When faced with tragic loss, Stephanie found a way to heal her lifelong struggle with anxiety by committing to a path of wellness.
After having one of my panic attacks, I was perusing Instagram when I read the term “non-negotiables.” Apparently, it’s a phrase (and hashtag!) popularly used among the online health and wellness community to describe the importance of self-care. When I discovered it, something metaphorical began to make sense. I realized “non-negotiables” were the things I had spent the past year cultivating, only I didn’t have a snazzy name for it. I called it “self-care” or “my morning routine,” but when I skimmed over the word, which I first found on Jules Hunt’s IG, I experienced a moment of clarity.
During the year-long period following my fiancé Matthew’s death, I had subconsciously planted and sowed my “non-negotiables,” the essential parts of my day that I committed to, the must-dos that weren’t up for discussion. Every day, without fail. For me, these things became my a.m. skincare, walking my dog two miles, drinking low doses of coffee doused in organic almond milk, and taking anxiety medication.
Cancer Told Me to Fear Everything
No one could place a rhyme or a reason to Matthew’s diagnosis of esophageal cancer at 24 years old. He had no predisposition to the disease, nor was he considered at risk, as esophageal cancer usually targeted older males in their 60s and 70s. So I wondered: What caused it? I started Googling; I came up with the only answer I could find: toxins. Everything that wasn’t from the ground, that wasn’t organic, was essentially linked to cancer. And that’s how I learned to fear nearly everything.
Processed foods, sugary drinks, alcoholic drinks — they were all linked to cancer, I found. But things we ingest weren’t the only factors. Plastic. Anything with plastic in the packaging or made out of entirely could emit BPAs, harmful chemicals, especially when microwaved. Almost anything synthetic, it seemed, could have caused his cancer. Without rhyme. Without reason.
A list of things I became scared of after my fiancé died of cancer:
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Processed meat
- All meat
- Processed sugars
The Panic Attacks Struck Long Before Cancer Did
When did the depression, anxiety, and panic attacks start? I’d been dealing with them since I was a kid but hadn’t had the tools to recognize it as such until I was in my 20s.I was very young when I started breaking out in unexplainable hives. The pediatrician’s diagnosis? “She’s stressed.” My mom asked, “ But she’s two. What’s she stressed about?” His answer? “Potty training.”
As a teenager, I would become overwrought with fear when it came to performances of any kind. I was a competitive cheerleader and my teammates and parents would tell me it was just nerves that sent me panicking in a room alone before a competition. But looking back, I think I had anxiety for a long time and no one ever gave it a term.
I grew up with subliminal messages about being the “good girl.” A cheerleader and a crowd-pleaser, I was afraid to talk back to a teacher or forget to do a homework assignment or receive a bad grade. I was afraid of being fat, of not having perfectly-applied makeup at all times. I avoided vulnerability, never said I was sorry, because I wasn’t taught how to let go and let myself be exposed for who I truly was, or how to apologize.
The physical panic attacks started when I was 24. The anxiety grew more severe than it ever had been, and I realized that though my life seemed perfect on paper, I was mentally and emotionally struggling. I was unhappy, depressed, and I was spending more of my time at the office hiding in the bathroom stalls, hyperventilating and keeping my attacks secret than I did actually working. The office was on the 24th floor, I was jammed alone inside a cubicle all day without much human interaction, and my body manifested this stress, to put it not-so-lightly, by trying to kill me. Or at least that’s how it felt. So, I quit my job as an editor in the publishing industry, gave up my fabulous Hoboken apartment, and moved back home on Long Island with my parents.
A list of things I had anxiety about:
- Working on the 24th floor of a building in Manhattan
- Talking to new people
- Opening up in a relationship
- My family life
- The 2016 election
- Whether or not people liked me
- Being vulnerable
Finding A Semblance Of Normalcy In A Cancer Diagnosis
I was back at home for less than a month, when I reconnected to Matthew. We had both gone to high school together and reconnected when we met each other out at a live music event. I agreed to go on a date with Matthew, although it was during what I considered to be the lowest point of my life. I knew he had esophageal cancer when I agreed to hang out with him (though at the time, I didn’t know it was Stage IV) and I didn’t question his diagnosis or what it meant for me at all. I wasn’t scared of losing him; I was scared of falling in love at all, because anxiety had told me fear it. I feared my own incapability of loving more than the dangers of cancer.
He had cancer, but he also had a detailed, actionable plan to overcome it. And it inspired me to start making my own health and wellness a priority.
I was sure I was going to marry him. He was matter-of-fact and charismatic and texted me every morning, “Good morning, princess.” The first time he met my mom, he brought her a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts chai.
“That boy is very handsome and very personable,” she said later. He shook my father’s hand and was up front with both my parents about his diagnosis.
“Immunotherapy is going to be the thing that saves my life,” he told us. Line A chemotherapy was meant to shrink the tumor in his esophagus, qualifying it for surgery. Then, he would switch treatment options to immunotherapy, a newer and controversial treatment therapy that uses the body’s immune system in order to kill off the cancer cells.
We were sure Matthew would beat his cancer. There was no reason to believe otherwise. He worked out at the gym everyday, had more energy than I ever did, and still worked five days a week, full-time in the banking industry. He was incredibly high-functioning.
Thursdays were the only days I noticed he had cancer, because those were the days we’d get on the Long Island Railroad and head to Cornell for chemotherapy treatment. By Friday, he was in the office again and no one he worked with even knew he had cancer, save for his boss.
I Lost Myself In Anxiety, Found Myself In Love
Meanwhile, I was trying to focus on regaining the me I had lost. I went on antidepressants, took Xanax to fall asleep, and continued working on my self-growth in therapy, all the while falling for a person with a tumor lodged in the bottom of his throat. I started feeling better, more alive, more energetic. I told my friends from college I was getting married. I confided in my mom that I wanted to live in a big blue house with a farm sink in the kitchen and a vegetable garden out back.
In the past, it had been hard for me to date and enjoy anyone’s company, let alone the intimacy of sex. I wondered why. Why did I find it so hard? But now it’s clear: How could I have enjoyed anyone’s company, let alone the vulnerability of sex, when I wasn’t being my true, vulnerable self?
Falling in love with Matthew, of its own accord, healed many of these deeply-rooted anxieties. Suddenly, I felt so comfortable with myself, that I found myself not being afraid to talk to people I didn’t know. I put myself out there with his friends, something I’d been terrible at doing in past relationships. In friend-group situations, I had usually stayed quiet. But with him, I was comfortable and I let it show. His family became my family, almost overnight. I’d walk in his house when he wasn’t even home and ask, “Ma, what’s for dinner?” He’d come home from work and there I’d be at the kitchen island, preparing lobster with the help of his mom’s brilliant culinary skills.
He set me at ease and soon, I crossed many of my anxieties off the list: talking to new people, having sex, opening up in a relationship, worrying whether or not people liked me, being vulnerable…
The decline in Matthew’s health happened very quickly and at the same time, impossibly slow. Line A, the first round of chemo, suddenly wasn’t working after months and months of it doing its job to shrink the initial tumor in his throat. We moved to Line B, which consisted of a new type of chemotherapy that this time, was supposed to claim his hair, and was combined with a clinical trial drug. It lasted about a week. Then, we moved to the hospital.
The Journey To Healing
Matthew woke up in the middle of the night complaining of a stomach pain he could “no longer take.” We drove to the local hospital, but they suggested we head to Matthew’s specific oncologists, as he would receive optimal care there. He walked into the emergency room himself, and he never walked back out.
He kept asking when he could go home. We kept asking, too. We stayed a total of 11 days. I slept in the family lounge, or alongside him in a chair. I didn’t go home for 11 days.
It wasn’t clear until the day he died that he was really dying. I asked the doctor, “Is he going to make the night?” “The night?” she said. “Yes. Through the day tomorrow, probably not.”
There were times during that last day that I turned to a God I didn’t believe in and begged him to take Matthew, for fear of the dying process going on too long, for fear of Matthew being in pain. Other times, I wanted to stay in those moments forever, because if nothing else, he was breathing. I could look at him, see his chest heave up and down, whereas now, the only way to look at him is in photos, or the video of him pushing my niece on a swing.
After he died, my life became very different, very swiftly. One day I was somebody’s life partner, the next day, what was I, who was I? All I could focus on was healing, becoming obsessed with it, enduring every moment of the grief process, most importantly, in my own time. I continued therapy, and I swallowed my antidepressants. But the one thing I didn’t do was pray.
A list of remedies I tried after my fiancé died:
- Plant-based diet
- Essential oils
- Himalayan salt cave therapy
I loved the yoga, which I attended with Matthew’s mom and his brother. We were quite the motley crew, hanging at the back of the room in every class because we were so loud and so bad and always laughing. My body became stretchier and generally, felt better, but I was still exhausted with my life, tired all of the time, and I woke up from every shivasana with tears on my face.
I meditated. I listened to gurus create visions of lush green hills and mountain sides so vibrant, it felt like a watercolor painting. But I was distracted. How could I think of lush green hills and mountains when I had watched the person I loved most in the world die a terrible, painful death? I kept picturing Matthew going unconscious, then convulsing minutes before he passed. I pictured myself pleading with his oncologist, taking her hands in the family lounge, and begging her to help him pass, “Please, Meliza, he’s in pain. Please help him.”
I did the reiki. First, I was mad at it because Matthew had tried it when he was first diagnosed. The master had promised him unpromisable things—that with her hands, she was drawing the cancer out of him. I hated reiki for ceasing to work, but still I laid down on the yoga mat and let the master try to heal me. I fell asleep, but she said that I got the the benefits from it anyway.
I went to a himalayan salt cave where I took off my clothes, donned a robe, and reclined on a lounge chair for 45-minutes while the ions of salt rebalanced my chemicals and aligned my mind. A meditation played over the speakers, promising me good fortune and faith. When I emerged from the cave, he was still dead.
Matthew taught me to fight for my personal health and wellness at a time when his was waning. His death made me question everything: from nutrition, to the essence of wellness, to the pharmaceutical industry, which I partly blame for taking advantage of him. Should he have been on a clinical trial when he was so close to dying? I personally don’t think so; I think he would’ve fared better had he been on a stronger treatment sooner, like switching to immunotherapy, the therapy he believed so fervently in.
But the pharmaceutical industry took advantage of him; they wanted numbers. They considered him to be a dying man worth risking an experimental treatment on. But I had had so much faith in his potential to live a full, thriving life.
Balance Through Wellness
I can’t say that any one treatment worked for me, only the cumulative fact that I made my wellness a priority, for the first time in my life. I had been dealing with depression and anxiety since I’d been a teenager, and I hadn’t realized it until I was 24, while confronting my fiance’s death. Because of him, I spent my first year of grief and mourning putting myself first. I learned where my initial anxieties stemmed from: a childhood spent on the pedestal of perfection. Be thin, be smart, be perfect. That’s what I’d heard all my life and up until now, up until Matthew showed me it was okay if I wasn’t any of those things — if I was just myself. I hadn’t even known my wellness was even an option.
It’s now been a year and a half since Matthew died. I decided to go back to school last year to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. I’m writing a memoir about my life through the lens of losing him.
I still do yoga and meditate when I can. I still swallow the little white pills though I feel less anxiety-ridden than I ever have. I’m on pretty much the same routine as before, only now, most of my time is dedicated to writing our love story as nonfiction and working toward my degree.
When people ask me how I feel, I say, I don’t know. They’re two separate questions: How do I feel about that? and How do I feel today? There will always be pain. There will always be an enormous, irreparable loss, it’s just not the sole thing that consumes my day-to-day anymore, because I have chosen to channel my pain creatively.
There is no mathematical shortcut to healing from tragedy, however reiki and himalayan salt caves apparently help. What worked was allowing myself to go through the grief, and experience it profoundly and deeply whenever it came up. The antidote isn’t at the bottom of a bottle; it’s inside me and I make the decision to heal everyday through self-care, embracing life, and experiencing the waves of unexplainable grief as they come.
My life, my health, my wellness, my happiness—these are my non-negotiables.
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