent consequences from some of the treatments, but overall, not too bad.
As my endurance and abilities recover, though, the mental side effects become ever more frustrating. I should be better, dammit! I was looking at my to-read pile, and bemoaning the little writing I’m getting done, and the trouble I’m having doing science… and all the time I’ve spent in the last year doing online jigsaw puzzles rather than anything more fulfilling.
And then I figured it out: whether from stress or chemo brain, or most likely a combination of the two, I’ve spent my time doing things that don’t require a through-line. The number of long novels I’ve put down rather than keep track of complex plots. The time at work spent processing GIS data, which is useful but not mentally demanding. The not-writing. The jigsaw puzzles, which don’t require keeping track of things. I’m not doing things that need sustained attention or complex memory.
I’m using notebooks and online calendars to manage most of the daily business of life and work, and that’s been largely effective. I forget what I got up for, or fumble for words, or can’t spell them when I know what they are, but those are slowly improving. But the sustained attention/through-line capability hasn’t been improving as quickly as the physical capability has, and it’s much harder to compensate for.
That capability is incredibly important to my understanding of who I am. I’m the person who reads a lot of books, does insightful science, engages with the world in complex and extended ways. That’s not what I’m doing right now, and it is deeply frustrating. It terrifies me that those abilities may not entirely come back, though I imagine I will develop further coping skills.
I have a really hard time distinguishing between being patient with myself and being lazy, or not pushing myself hard enough. That line has never been clear to me, and even less so now. Productivity is also an essential component of my self-image, and I’ve become someone who starts a million things but doesn’t finish any of them. My idea-generating ability came back pretty quickly (and losing that was incredibly traumatic, especially the first time; less so the second time I started chemo because I knew it would come back), but my ability to follow through on those ideas is just not there.
I want to write this novel, and read a bunch of complex, delightful books, and get a bunch of science done, and make beautiful things. Instead I’m spending a lot of time on twitter and doing those bloody jigsaw puzzles. I don’t know what the solution is, and fear there may not be one. Better and more thorough note-taking, to make up for the things my brain can’t do? Breaking things into ever-smaller chunks? Cutting back, and thinning my schedule so I can use what focus I do have on the most important things? Or is my focus rejuvenated by switching to a different project? I need to try a bunch more things and see.
And then there’s the fear of everyone who’s been treated for cancer: am I even going to live long enough for any of this to matter? Or am I just going to leave a bunch of unfinished projects? I’m healthy right now, and want to make the most of that, but the fear is always there.