A Case of the Missing Identity

I woke up the other morning feeling happy. That’s not to say I didn’t wake up several times in the night feeling anxious, scared or sad, but nevertheless when I woke again late morning, the first emotion I felt, without any deep and meaningful analysis, was purely happy.

It wasn’t sunny and I’d nowhere to go, except a lazily planned picnic, weather permitting, later on. I enjoyed toast and coffee in bed, before I took my seventh pill of the day (it’s a rigid timetable, after chemotherapy, of 16 anti-chemo-side-effect drugs per day for three days, starting at 7am finishing at 10pm, some with food, others without), but this cycle, the side effects are non-existent, which is a vast improvement on the last cycle.

Truth be known, this blog has seen several incarnations and has taken weeks to complete, not least because I’ve had to move house twice, and have been severely distracted by many things. It started as a blog about constipation, the focus of my existence following the last cycle of chemo, but it was deemed a little too graphic and one-tracked, so I returned to the drawing board, not wanting to offend, despite it being such an overwhelming part of my life for a few weeks.

However, after this most recent chemo cycle and with my philosophy of taking each day as it comes, what I originally wrote is now no longer relevant. I’m grateful for the fact that England has finally, finally grasped the concept of summer. Heat, sun, tweeting birds, in the pre-social networking sense of the word; all have contributed to making me feel very happy. That cornucopia of summer couture I brought with me from the Middle East is finally getting an airing. I can be outside and feel warm. Even those wigs, which feel like a big furry squirrel wrapped round my head, well, I’m embracing them with a positive frame of mind. Anything that makes me look halfway normal has got to be good. Especially the Uma wig which is now my favourite; it swishes, it’s straight and it’s shorter than the other two, which makes it marginally cooler than a thermal wrap as the mercury rises.

The other week, and this slightly (just slightly) amused me, I became homeless, albeit briefly, as well as bald. The Parents needed their rooms back, my own home is filled with tenants, and the rental place I’d found was not immediately available. Fortunately, friends came to the rescue, and in the space of four days I packed 10 cases twice and moved to two different locations.

It’s all very grounding really. To think, and I’ll only torment myself for 32 words, five months ago I was completing a guidebook about the cultural identity of Dubai commissioned by Dubai Culture Authority for Brownbook Magazine, and was the editor of a guidebook called Destination Dubai.  A month later I’m immersed in the world of CT, Bone and MRI scans, and am looking at images of boob jobs on an iPad in a chichi Dubai plastic surgeon’s office.

Many things are undignified about having cancer, but an early appointment with a breast surgeon in Dubai, to discuss my treatment plan, particularly springs to mind. Bad enough that she didn’t know which breast was the cancerous one, or that she told me that I was making her nervous, but it was the way she searched her non-existent notes in an I-don’t-know-why this patient-is-in-my-office-and-I-don’t-seem-to-have-been concentrating-in-the-multi-disciplinary-meeting panic that was the icing on the cake.  She glanced down at the useless piece of paper in her hand, on which I could see two words scrawled diagonally across the bottom corner, and blurted out with the grace of a bored cashier: ‘double mastectomy’.

‘Has my makeup run?’ I asked my husband after we left her office. It seemed the only important thing to ask. ‘You might want to go to the bathroom,’ he answered awkwardly. Mirror, mirror on the wall… My black eye makeup was smeared down my entire face. ‘Could you not have told me?’ I snapped, utterly humiliated to have been in such a vulnerable position, looking so ridiculous. Returning to the UK for my treatment suddenly seemed a most appealing option.

So I find myself embracing repatriation whilst undergoing cancer treatment. Two firsts. This is not an ideal way to return home. For a start I wasn’t ready. Becoming an expat seven years ago was a great adventure. I loved many things about life abroad: the heat; the desert; the light; the smells; the chance to learn a new language and to try new cuisines; for a trip to Thailand to feel like a hop across the Channel; no Sunday night feeling; the opportunity to develop a new career and the privilege of meeting utterly fascinating people. I miss it everyday.

However, for now, I am home again and whilst the circumstances are beyond my control, I am not (at this moment) too sad. It occurs to me that much has changed yet so much remains the same. I thought, when I first moved to Dubai that it was a real melting pot of cultures, but I was wrong. London is. Dubai is a multi-cultural society. Which is different. In London, cultures integrate and immigrants become ‘English’. In Dubai, immigrants never become Emirati. Whilst they may have been born in the UAE, they can never become nationals of the country. All cultures live alongside each other, separately. This was something I learnt when writing the guidebook; interviewees were very frank about how unsettling it was to have no cultural identity.

But that was work and cancer is now. My health, overnight, became my unasked-for obsession, which is ridiculous because I. Wasn’t. Ill. And, I didn’t feel ill. Well, not until I started the chemotherapy, or the drugs to stop me feeling ill from the side effects of the chemotherapy. And I don’t look ill, apart from the chemo-coiffure. This thing about appearance – well, it’s important even if it demonstrates a certain shallow vanity on my part. I didn’t want to conduct a doctor’s appointment looking like an extra member of the seventies rock band Kiss, and this fourth cycle of chemo has seen the gradual loss of my cheekbones. Thank you steroids. Plumper cheeks may well be very rejuvenating and it’s costing me less than a course of Botox, but I don’t want them. What with the cancer and the baldness, the constipation and the mood swings, strangely, my freshly youthful face is not filling me with as much joy or gratitude as it should.

But it does bring me neatly back to the original theme of this blog in which I’d planned to gloat about how clever I was because I’d formulated a plan to beat the dreaded constipation, brought on by one of the anti-sickness drugs. Omitting all offensive detail, suffice it to say, I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was.  My tactics failed hopelessly. Nothing I did prevented the inevitable, not even that retch-inducing panacea, prune juice.

So, whilst most days, bewigged, with drag queen quantities of makeup caked on, I can do a fair impression of a normal person, if I’m honest, the bloating and congestion did render that chemo cycle a little bit arduous. Blame it on the mirrors, but getting up in the morning and catching sight of myself bald and blotchy, a touch nauseous, a tad down, a bit homeless, a lot jobless, well all I can say is that those expats I interviewed in Dubai who feel like they don’t belong, who are having an identity crisis – seriously?  They have no idea!

And then there was the day, before I left the parental home, as I ambled through the infamous park (baby ducks disappearing as fast as my identity), I whined indignantly – ‘This is bloody ridiculous; I used to be a well person’. Then I took a lovely photo and my phone froze. I carried on walking as I tried to unfreeze it. But we’re told not to play with our phones and walk at the same time for a reason. And I found out the hard way.  A bit of uneven ground presented itself to my unsuspecting foot and I tripped, blocked arse over lumpy tit. My hands were grazed; my self-respect was shot to pieces. In a previous life I may have dusted myself down and laughed it off red-faced – ‘Oh, silly me, walking and playing with my phone, how foolish am I, that’ll teach me’. Instead, I sobbed like a five year old and had to be led home by my girls who washed my hands, covered them in antiseptic and put on the plasters. That the phone unfroze on impact with the ground, was insufficient consolation. This was just the final straw after an undignified, uncomfortable few weeks.

But what a difference a day or three makes. With the fourth cycle of chemo, I’m living in a different place with all my family back together again, and with a little more forethought and tweaked tactics have beaten the constipation. Vanity still reigns supreme and I’m not loving the steroid-induced six-month-pregnant stomach bulge I seem to have developed. If it goes on growing I’ll be ready to give birth by the end of the chemo-run. Maybe the surgeon will throw in a liposuction job when she’s working on the boobs, and a hair transplant for good measure.

In a good way, the steroids are making me a little bit manic this time; the house saw me jumping up at the crack of dawn the other morning, with a burning desire to clean bathrooms, sweep stairs and empty bins before daybreak. Though that could be the nesting instinct aligned to the pregnant tum. But I’ll ride with this madness, as it’s good to embrace domesticity, whatever the cause. I have also had time and space to think about the cancer: not such an upbeat day that one, but probably an important thing to do. And I’ve hatched a plan to start job-hunting in the autumn, so that come the end of my treatment, I might rediscover my lost identity. For the moment however, I’m learning to make this identity, that doesn’t look or feel like mine, fit a little better. It’s not as comfortable as the old one, and I don’t want to keep it long term, but I think it’s teaching me a thing or two about allowing others to take control occasionally, dealing with life in bite-size chunks and crying is alright sometimes. It’s also come to my attention that mirrors aren’t my best friend, and the thicker the makeup the better I look.

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3 thoughts on “A Case of the Missing Identity

  1. You make me laugh and cry, I just love reading this blog. Thank you for your honesty and sense of humour. I know I owe you am email. You are amazing. Karen xx

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