Remember when Count Rugen said to Prince Humperdink at the entrance to the Pit of Despair: "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, you haven't anything," and then proceeded to suck some life out of Westley in the name of science? In my story, Prince Humperdink is Death, Tyrone Rugen is Colon Cancer, and I'm Westley. "I've just sucked one year of your life away," Rugen/Cancer says with clinical indifference. It really does feel like I was put on the Suction Machine and a whole year was extracted. I feel older, I look older, I move older, but I also think older.
Cancer fucking sucks. Please don't mistake what I'm about to say as happy fuzzy warm feelings toward this disease. But I am in many ways grateful for the changes it has brought to my life. We're often told to take care of our physical bodies and put our mental health first. And we have all heard this familiar bit of advice: "Learn to say no."
That's all great, of course. I really thought I had been doing those things already. In fact, the COVID lockdown had given me the opportunity to clean house, cut back on the things I didn't want to do, and focus on the things I did. But, I think like most people, I have never quite understood the "learn to say no" part of this.
That was until cancer came along and said in Count Rugen's fancy voice, "Let's try this again, shall we?"
We are so overloaded with responsibilities, it can be difficult to know where to start -- without us noticing the subtle changes, our lives become a cluttered mess much like our computer desktops. We think that saying no means turning down something we don't want to do or turning down new things as they come along because our schedule is too full.
For example, I teach private music lessons both at home and at school. I thought saying no meant saying no to teaching an extra lesson group of saxophones on Wednesdays or saying no to accepting a new student at home on a day I didn't want to teach. These things may have solved my immediate time crunch problems, but I was already in a situation where I was teaching more than I had initially set out to do. As a new college grad, I decided to take on private teaching believing it would be something "extra" that I would only need to do a couple of days a week to make my rent. But two decades later, I was teaching 3-4 days a week at multiple schools on top of 5 evenings of lessons at home. Before I knew it, because of the responsibility I felt toward to the students and their parents, I was turning down gigs -- my primary passion! "Saying no" to extra students promised to open up a little time for me to drive from afternoon lessons to evening rehearsals, but I was exhausted. All I was doing was rearranging the crap on my desktop into folders; I wasn't deleting anything.
Saying "no" would mean cleaning up that desktop for real. COVID allowed me to take a break from teaching during the lockdown. I quickly realized that I was missing the students and not the teaching. When I thought ahead to a future after the lockdown, I dreaded having to teach again. And now... it was time for the real "NO" my life had been waiting for: when this lockdown is over, I will only perform. I'm taking an extended break from teaching.
AH!! The feeling of being able to look forward to getting back to playing was electric. I couldn't wait to get back on stage! I was able to perform in no less than five concerts after the lockdown was loosened. And it felt great! Being at a rehearsal from 7-10pm without the exhaustion of a long day of teaching on top of that was exhilarating. I was infused with a new passion for my passion.
Of course, then cancer came along, forcing me into another involuntary lockdown -- Mega-Lockdown. I not only had more time to contemplate what I wanted to do with my life but I was forced to see that nothing I thought was important before is actually important. Waking up in the morning is not a guarantee for any of us. We don't think about it on a daily basis because why would we? Blissful ignorance keeps us all sane. If everyone was walking around terrified of dying at any moment, this would be a morose world indeed. But, then again, it might force everyone to take a hard look at their lives and ask, "is this really what I imagined for myself?"
My responsibilities had already been stripped down to the chassis but I still had a lot of work to do to actually put my life in order. When I awoke from surgery in December 2021 to the news that I had Stage-4C colon cancer, with a devastatingly short prognosis, what was I thinking about? I was thinking about my son, my husband, my friends and family, and my dogs. That's it. Period. No caveats attached, no contingencies, nothing. Once I was feeling better, and could think of things other than if I would survive through the night, I had to ask myself how I expected to achieve these very simple goals.
You guessed it: by saying NO!!
Every morning I am utterly unreachable. I am either hiking, running, or doing yoga between 9 am and noon. Everyone who knows me knows not to text or call during this window. But not everyone knows this. While I'm practicing yoga a call will come in, the ringtone interrupting the peaceful plinky-plunky music I'm listening to, startling me out of my meditation. I have a choice: I can either answer or ignore. Out on a run, my watch will begin vibrating -- a text. Answer or ignore? Ok, guys, these are softballs -- the answer is obviously to ignore.
But let's take this a step further. Saying no isn't just about ignoring those calls, it's about getting to the root of why they're happening in the first place. Is this something I need in my life at all? Is this problem, question, or responsibility supporting my prime directive? If the answer is "no" then this thing that has triggered the call has to go away. Or, at the very least, the person needs to be informed that I don't answer calls before noon.
I don't feel guilty telling anyone I do business with not to call me in the mornings (and I tell them why). Most of them say, "I wish I had your discipline." Yeah, well, we can all have this discipline by saying no more often. We don't have to be all things, do all things, or try to please all the people. We are allowed to have personal space and private time to focus on ourselves. In fact, it's necessary for our survival. Surround yourself with people who support your intention to do this. It's not difficult. Ok, maybe taking the initial plunge to say, "I'm going to focus on me," does take quite a bit of courage. You will get a lot of flak, and many people will fight you at first -- phone calls will not stop, and you will still be asked to do things you don't want to do. But after a while, people will get the hint, and leave you alone. Then you're free to control the contact and the workload.
Not everyone is in the position I'm in -- be thankful you do not have cancer breathing down your neck forcing you to clean up your life's desktop -- and maybe they don't have a job like I do that allows for some control. But that doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice or abandon what free time you do have the instant the phone rings.
Set aside time every day for yourself and protect it like your life depends on it. Because it does.
Read for 1 hour every afternoon. Walk the dog every day at 4 pm. Go for a run every day at 10 am. Lay on the patio and watch the clouds roll by every day at noon. But protect this block of time with all your might. Don't answer the phone (unless it's an emergency, of course), don't make phone calls, and don't do anything resembling work. Practice being alone and present. Learn to focus on yourself.
Eventually, someone will ask "Can we get together tomorrow at 11 am to discuss whatever" and you will very calmly and politely say, "I'm sorry, I'm busy from 11-12 every day. How about 2 pm instead?" Guess what? They'll respond like a normal person and work with you to find an equitable schedule. It's not magic. But now you've got your morning hour all to yourself and you were the one who protected it.
I protect my 9 am to noon time alone with fervor. Although, it is not uncommon for me to decide not to answer the phone at various points during the rest of the day, either. If I'm practicing my cello and the phone rings, I don't answer. If I'm having a conversation with my husband, I don't answer the phone. If my son and I are out someplace together, I don't answer texts. So, if you call me and I don't answer, it is nothing personal, I may just be deciding at that moment that whatever I'm doing is crucial to my sanity. I'll get back to you later. And you should try doing the same thing, too.