Fight or flight, basic survival instinct. When faced with a life-or-death situation,do we run, or do we turn and fight?
For the most part, I’ve always had more of a flight response. Conflict avoidance, removing myself from uncomfortable situations, avoiding the bullies in the hall kind of thing.
When a very dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, she sent out a text saying “Today is my first step in becoming a breast cancer survivor”. And with inordinate strength, grace and dignity, she became a breast cancer survivor.
“Death”, she told me later, “was not an option.”
I wondered at the time if I would ever have that fortitude, if I could ever stand up to something like that. I believe that mental health plays a big role in physical illness, and how we get through challenges. I’m not saying you can “will” yourself better, anymore than you brought it on yourself with bad thoughts, but that some brains are wired for survival with a particular strength of character.
My own brain, I’ve always thought, is not wired that way. I’ve tended to carry a defeatist, glass-half-empty, malcontented mindset. And so I thought that should I ever get cancer (because to my mind at the time, that was the worst thing that could happen) I would likely be one of the ones who just curled up in the corner and waited to go; like if the cancer had an 90% survival rate, I’d be guaranteed to be one of the 10% that wouldn’t make it.
And now here I am, in the ultimate fight/flight situation. Except, there’s no flight option. I’m backed into a corner, and the only choice is fight. I recently read an article quoting a doctor who was opposed to physician assisted suicide. This doctor was haunted by a patient to whom he’d given an ALS diagnosis. The patient immediately flew to Switzerland, and ended his life. The doctor felt that because the patient was in the early stages of ALS, and still likely had several years ahead of him, that he acted prematurely.
Well, let me tell you something—I can see where that patient was coming from. The mental torment of an ALS diagnosis is excruciating, the worst pain that I’ve ever experienced. I have questioned daily how much more I can stand and how much I can put my family through, and will continue to do so as I progress.
A couple of weeks ago, at the month-in mark, I thought I was getting a handle on it. I was seeing more ups than downs, having good times, and able to laugh. I was finding an inner core of strength I didn’t think I had.
Then the ALS society sent over some equipment that I might need, which at the time of assessment, was “for the future”. And the future is now. All of it, I now need either casually or regularly, and unlike a situation where I’m using it until I get better or stronger, I’m using it until it’s not enough and I have to trade up.
The grieving process starts anew, at things I’ve lost, and this will continue until all is lost.
So I’m back into flight mode—but again, nowhere to run, except death. And the thing is, that’s where the disease is taking me, so it’s not the same as running, just taking control of how fast I get there. Just like getting an earlier plane than the one I’m scheduled for (except nobody gave me the flight number, so I’m not sure when it is, just the plane is on the runway). Don’t be alarmed, I’m not in crises–I’ve thought about it, but right now have much to live for and living still to do.
And with no flight, that leaves fight. I can’t say I’m not well-armed for a fight, not at first glance. Support abounds, be it medical or moral. I’ve written of the amazing support the local ALS society provides, and my family and friends, and my husband for whom I live. I’m as well equipped as anyone could hope to be. This is not a disease where having a gazillion dollars helps, because there is nothing, no obscure cure, no Big Pharma holding a vaccine hostage for the privileged few, nothing.
There’s only the tiny percent of people who do beat the disease, and although some have claimed reasons for their success (faith, hyperbaric chambers, energy healers) nobody really knows why these outliers succeed, and so there’s not even a plan of attack to adopt and adapt.
I gird for battle in control of only one thing: my mindset. Is it strong enough? Do I really believe I can affect my outcome, or even quality of life, based on the way I think? Can I rewire my brain circuitry? There are days I think I can, that I can beat the odds and will try anything to do just that. Other days, I think I won’t make it til Christmas.
I sail into this battle knowing that no matter how well-armed my armada, no matter how many support ships and sailors, there will be only one direct casualty. And when that happens may well depend how long I can mentally engage the enemy before hoisting the white flag.