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Depression, Grace, and Killing Carl’s Army

June 6th, 2009 by Jeff Simmermon

Carl’s evil army dies a little more each week. Fast-moving doctors toppled the heart of Carl’s vicious empire and now the stragglers are huddled in their bunkers reading the tarot to make the simplest decisions and waiting for orders that aren’t likely to come. Perfectionist that I am, I’m not going to be happy until the last lonely soldier scratches out a suicide note with its nerve-chewed nails and gargles a muzzle full of lead.

My doctors are a hard-hitting unit of Inglourious Basterds that are willing to drop in and detonate at the slightest hint of an insurgency which is harsh and excessive, but come on — this isn’t 4-square in the schoolyard here.

For those of you that are rolling your eyes and thinking “Jesus, easy on the hooptedoodle, Simmermon”:

Now that my cancerous non-seminoma is out, the markers it releases in my blood have dropped dramatically, and continue to decline each week. My doctors refuse to take chemo off the table, which is smart both from a scientific and legalistic ass-covering perspective. I’m recovering pretty well from the actual surgical procedure, but it’s a three-steps-forward, one-step back kind of thing.

Some days I can walk fine and hang out a little bit. Other days the incision burns and everyone on earth is a complete barking bozo and everyone needs to just SHUT UP, JESUS CHRIST.

And then there’s this …

I feel a little more like myself, but that’s still taking its time to creep back, too. I daydream every day about getting back into my Muay Thai classes but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. I seriously sit there at my desk and dream about doing pushups. Or I lie there in bed and fantasize about just kicking the heavy bag, working out a new combo, but quickly lifting my legs much higher than the clearance into the shower is just that: a daydream.

I’m still having trouble concentrating on the tiniest stuff. My confidence is kind of wrecked, and every sentence I write gets scrapped, deleted or mocked by an increasingly louder voice in my head. Pulling a story together for the Moth feels fricking impossible most days.

And then I panic on the inside and think that that’s it, when they took one of my nuts they took my creativity and my follow-through and I’m destined to spend my days shlubbing across the earth as the worst kind of dilettante, the guy who could’ve, maybe, but didn’t have what it took, the poor sap. If you’re not living you’re just moving closer to dying, and on my worst days I feel like someone cut my soul out and let my body wander.

I guess what I’m saying here is that sometimes I feel half-neutered, and then I think about it and realize that I actually have been. And that just kills me.

I didn’t say I’d gotten any more rational, people.

Last Friday, a week or so ago, I was sitting in my bed at 11AM, eating chocolate ice cream out of a mug and watching “Cheers” reruns. And man, I was feeling that theme song, just the sheer sounds of the song were soothing my mind and breaking my heart and I could just feel the tears welling up when I heard the guy sing the phrase “everything you got.”

And then it hit me: “Something is wrong here. Seriously wrong. Like, I am one Sex and the City rerun away from some serious pathos and I am not even the right gender to be expressing it this way. ”

I remember thinking

1) Maybe I’ll give “Eat, Pray, Love” another go

2) I might find some new meaning in there

3) If I find meaning in “Eat, Pray, Love” I am going to be suicidal

4) I have a family and friends that love me and I can’t put them through all that.

I called up my best friend and told him how I was pretty depressed. He said “man, you just got one of your balls chopped off. I HOPE you’re depressed. If you’re not, there’s something else wrong with you.”

And as it turns out, my blood work shows some seriously low testosterone. CRAZY low. I’ve never given my girlfriends a hard time for being hormonal, but believe me when I tell you, fellas – it’s serious business.

Last Thursday I got a massive shot of synthetic testosterone right in the butt. They used to harvest the real stuff from bulls down at the stockyard back in the early days. I’m okay with pleather in this regard.

“Guys always love this,” the nurse said. “Give it a few days and see if you don’t feel better.”

Six hours later I was drinking martinis with a buddy and playing Big Buck Safari. And I’ll tell you what — I’ve never had so many perfect sites or gotten the lion, the giraffe, AND the hippo before. I was blasting binary buffalo with the best of ‘em. “I’m all the way back,” I thought. Then I woke up flat again the next day. That’s how this whole thing’s gonna be. Little victories that feel huge followed by a crash and a slow drift upwards that feels completely like a flatline.

I keep waiting for someone to decisively clap their hands, reach out and shake mine and say “that’s it, son. With the powers granted to me by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, I hereby proclaim you well. The life you loved so much was paused for you back in early April, and once you step through this doorway you’ll be able to return to it as though nothing had ever happened.”

And I mean, come on. I’m not sure how much I’m actually getting better and getting myself back as I am just adapting to a new reality. One where I feel about fifteen years older.


I’ve had a glimpse at a few of the side benefits of cancer, too. My relationship with Maggie has completely blossomed into this new thing that I can’t even explain. Things feel deeper somehow, we’re communicating better than ever, and I’m even more clearly aware of how lucky I am to have her in my life.

And when you say you have cancer, the world gives you a little break. You find out how caring and kind the people are that were maybe just on the periphery of your life before, and even strangers work with you a little more. You receive tiny kindnesses, a little patience. You find out what it is to experience real grace.

And once you feel that grace, take it into your heart in a time of real need — you realize that you never want to stop giving that grace back to everyone, all the time, for the rest of your life.

To be completely honest, I can’t say if I do completely want to go back to mid-April, either.

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