After my cancer diagnosis as a teenager, I became a control freak. My once sloppy room was always neat, and I began to obsessively count calories. (I lost 20 pounds the first month of treatment and was determined to keep the weight off.) One year later, after working hard to get all A’s my first semester of high school, I decided I needed to get through the next 3 ½ years with a 4.0 grade point average.
By my sophomore year, I was constantly stressed – trying to keep my grades up, my weight down and my room spotless (not to mention undergoing chemotherapy at the same time). But I didn’t understand why I was heaping all this pressure on myself. A concerned guidance counselor pointed it out. She thought I was trying to control whatever I could in my life because I couldn’t control my cancer.
Her words made sense, but it wasn’t until I finished chemotherapy (spring of my Junior year) that I started to let myself relax a little. During my three years of treatment, I had felt like there was a tightly wound cord inside of me. Whenever I got upset, an imaginary person cranked the cord tighter and tighter until I could barely breathe. When treatment ended, the cord unwound just enough to let me take a deep breath and begin letting go of my need for control.
I graduated from high school and went to college, which I got through with my sanity mostly intact. After college I moved to New York City for my first job. It was there that stress crept back into my life – not surprising in a city where Type A personalities thrive. I loved the energy of the city, but it was a place that required constant alertness. Being on my own and supporting myself for the first time also added to my stress. To deal with the growing pressures I was feeling, I did what many anxiety-challenged New Yorkers do, I went to a psychiatrist.
Trekking across town via subway, then bus, to get to my weekly sessions was a little daunting, but seeing a psychiatrist was the best thing I could have done for myself. It helped me deal with my immediate stress, and – over the course of two years – uncovered feelings and fears about my disease that I’d never acknowledged, let alone talked about with anyone. I was finally confronting my cancer head-on and understanding the impact it had (and was still having) on me. Allowing myself to do this – especially with the help of a professionally trained specialist like my psychiatrist – was the first big step in regaining a healthier relationship with control as well as other aspects of my life.