Recently a friend wrote to me the following:
“Everyone has a fault in their perfect self, a line running somewhere between conflicting feelings. For some, it is evenly distributed, in the middle of yin and yang, creating balance “IF” they can stay very close to either side of the line. For others, there is a yearning for dichotomy, a departure from the average of averages.”
When I read these words they hit me like a ton of bricks—they struck me because without hesitation I recognized myself as of the later breed.
When I was a child, and school wasn’t stimulating enough, I would create extra “homework” for myself. The construction paper art project on the American flag became a handmade quilt on which I meticulously sewed dozens of patches, one for every state of the Union. The one-page essay on Native American history became a movie I would write, direct, act in, and edit. The ordinary was not sufficient for me—I was only satisfied when I could stretch far away from the line.
In college and medical school I became consumed by mostly academic and physical challenges, directing a relentless focus toward school and performing on my college’s water polo team, and then later competing in masters swim meets and water polo tournaments.
The significance was not that I set goals, but rather the way I pursued them. As I matured, I learned I could most efficiently achieve my ambitions not by using strenuous willpower, but by encouraging a certain mind state where energy poured out of me like water released from a dam. In this state I could take on new projects eagerly, not out of obligation or obsessiveness or perfectionism, but out of pure excitement and joy.
By the time I reached residency, I had developed sufficient self-awareness to understand that these ebbs and flows were a regular pattern of my personality. I knew all I had to do was wait for the next burst of energy and enthusiasm to come, and then direct it toward a meaningful goal.
During my highs I felt there was no challenge I could not take on. During my intern year, even while I was working close to 80 hours a week, I taught myself how to design, build, and code websites. When I had made enough websites for myself and my friends, I started a business making websites for other people. During another burst of energy I taught myself to play the ukulele, and later the guitar. During another I started to study French. This blog, and most of my writing on it, has been a product of these creative bursts.
In many of these cases, after a period of weeks to months, my enthusiasm would inevitably wane and I would unceremoniously put the project to the side. (As I said to a friend after my experiment making websites came to an end, “What am I doing? I’m a doctor, not a web designer!”). The lows were never too low, and acted as periods of rest for me to recharge until the next natural shift in energy occurred. I was always able to course-correct before I became too taught—too stretched away from the line—restoring balance and resting for the next swell of energy and motivation.
But, after being diagnosed with cancer, these shifts became extreme. Reflecting back, it is clear to me that in these last few years I have existed in mostly two utterly contrasting states.
There have been the high highs, characterized by overzealous optimism about my prognosis and future, by idealism about other’s motivations bordering on naiveté, and by unwavering confidence I would get my life back, just as it was, if not “better,” than before. There have been the low lows, characterized by crippling self-doubt, by shame and anxiety, and by fear that I was worthless and permanently broken.
On the days when I felt on top of the world, even while my body was exhausted from chemotherapy, my mind felt sharp and focused, my mood was euphoric, and people seemed drawn to me with an almost magnetic force. I would write essays and songs and raps that I couldn’t wait to share with the world (seriously though—I did recently write a rap about cancer, and it’s pretty fucking amazing—I will post it soon).
But on other days I have wished I could curl up into a tiny ball—one so small I might even disappear—and the idea that anyone reads the words I write, let alone knows I exist, has felt abjectly terrifying.
Looking back, though, I can also say that with time the amplitude of these oscillations has evened out. More recently, instead of careening from one extreme to the other, I’ve been able to notice and course-correct before veering too far away from the line.
However, the essential problem still exists. There are two sides to me, and each has her own distinct perspectives, views of the world, and views of herself. And each day, the voice I hear in my head feels like the one and only absolute truth. So, which one is the real “me?” Which one should I listen to? Which one should I trust?
And am I too bruised to ride the highs like I did before? Must I cling more closely to the line?