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Cancer, the alchemist
In March 2010, at the age of 57, Eve Ensler, women's activist and the author of 'Vagina Monologues', was detected with a vicious cancer of the uterus. After a traumatising therapy that lasted over two years, she decided to talk about how cancer changed her life in a book, 'The Body of the World'. The book, she says, is like a CAT scan: a roving examination - capturing images, experiences, ideas, and memories, all of which began in my body. Excerpts. . .
LEARNING TO BE A PATIENT
You have done many things, " said this very beautiful, very tiny Italian doctor who appeared one day in my room like a gnome. "But you have never been a patient. Now you will learn to be a patient. This will be hard for you. " He was cryptic and correct. The last thing I wanted to be was a patient. I didn't like sick people. First of all, they were sick. Sick was not well, not able, not working, not making things better. Sick was surrendering, caving in. Sick was wasting time, not adding up. Sick was alone and stuck as the rest of the well world moved by.
For some bizarre reason I am wearing sunglasses in my hospital bed. (I look swollen and horrible and because of all the drugs I think a little lipstick, sun-glasses, and my pink knit cap make me look better, but in fact I look insane. ) I am wearing sunglasses hoping the gnome man cannot see my eyes or hear my thoughts, which are spinning out of control at the mere suggestion of being a patient. There is obviously something scaring me even more than the cancer. It is the idea of stopping. The idea of being still. Of not being able to do or make or travel, or speak or organize or write. I don't want to be a fucking patient. Then the Italian doctor says, "It will be a threshold for you. You will learn to have pity for yourself. You will learn to be a patient. " In that moment I want to wrap my IV tube around his neck and jerk it hard.
As part of me rages and refuses, another part of me is already there. I watch it there and it knows, truly knows, something else. This part of me likes the gnome, wants to crawl up on his lap and be his patient. This part is so tired. This part knows he is telling the truth, he is a guide, giving me a challenge, a vision, saying, "This is it. Your life has to change. It cannot be driven anymore by a need to prove anything. It cannot be a reaction, a 'fuck you, ' an 'I'll show you. ' That's how you got sick. That is what your sickness is: over-taxing the body, the nervous system, fight-or-flight, always driving off the imagined enemy, always pushing and driving yourself, pushing and fighting and driving. " I am too tired now. I have cancer. My organs are gone. I have tubes coming out of me, and a bag. My body is sewn up the center. There is no drive. I can't find the gears. I am a patient. Patient. Patient. And something relaxes in the center of me for the first time since I heard my father raise his voice, and I sleep, I really sleep.
A BUZZ CUT
In India, head shaving is practiced by many Hindus and seems to have more ritual significance than any other kind of hair removal.
At first I think we will do a head-shaving ritual. I will invite all my friends and I will take the bodhisattva vow. I imagine bowing down, humble, bald, stripped, away. But in the planning, the whole thing feels a little over the top and not so humble. Then my friend Sonja, who is super hot with a shaved head, tells me about her Italian barber on Tenth Avenue who charges only twelve dollars, and it seems so straightforward. So I go with Toast, Paula, Sonja, and Sonja's lover, Claire, to an old- fashioned New York City barbershop. A whole group of Italian men debate my hair. Two of them wonder why I would want to get rid of it, and one super fit sexy man with a tattoo and shaved head keeps saying, "Go for it. " I don't say I just had cancer, it's not a choice, or that I don't want to wake up in the middle of the night with Silkwood clumps in my hand and bald patches in my scalp. I don't say that this is a kind of eviction from a hairstyle that had become my home, or that my bangs and Louise Brooks bob were me. I don't say it took me a lifetime to find that haircut and I swore I would never change it, or that when I was ten the boys in my class stripped me and called me "seaweed hair" because my hair was stringy and oily and pointless, and that having lousy hair was more painful than being half naked in front of most of my class.
And before I can say an absolute yes, Antonio is suddenly standing behind me with loud boy 4 clippers that are moving very close to my head. It never occurred to me that he would begin with my bangs - the fringe, the curtain, the veil. In less than a minute - gone. I watch Paula taking pictures of clumps of my dyed-black hair like little animals on the barber's floor.
Some people think I look sexy with a shaved head. Some say I look like a boy and it turns them on. Some get that I'm sick and this is not a hairdo at all. Many think I look like a dyke. I feel exposed. Present. Humble.
Clean. Clear. I don't have to DO ANYTHING. . . with my hair. It is not who I am. I am suddenly face. All face.
HOW'D I GET IT?
Was it tofu? Was it failing at marriage twice? Was it never having babies? Was it having an abortion and a miscarriage? Was it talking too much about vaginas? Was it worry every day for fifty-seven years that I wasn't good enough? Was it the pressure to fill Madison Square Garden with eighteen thousand or the Superdome with forty thousand? Was it the exhaustion of trying to change? Was it the city? Was it the line of two hundred women repeated in hundreds of small towns for many years after each performance, after each speech, women lined up to show me their scars, wounds, warrior tattoos? Was it suburban lawn pesticides? Was it Chernobyl? Three Mile Island? Was it my father smoking Lucky Strikes and my mother smoking Marlboros? Was it my father dying slowly and never calling to say good-bye ? Was it witnessing him insulting waiters in restaurants and me going back to give them my allowance? Was it my mother's thinness and frailty? Was it bad reviews? Or good reviews? Was it being reviewed? Was it sleeping with men who were married? Was it always being third? Was it my first husband sleeping with my close friend? Was it shopping and needing to shop? Was it being a vegetarian for thirty years? Was it Froot Loops? Massive chlorine in swimming pools? Was it Tab? I drank a lot of Tab after I got sober. Was it Lilt (the toxic-smelling substance my mother used to perm my hair)? Was it Tame (the solution she used to get the tangles out)? Was it crinoline (the abusive and starchy material I was forced to wear underneath my dresses)? Was it Shirley Temples? Ginger ale with red dye number two juice and a red dye number two cherry on top - a favorite for the sophisticated country - club alcoholic father. Was it drinking water out of plastic bottles? Not being breast-fed ? Canned chop suey? TV dinners? Was it turquoise Popsicles? Was it Epstein-Barr ? Was it in my blood? Was it already decided? Was it deet? Was it that I didn't cry enough? Or cried too much? Was it promiscuous sex? All those arrests at nuclear power plants? Sleeping in radioactive dust? Was it my IUD? Was it birth control pills? Was it not enough boundaries? Was it too many walls?
THE CHEMO ISN'T FOR YOU
The day before chemo, Lu surprises me with a wall-size photograph of Muhammad Ali, the moment after he knocks out George Foreman in Kinshasa. It's one of those almost impossible photographs where time has stopped - Ali is standing, Foreman is on the ground. Ali has clearly won, but it's not the glory that hits you, it's the shock and the stagger of the struggle. It's clearly one second before Ali realizes he is champion, and you can imagine him a moment later prancing around, raising his gloves, bragging and celebrating. But here he is dazed and empty. Toast and I hang the photo on the wall and it becomes a kind of visual mantra board. I will turn to it many times a day over the next months.
Ali is me. Foreman is my cancer.
I watch Toast arranging my chemo pills in our new purple pill tray box. He is parceling out the capsules like Pez, doing it so perfectly and exactly. Monday: Emend, Zofran, Advil;Tuesday: Emend, Zofran. . . I want to kiss him. Then Sue arrives. She has not been my therapist for many years. We are post-therapy friends, which means we have dinner occasionally in vegetarian restaurants and talk about death and trauma. I call her when I have insufferable anxiety or when I need a reminder that my selfhatred is really massive anger. She heard from a friend that I had cancer and is giving me free sessions as a gift. I can hardly believe it. I can tell she is pretty shocked to see me. I am super skinny and wobbly, with a buzz cut. We sit on the couch, a stunned Ali as our backdrop. Sue was the shrink I finally found after all the others. I first saw her when my marriage was falling apart. I had just come back from a trip to Germany where the Berlin Wall was coming down. The first night in Germany I had a terrifying dream. My father was raping me with an object and my mother was calmly watching. I woke up screaming. This was after ten years in New York City therapy with two different shrinks, both telling me, like Freud, that everything I thought happened with my father was just my fantasy.
Sue was the first person who was not afraid of my memories. When I told her my dream, she said, "It could be a dream, Eve. But sometimes dreams are also memories. I sense you have been terribly abused. I think I can help you. " Sue was a psychic surgeon who reattached shards of body sensations to memories. She had never been in my loft and it never occurred to me she would ever sit on my couch or actually touch my things. Shrinks live in offices.
"Tell me everything, " she says. I start to cry. "I have been very sick. There was a huge operation and then an infection. Now they are going to poison me. I do not think I can do the chemo. I am not good with things in my body. It's why I never did ayahuasca in the rain forest. I knew I would embarrass myself in front of the shamans and the elders. I don't do well vomiting. I could never be a bulimic. " I remind her I am totally claustrophobic.
Sue tells me that she has never understood how I have not been sick before. She tells me she knows I will survive everything because I am the most resilient person she's ever known. It's funny, I feel different when she says this, maybe because I know she knows how fragile I am. Then she tells me that ever since she heard about my cancer, she's been thinking much more about how my father battered me, and I say, "Me too. " She says, "I feel we didn't spend enough time on the battering. "
And this makes me think of the chemotherapy battering my insides. I tell her I am very afraid of having poison inside me. And then she does what I call a Sue. She gives me back the same information I am giving her but with a genius spin, a way of seeing things that immediately and spontaneously unlocks the neurosis. In this case, she gives me a way to reframe the entire chemo experience. She says, "The chemo is not for you. It is for the cancer, for all the past crimes, it's for your father, it's for the rapists, it's for the perpetrators.
You're going to poison them now and they are never coming back. Chemo will purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours. I have total faith in your resilience and the magical capacities of your body and soul for healing. Your job is to welcome the chemo as an empathetic warrior, who is coming in to rescue your innocence by killing off the perpetrator who got inside you. You have many bodies;new ones will be born out of this transformational time of love and care. When you feel nauseous or terrible, just imagine how hard the chemo is fighting on your behalf and on behalf of all women's bodies, restoring wholeness, innocence, peace. Welcome the chemo as empathetic warrior. " Consciousness leap, consciousness shift. I think rain forest. I think walking into what the shamans call "the frontiers of mental death. " I think that what was terrifying and impossible two minutes ago is suddenly the thing I need to be doing most. I think yes, chemo will be my medicine. I will ride it like a lion. I will let it do its work in me. I know that whatever happens, will be what is required.
Excerpted from 'The Body of the World' by Eve Ensler, Random House India
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