My dad passed away after a 3-year-long battle against metastatic colon cancer. The disease eventually claimed him both in body and spirit, as I watched my father spend his last few days struggling physically against the pain and mentally against anxiety and depression.
My dad’s anxiety was more prominent at night when he was alone, because he was terrified at the idea of not being able to see daylight again. Although he could not express those feelings, I knew that he was experiencing intense anguish at night which in turn caused insomnia. I also knew that he had a few panic attacks at night and that he kept himself from falling asleep until the sun rose again.
To my dad, cancer was tangible. It had distinct symptoms which could be potentially treated with medication, albeit up to a certain point. His underlying anxiety, however, was invisible and thus terrifying. He did not know how anxiety was expressed and therefore he thought that his symptoms were a sign of his decaying mental capacity.
Leaving my dad alone at night in that hospital was the hardest thing to do, but it was also the best gift we could give him, because he needed to face his demons and regain his mental strength. Dying is less painful on a person who is at peace than on one who is terrified.
Furthermore, my dad was not the only one who had been struggling against cancer for three years, as our family had to battle the disease by proxy. We had to face deep despair during his bad days and intense anguish during his good days, because cancer is a rollercoaster of good and bad days without plateau. We just had eerie days, because none of them were meaningful; the good days did not imply that his cancer was receding, and the bad days did not forewarn of impending death.
Anxiety is often a faithful companion to the family members of someone battling cancer. In my case, it was a silent and reliable companion; reliable because it was always present and, silent because I did not even know it was there. I was too busy trying to keep my dad’s spirit uplifted to worry about mine dropping, and I was too obsessed with finding out new and promising treatment options to realize that my brain was no longer performing at its best.
Anxiety was engulfing my spirit as I lost sleep, ate a poor diet, and had anger outbursts. I felt so much anger that I could not control it; it would come in sudden bursts over seemingly insignificant things, but once the outburst had passed tears flowed from my eyes. I was really angry at my dad for not taking better care of himself and at his cancer for just being there. Sadly, neither my dad nor his cancer could give validation to my fury, and therefore being angry at them was pointless. So, all I could do was repress my bundle of wrath deep within myself hoping it would fade away, only to see it expressed as a mix of irritability and depression.
My relationship with food was also tainted with anxiety. Appetite was poor, but craving for certain foods was high. I particularly noticed being drawn to bland foods lacking nutrients like plain pasta or French fries, while at the same time craving chocolate and other sweets. In hindsight, I think that my diet was a reflection of the duality between the two dominant emotions governing my spirit at that time, depression and anxiety; one was bland and lackluster, while the other one was stirring and flitting, respectively.
When my dad passed on, I was shocked but not surprised. I did not fall apart as I had often imagined, and while anxiety had not taken over, sadness has been continuously pouring out of me, even months later. I don’t know how long this grieving will take, or if anything will change in me, but all I can do is take it one day at a time.
I love you dad and I miss you.