This is a story of friendship. Everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer, has beat cancer or who has died from it. Along with cancer, everyone knows someone who has been labeled with a mental illness, is currently undergoing treatment for a mental illness, has beat a mental illness or who has died from it. I have experienced both – a mental illness diagnosis (1987) and cancer (1998 – malignant melanoma (stage 2)). Today, I wanted to write about two dear friends that have been instrumental in the recovery of my mental well-being and health – Jessica and Lisa.
Jessica and Lisa have been friends since Grade 3. I met both of them in 1986 at UBC – Jessica and I were in the same undergraduate program and Lisa and I were teammates on the UBC Track Team. Unbeknownst to me, they were good friends. It was such a special day when we all realized that we were connected. I have held both of these friendships close to my heart for the past 28 years and I’d like to share with you why. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of dear friends – some say, “friends are the family you choose”.
In 1987, while I was studying at UBC, it was a trying time for me as I was lost in many ways:
– I was secretive about my bulimia tendencies
– I hadn’t dealt with my parents divorce while I was in high school
– I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, who I was, what was the point of being on the planet, of being HERE, and
– I was the classic overachiever – Honour roll student (even had the highest mark in my first year UBC Calculus class), Scholarship student (both athletic and academic), Varsity Track and Cross Country Team member, and it wasn’t enough to be just an athlete, I was also the Team Manager on top of working part-time while at school.
Phew, it exhausts me to think about those days!
When I started university, I set out to become a lawyer. This was because in Grade 10 I was interested in becoming a police officer, but it was extremely important to my parents that I go to university. We discussed why I was interested in this career and it was decided that I would go to UBC and become a lawyer. I remember asking my Dad what I should take for my undergraduate degree and he suggested Commerce. At that time, you had to do 1 year of specific undergraduate courses before you could enter the Faculty of Commerce – and it was very competitive to get into the program. They also offered a Commerce-Law option and I set my sights on this in the fall of 1985. It was a steep learning curve to jump from the secure fish bowl environment of high school into the shark pit of university. When I began my 2nd year of Commerce I was feeling overwhelmed, indecisive and unsure about Law school, but I didn’t know what else to do or what other major to choose.
I remember standing outside the Commerce building in the pouring rain without an umbrella, for what seemed like several hours because I didn’t know what step to take. My Commerce friends noticed that something was “off” with me. Some expressed their concern by sending cards and letters (this was pre-cell phone & texting days!) and others just continued on without blinking an eye. I don’t blame them, as this was what business school taught us: that money is the epitome of success and how to run a business and grow an empire – not care about humanity. But two people that made a permanent imprint on my heart that I will never forget were Jessica and Lisa – each in their own individual way. At this time, Lisa wrote me a letter –
“Dear Christabelle: Please don’t be sad. You are the most wonderful person: you’ve got so much going for you – you’re incredibly intelligent, athletic, attractive, sensitive and you have a great sense of humour which I miss. What more could you want? From what I see, you’ve got yourself in a dilemma where you think that every decision you make is going to influence the rest of your life, therefore, it is vital that you make the right one. But, it really doesn’t matter if you realize that this is only one small stage in your life. Enjoy it! Live each day one at a time – spontaneity is fun! Make the most of what you’ve got today – the future will always work out – especially for someone with the qualities you have. There is a huge world out there – try to imagine you are looking down on it from space – and you will see that you are a small part of the interconnected whole. Think of yourself as part of this great world and let your problems go. Someday you will look back on this time in your life, no matter how much pain you are in now, and laugh. Watching you reminds me of a poem called “Comes the Dawn” –
Comes the Dawn
After awhile you learn the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning and company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts and presents aren’t promises
And you begin to accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
And you learn to build all your roads on today, because
Tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans and futures
Have a way of falling down in midflight
After awhile you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers
And you learn that love really can endure…
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn
After sending me the letter, she made an appointment at UBC Student Health Services to talk to an advisor because she was so concerned about me. She wanted to know what more she could do to help, as she knew my state was serious. I had stopped going to our track practices and was barely functioning. She was advised to make an appointment for me. I remember Lisa calling my Mom (who was obviously wrought with concern over the changes in me) and asking her if she thought she could get me to the appointment. I had sunk very deep and my mom had to get me out of bed, dress me, and brush my teeth and hair etc if I was to get anywhere. Lisa was also terrified that I would either be upset with her or wouldn’t go. I went. And it was the slow start to the unraveling of my mental anguish and the beginning of my road to recovery. It was at this time, that I was diagnosed with major depression, anxiety and bulimia1 and prescribed Imipramine – a tricyclic anti-depressant. Looking back, I might refer to what happened as an “existential” crisis or “adrenal fatigue”– but I had never heard of either of those words in 1987, let alone depression and anxiety! Until this point in my life, I had only learned of depression in the economic sense of the word, not the medical sense.
Jessica made an impact on me because during those stressful, paralyzing, depressing dark days when I was contemplating suicide – she would ask me if I wanted to go for a walk. She introduced me to places on campus that I had not taken the time to explore because I was so focused on achieving – places of beauty and art – like the UBC Japanese Gardens. These gardens are an amazing oasis amongst the hustle and bustle & trials and tribulations of student life. At that time, in the depth of my despair, I didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of the gardens. What I did appreciate though was the friendship, the connection, and the fact that someone cared enough and took time out of their hectic schedule to be with me even though I couldn’t form a sentence to talk or even muster up the strength to walk there on my own. Jessica became my strength by taking my hand and leading me to peace. She allowed me to just be. I didn’t need to talk, sound smart or impress her. She accepted me. Perhaps she recognized what I was going through and could see that I was depressed when I didn’t know what was going on with me. She just sat with me in silence and showed me she cared by taking the time to be still with me. If it wasn’t for friends like Jessica & Lisa (and there are many others who know who they are) who knows if I would still be here. I even remember Jessica’s mom buying me a copy of “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan. I was so touched that her mom would do that for me and I still have that book on my bookshelf.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013 when I was talking to Jessica and she let me know that the she had “terminal cancer”. Jessica has been living with cancer since 20072 and the previous years have been very trying for her. Since she lives in the UK, I don’t get to see her very often – the last time was in 2010 when we were both in Vancouver at the same time. Here is a picture of Lisa, Jessica and I, was well as two other friends at Ambleside beach
Throughout her cancer journey I have sent her books, love, emails, cards and we’ve had phone and Skype calls. She is constantly in my prayers. I recently sent her a book called “Dying To Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing by Anita Moorjani” – in an attempt to disprove the 1 year prognosis she has been given. I firmly believe in the power of psychoneuroimmunology – which is the relationship between our thoughts & emotions and our immune system.
Since her cancer had metastasized to her brain, she is no longer able to fly and I felt that it was important to go and visit her for moral support. The soonest I could arrange to be there was the end of November and I was grateful to be joined by Lisa, as well as two other dear university friends, Deanna and Kerry. You will see the love in the video that Jessica made of our trip.
No one knows how long they have on the planet – life is fragile, precious, a gift and can be gone with a blink of an eye. Pema Chodron wrote: “A cancer diagnosis. Loss of livelihood, wealth, power. The unexpected end of a relationship. A broken promise, a shattered dream. Sometimes impermanence smacks us in the face without much warning. It was always there, of course, lurking in the background, we’ve just been distracted, or fallen into illusions of permanence, or turned our backs in horror. Impermanence comes, sometimes out of the blue, to remind us of what is essential and true, to shatter our spiritual laziness and remind us of the true path.
A keen awareness of the impermanence of things can protect us from the pain of self-righteousness, arrogance, ignorance, greed – and ultimately, fear itself.
Friend, find that which is permanent in the midst of the ever changing. Find your own presence in the constantly shifting appearances of life. Find your true home in the midst of uncertainty. Be what you are, the unchanging principle – That which has never changed as everything else has changed. Know your own beingness, your original sense of belonging, soft and intimate and warm, always here, never missing. You just got distracted, that’s all, became lost in the shiny things, in those intoxicating dreams of past and future, mesmerized by appearances on your way towards future glories promised by undoubtedly well-meaning friends.
And then, a cancer diagnosis. Loss of livelihood, wealth, power. The unexpected end of a relationship. A broken promise, a shattered dream. These are not mistakes or punishments but sudden reminders of the sheer Power of the Uncontrollable, the immense Intelligence moving all things, an Intelligence beyond comprehension.
Another call to humility and softness. And kindness. And an invitation to remember: in the midst of cancer, loss, devastation, failure, what cannot be lost? What cannot fail? Love is still here. The ability to connect deeply. To listen. To see. To feel. To laugh at seriousness. To be serious about laughter. To remember our own Presence, the Presence of life, here and now. And the gift of the small things. A sip of water. The sound of the rain. The breath moving through the nostrils. A visit from a loved one. An unspoken kindness. The beauty of questions unanswered.
The essential things cannot be taken away. Everything non-essential will crumble in time. Perspective is everything. The moment is a beginning.
This is not a path you will find in books. This is a path of courage and birdsong, of waking in the morning with a tender heart and knowing that everything is somehow profoundly okay in a way you cannot hope to understand.”
I know it is not easy to understand cancer or mental illness, and you can get trapped in asking “why? Why? WHY? Why ME?” But all we have is this moment. This Breath. Now. I am so grateful for those few days with my friends in November. I will cherish those memories and our Friendship forever. I wanted to write this for Jessica as a tribute to her while she continues to be with us. Lastly, this poem is how I feel about my close friends, like Lisa and Jessica. I hope you take the time today to call, think of or write someone you call a friend all in the name of Love.
What is a Friend? I will tell you. It is a person with whom you dare to be yourself. Your soul can be naked with him. He seems to ask of you to put on nothing, only to be what you are. He does not want you to be better or worse. When you are with him, you feel as a prisoner feels who has been declared innocent. You do not have to be on your guard. You can say what you think, so long as it is genuinely you. He understands those contradictions in your nature that lead others to misjudge you. With him you breathe freely. You can avow your little vanities and envies and hates and vicious sparks, your meannesses and absurdities and, in opening them up to him, they are lost, dissolved on the white ocean of his loyalty. He understands. You do not have to be careful. You can abuse him, neglect him, tolerate him. Best of all, you can keep still with him. It makes no matter. He likes you – he is like fire that purges to the bone. He understands. He understands. You can weep with him, sing with him, laugh with him, pray with him. Through it all – and underneath – he sees, knows and loves you. A friend? What is a friend? Just one, I repeat, with whom you dare to be yourself.
– C. Raymond Beran
Update: I am sad to report that Jessica Ma passed away peacefully on December 7, 2014. May she rest in peace. I miss you Jessica!
1. For more information on my recovery from an eating disorder please visit:
2. For more on Jessica read: http://jessicama.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/changes-changes/