5 Surprising Benefits Of Thinking You're About To Die
One afternoon in 2014, I found myself living out that scene from Breaking Bad where Walter goes to the doctor for something routine, then is blindsided by the news that he has cancer and will be dead soon. My doctors were throwing around heartening phrases like "palliative care" (that's when they can't do anything for you but try to make dying suck less). For all I knew, I might be mere weeks from hospice. It would turn out the situation wasn't that dire, but I spent months thinking otherwise. In that brief window of time spent staring down my mortality, I realized it has some strange upsides ...
Your Memories Suddenly Become Very Vivid
When you're facing death, you can become a weird kind of time traveler, getting unstuck in your own life like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. You'll be at the grocery store and get incredibly vivid memories, full of weird details, like the way the parking lot at your first job would stink when it rained, or that funny little harmonica noise your cat used to make when he'd snore. The past feels so tangible, so immediate. It's like you went to middle school this morning and high school in the afternoon, and maybe you were 30 at lunch. That was my experience, anyway.
I felt compelled to reach out to people I hadn't seen for years, including some I'd nearly forgotten about -- ex-friends who'd wronged me, people I never imagined I'd want to speak to again. Now that I was like Doctor Manhattan (without the superpowers, abs, or disconcerting blue dong) and could see my whole life at once, the times when ex-girlfriends cheated on me or some guy split town owing me money didn't really seem more significant than all the good times we'd shared.
When I talked to them again, it didn't feel as awkward as you'd expect, because we weren't straining to recreate anything or impress each other. What would be the point? Cancer strips away a lot of bullshit. Whatever the truth of your life is, it's right there in front of you, and there's no looking away. You're like one of the figures in that Body Worlds show, with your skin flayed off and all of your guts exposed, and there can be a strange, terrible beauty in that.
It Puts A Different Face On Depression
My depression had always come with a huge side order of guilt. There was this nasty little voice in my brain demanding to know how I could dare to be depressed about the lousy state of my love life or career when other people had it so much worse, which of course just compounded the depression. But when I got cancer, that finally shut that nasty little voice up ... and ultimately showed me how wrong it was.
I remember one rough day during my treatment. I was driving home in awful traffic and got stuck at an intersection. A barefoot old homeless guy was shuffling across the street in front of me, and I felt a wave of that familiar crushing guilt, making me slump behind my steering wheel. "God, how can I even complain when some poor guy like that has it so much worse?" But this was quickly followed with "I have terminal cancer! I absolutely have a right to complain!"
I mean, if you asked that guy whether he wanted to trade lives, it's not unlikely he would have said no. He didn't have a roof over his head, but at least he wasn't dying of freaking cancer. In that moment, I was stunned to realize I couldn't think of anybody who had it inarguably worse than I did. Would a guy rotting away in prison really want to trade lives with someone just months away from a painful death?
All of this may sound self-pitying, but the truth is that it was strangely freeing. Now that I was somebody others would look at and say "At least I'm not that guy," I realized that didn't really help them any, and it sure as hell didn't do me any good. Why had I ever thought that somebody else's pain was supposed to make me feel better, anyway? Misery isn't a competition, and nobody wins the gold in the Sadness Olympics. For the first time, my emotional state and actual situation aligned, and I got some perspective in the process.
You Can Play the Cancer Card To Get Stuff (And Get Out Of Stuff)
You know those news stories about scummy people who lie about having cancer so they can get attention, gifts, etc.? Well, when you've got cancer, you don't have to lie! When you ask people to do stuff, they'll often say yes, because nobody wants to disappoint the Cancer Guy. Sometimes you don't even have to ask.
Let's say you can't pay your rent. Maybe you're too sick to work, or maybe you were just never great at paying rent even in times of perfect health. Well, if your landlord finds out you have cancer, they may not only ease up a bit, but also feel guilty enough to bring you banana bread. (Another cancer perk: so much free banana bread.) You get the kind of slack that, in a perfect world, everyone would get all the time. And all it takes is the looming specter of death.
Sometimes your ol' buddy the Big C can get you out of jams too. Like, maybe you've got some social obligation and you don't wanna go. Just say you're not feeling well (and it won't be a lie), and not only will nobody think badly of you, but maybe they'll all spend the evening talking about how noble and brave you are.
Cancer also makes for a great mic drop. If you're losing an argument, you can always let out a world-weary sigh and say, "You know, I learned something when I got diagnosed with cancer ..." It doesn't really matter what you say after that, because the argument's over. OK, I don't think I've actually used this trick yet, but it's nice to know I've got it in my back pocket if somebody's kicking my ass in an argument about The Last Jedi.
Doctors Actually Pay Attention To You
Have you ever spent a really long night waiting on some sticky bench in the emergency room, going crazy from pain and wondering if you'll ever be seen? Well, that was basically my pre-cancer 20s.
Prior to my maybe-terminal diagnosis, I'd already had years of weird health problems, and I'd gotten used to feeling kind of ignored by doctors. They'd see me once, indifferently prescribe some antibiotics (which rarely worked), and tell me to come back in a few months. If they ever deigned to order an actual test, I'd have to wait forever for my insurance to approve it, and lord only knew when I'd finally see the results. Few things were ever definitively diagnosed, and even fewer were ever cured.
But then I got cancer and everything changed overnight. Tests were happening immediately, and sometimes the results were waiting for me when I got home. Doctors had always struck me as kind of aloof, chilly people (when they weren't outright assholes), but now they were actually trying to make a human connection with me and show they cared. Sometimes they were so nice that it almost felt kind of weird. Seriously, they did everything but sing the "Friend Like Me" number from Aladdin.
Also, complicated insurance stuff that might have taken months to resolve was now settled in a single phone call. Referrals and prescriptions came flying at me as if summoned by a magic wand. When I'd listen to medical folks discuss my case, there was often a very clear subtext: "This is cancer we're talking about, so let's cut all the usual bullshit and get this done pronto." It was scary and overwhelming, driving home just how dire my situation was, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't appreciate being lavished with all that extra attention.
It felt kind of like flying first class for the first time after years of flying coach. You're dazzled by how nice and shiny everything is, but (again) wonder why things can't be more like this for everybody all the time.
You Regret All Of The Time You've Wasted
I know this sounds like the worst Hallmark TV movie cliche, but yeah, this happens. When I thought I was terminal, I had to face all my deathbed regrets a few decades ahead of schedule. I learned stuff about my life it probably would have taken years of therapy to figure out otherwise because, well, I was out of time. It was just, boom, this matters, boom, this doesn't.
Maybe some people want to spend their final days traveling the globe, banging squads of hookers and all of that "blaze of glory" stuff, but I didn't see the point in making new memories when I wasn't going to be around to remember them. I only cared about the life I'd already lived, and I felt like I hadn't spent enough of it living. I grieved for all the time I'd wasted, all of the AV Club interviews I'd read with people who starred in shows I'd never even watched, all the hours I'd spent arguing about Star Wars on message boards. Things I didn't even really enjoy.
I'd overhear my co-workers obsessing over which reality stars were dating, and I wanted to shake them and scream, "Jesus, you're not going to live forever!" Bumper stickers like to remind you that life's too short, but now it was as if the phrase was written across the sky in letters of fire.
And when I discovered my true priorities, they kind of surprised me. I'd spent my adult life neglecting my extended family and working a lot of unfulfilling day jobs while I put my artistic ambitions on hold. All of that had nagged at me before, but the realization that I was now never going to have a chance to do those things made those previous choices seem like madness.
That feeling of urgency gradually faded once I was cancer-free (living life to the fullest is exhausting), but do try to remember that there are good and bad ways to "waste" time, and every minute spent doing anything is a minute you'll never get back.
All that being said, cancer really does suck, and none of this compensates for the terror and maybe-dying. If I were writing a Yelp review, I wouldn't even give cancer an extra star to be polite. Lowest rating, would not recommend. So the goal, I suppose, would be to try to get this kind of perspective while skipping the whole cancer thing altogether.
For more, check out 4 Awkward True Stories About Dealing With Death - Show And Tell:
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