The ports I visit, the safe places I return to, come in three main forms: memories, dreams, and people.
I am not the first to find comfort in favorite memories and dreams of the future. They are both a form of escapism, and at first, I didn’t know if they represented healthy coping strategies. But they are common ones among Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and others who have made it through incredibly trying times.* So they’re good enough for me.
Replaying favorite memories is a way I’ve found to occupy my time and escape from my body when it is feeling miserable. I go through memories in as much detail as I can. I remember the day I met my husband, Ryan. What we said, what we did, what we ate, and what we were wearing. I remember the day of our wedding. I remember riding my favorite pony through the woods, the Halloween parties my mom loved to organize, and my nieces and nephews as they have grown up, from first being able to hold their heads up to their early quests for mobility and communication.
I pick out memories of comfort and love when I have been sick–and I don’t replay how sick or sad or scared I have felt. I have lived through those experiences once, and I know that they happened to me, but I let them go. This is a conscious effort to have a selective memory, and I recognize that I am deluding myself, at least a little. Then again, if my memories end up a little rose-colored, at least I’m not trapped in the dark ones. Those, I can learn from and move on.
My mother’s parents both lived through a suite of life-threatening illnesses, and I have lost count of how many times each of them went into the hospital and surprised everyone by coming back out. Watching them, and trying to figure out how they did it, I realized that their lives were full of love, and they were always looking forward to something–Christmas, the next family wedding, the birth of their next grandchild or great-grandchild. A ten-minute phone call from a family member made their day; a visit made their month, and they would talk about it for that long after. My grandparents made me believe that quality of life depends on your attitude more than your physical well-being, and that I could be relatively happy even when I was really sick. I try to emulate them by finding the next thing to look forward to, whether it is dinner with friends later in the week or a wedding next summer.
The past and future ports that I travel to exist now only in my mind, but they all involve people that I love. Fortunately, most of these people also live in my present and are there to help me when my imagination is not enough. The people that I knew would support me through anything have–my parents, my sister, and my husband. But I have found constant support from people that could have easily faded from my life by now, people who I used to be friends with, back in another lifetime, and people that I was only tangentially friends with. I wouldn’t have known how loved I am, and how many true friends I have, without having gotten so sick.
I like to think that I will someday be done with chemotherapy and routine visits to the hospital, and that even if I can’t see the end of the tunnel just yet, it’s just around this corner, or the next. And when I dream of that future, I bring my selective memories and all of the friends I didn’t know I have.
*The common thought processes, habits, and hope among those who survive extraordinary situations provide a model for the rest of us. For more information, check out the books Deep Survival and The Survival Personality.