DEPRESSION CANCER an excerpt from "Why Didn't I Notice Her Before? a memoir about dying to live"

Published on


My real problem was mental illness, not cancer. Depression has come and gone my whole life.

It can’t be trusted. At any moment I might be blindsided by a depressive episode that will put me in my therapists office a couple of times a week. It’s a useless exercise, because my depression isn’t controlled by talk therapy. Medication is usually the answer. Still I live in fear of these dark times.

Some of history’s most talented writers have described the experience. J.K. Rowling once said in an interview with the UK Times that “Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have experienced…It is the absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” 

My calm, breezy attitude toward cancer isn’t because I don’t consider it serious or that I want to die, but because it is such a relief from obsessing over future decisions. It’s an imperfect world, what can I say? If it were a game of would you rather: depression or cancer, I felt cancer would win. Anxiety had worn me down to threadbare. I was out of options and doubtful about my ability to move on. Every day my teeth clenched, my muscles tightened, I looked like a disoriented uptight turtle. Even when depression lost its hold on me, I knew it was lurking in a corner. Once that panic settles in your bones, you fear the onset of the next go-round. When I found out I had cancer, I thought, wow, I might never have to go there again. 

My perception at age ten was that I would someday be the breadwinner of my chosen family. The image I had of independence was control. The only thing that could take control of me was my depression. My mom even referred to it as my “best friend,” but then again, what best friend would suggest you jump off the subway platform? 

I am a descendant of a long line of depressed, bipolar ancestors. There have been hills and valleys in my depression, but it is deeply rooted. When I was about thirteen years old my parents asked a psychiatrist friend to come to our house and speak with me. It was all so obviously calculated. He and I sat in the dining room. He asked me to, “Describe this glass,” pointing to a glass of water in front of me. No shock that I said, “It’s half empty.” Suddenly, I was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance. 

As a high-functioning person with depression, I have always socialized, had boyfriends, and succeeded at work in a competitive field. When I met Todd he disputed that depression was real and bet he could replace my therapist with simple, carefree fun that required very little to no introspection. The truth is my therapist was useless, I would sit there in silence for 80 percent of the sessions, and so I was ready to stop going twice a week. Todd was so cute; his looks alone could distract me from brooding. I began to think of my years with him as remission. 

One morning, a few months before my cancer diagnosis, I came down the stairs with tears in my eyes and an apology for Todd. I told him I had dreamed there was a growing crack in a paved road, too wide to jump and quite deep. The edges were jagged, making Z formations in the concrete. I spoke to my phantom dream companion, “See that fracture? That is my life.” 

Once I relayed this dream to Todd he offered counsel- ing, not his own, but from a therapist. He loves me. He is my best friend, but no matter how codependent we are, he cannot share my depression. The crack may cross at our intersection, but that will be it. 

The truth is that on a daily basis, the pain of depression is more debilitating than cancer, because I have had no symptoms of the latter. In this way I have to consider cancer a gift, assuming we coexist together for many years. 

People suffer globally, from oppression, poverty, malnutrition, and brutality. I have a therapist, antidepressants, healthy foods, and a computer to document them all. I’ll never know what true suffering is, or so you would think. With all the social and natural disasters in our world mental illness seems like a privilege. I assure you it is not. Cancer is and will remain a cousin of my mental illness, sharing a host, but separated by degrees. It is extremely unfortunate I have had to endure both. I have no control over either, but never, no matter how depressed or anxious I could ever get, would I intentionally or wishfully leave my child, my husband, my parents, or my sisters Mauri, Karyn, or Jill. 

Each day I amaze myself. I am more aware, stronger, healthier, and happier knowing I have cancer. Contradictory to my condition I am thriving. Cancer and I are an oxymoron. This is how awakening happens, at least for me. Cancer’s intention was to wake me up. Since I believe my emotional state manifested disease, my emotional state can eliminate it.

- Beth Cramer

Beth Cramer is an accomplished editor and director of independent films, commercials and music videos. She is the author of WHY DIDN'T I NOTICE HER BEFORE? Irreverent, painfully honest and often hilarious, Why Didn’t I Notice Her Before? is a beautifully observed memoir that finds courage and humor in the face of undefeatable odds.


    ← Back to portfolio