Fear of public speaking is the Number One phobia in the United States according to some surveys, probably conducted by those who say they can cure it. It’s ahead of death, spiders, darkness, and heights and is classified as a performance anxiety, like erectile dysfunction but with the added trauma of a roomful of witnesses.
That statistic was the first thing that popped into my head when I was invited to give a 10-minute talk at a caregivers-only workshop at Seattle Cancer Care in early 2009. It also explains my knee-jerk reaction when asked for a title for the talk, to which I squeaked: “Remember to Exhale”.
I’m not sure that it is exclusively a performance anxiety issue for me. I was wondering more about whether I actually had anything to say. It seemed presumptuous to offer advice to other caregivers, especially when the workshop was geared primarily to caring for brain cancer patients. We were done and gone with Diana’s metastatic lesions in the brain with a single swipe of the Gamma Knife during the first week of treatment, so I assumed everyone in the audience would be traveling a much more difficult road that I’d had. But I also felt obliged to the woman asking, the coordinator of the event and the fabulous nurse in the UW Radiology department who was always so supportive and enthusiastic during Diana’s quarterly check-ups.
After a bit more thought, I decided that remembering to exhale was about the best advice I could give anyone, for anything. That didn’t seem presumptuous. That was just common sense. Every martial art, healing regimen, aerobic exercise program, stress reduction guideline, and anger management course emphasizes the importance of breath: life-giving oxygen in; toxins and tension out. Can’t get the good stuff in if I don’t exhale, and it’s impossible to relax if I’m holding my breath. I’d found that getting progressively worse news during each stage of the initial diagnosis and treatment made it as hard to exhale as standing chest deep in freezing water. It’s hard to take anything in—physically, mentally, metaphorically—when there’s no room to fit it.
So I figured I had my talk. Then I timed it. I needed to stretch out my message over another 9 minutes and 50 seconds. I added in the suggestion of cancelling all news subscriptions, as we’d done. Who needs more bad news? That was good for another 5 seconds. And that was it for the advice.
I ended up just telling a story, recounting the experiences that set us off on this…this…this Zen Road Trip, starting with Diana’s idea of the Love-In because that seemed to be just too inconceivably bizarre to even occur to anyone else much less consider. I hung the entire talk on the framework of the road trip metaphor. I mentioned the difficulty in deciding who gets on the bus when everyone ostensibly wants to help. The decisive factor for me was whether or not someone was indeed a caregiver. As soon as they morphed into a carewanter, I’d kick ’em off. That only happened occasionally, and most of them made it back on board sooner or later.
Are we there yet? On a good road trip, that question is the quintessential faux pas. This was sometimes asked of us rather than by us, because the idea of an ultimate destination was somewhat meaningless. There was no “there” there in the sense of something up ahead that was identifiable or even desirable for us. The only “there” for us was in the past, as in “We were there yesterday”. So we were finding ourselves neither “here” nor “there” in terms of a position relative to anything else. There was no “You Are Here” arrow on our map, just a “You Are” arrow that didn’t point anywhere in particular.
What “Are we there yet?” really meant was: Has she survived? Is she healed? Is she cured? And to answer those, I turned to the Online Merriam Webster Dictionary, which tells us that “Survive” comes from the Latin roots meaning “to live above, over, on top of” and means “to remain alive or in existence; to continue to function or prosper.” “Heal” is from the Old English “whole” with a first definition of “to make sound or whole; to restore to health.” “Cure” is from the Medieval Latin cure of souls, with a first definition of “a spiritual charge”. So, yes, on all counts. Diana has survived, she has healed, and she has been cured.
But will she still die? Of course. Of cancer? Who knows? That’s certainly a possibility. Maybe even a likely possibility. But not the only one. Anything’s possible…including getting hit by the very bus we were driving on this metaphorical road trip.
I closed the talk with a quote from Joseph Campbell that Diana had brought to my attention: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” He didn’t mean “accept” as in “be resigned to the life that is waiting for us” but as in accept as a cherished and unexpected gift. It’s another way of saying “remember to exhale”.
I gave the talk to an audience that consisted of the organizer and her assistant, the guy and his daughter who spoke before me, and another guy and his wife who were to speak after. The rest of the workshop attendees were in a concurrent session about dealing with intransigent insurance companies. No matter. I still gave the mother of all exhales when it was over.
I still have the slides, ‘though, in case anyone’s interested…