An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Her Cancer Support System

About a month after I learned that I realistically had cancer, I hit bottom. It didn’t look like the stressed out, anxious period I’d spent visiting doctor’s offices daily, arguing with my health insurance company and researching chemo and its side effects. Nor did it look like like the panicked anguish I’d felt when I first realized what I was in for and collapsed sobbing into a friend’s arms.

It didn’t really look like anything.

By Baker131313 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have a lot of experience with depression. I’d gone through two depressed periods in my life: one after being diagnosed with a chronic GI illness when I was 20, and one after ending an abusive relationship. But both of those periods were short-lived, and they were characterized by an intense anxiety that made me endlessly active.

This depression was a complete absence of emotion, including anxiety and anguish. I didn’t have the energy for emotion. In fact, I was almost completely non-functional.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t brought on by my illness or by isolation or fear. It was brought on by the exact thing that every article and testimonial on surviving serious illness touts as a sick person’s salvation.

I got depressed because of the attentions of my loving friends and family. Basically, my support system did it.

They didn’t do anything wrong. Really. They left work early to be with me, peppered any experts they knew with questions about Hodgkin’s, called to check up on me, ran to the store if I needed anything, and offered me a shoulder to cry on.

If anyone’s the problem, it’s me. Because here’s my confession:

I’m a people-loving introvert, and I don’t know how to handle it.

As no shortage of articles will attest, not all introverts are shy, and not all of us shun social activities. The trait we do share is this: interacting with people drains us of our energy.

I’ve always struggled to balance my love of people with my need to recharge in solitude, and for the most part life circumstances have allowed me to veer too far towards socializing without paying a steep price. If I overdid it, I’d simply withdraw for a week. It might seem a bit abrupt and confusing, but I don’t think it’s caused anyone much distress.

It turns out it’s really, really hard to withdraw for a week when you have cancer.

Yes, some of this concerns the phenomenon I wrote about earlier, where people expect cancer patients to make them feel better about the fact that said patient has cancer. But the main reason why I can’t disappear right now is that it would cause people reasonable worry. I have a serious illness. I might need serious help. Right now, when I tell my friends that I’m too exhausted even to talk to them, they’re inclined to worry more, rather than feel reassured that I’m taking the time I need to recharge.

I will be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever put so much pressure on myself to answer every phone call, to make time to meet one-on-one with every friend who wanted to hang out and offer support.

Despite my efforts, I still feel like I’m failing. I’m wracked with guilt over the people I’ve only talked to once or twice since this whole ordeal started, the friends I put off for weeks while I try to carve out some time for myself. The problem is, I don’t need the odd free night here and there to recharge. I need whole days of emptiness. I need them just as badly as I need support.

One night, one of my best friends in the world called me out of the blue to check in and catch up. I told her I couldn’t talk. I’d been on the phone all day, and I just didn’t have the energy.

But I miss her. I want her to be in my life as I go through this — hell, I even need it. At that moment though, I couldn’t handle it.

In the absence of a clear villain, I tend to blame the whole mess on society. There are a thousand reasons why my friends feel like they are good if they ask me to go out, and bad if they give me space. Hell, most people have no idea how to give someone all the space they need while simultaneously making it clear that they remain available and supportive. It sounds simple, but the people I know who’ve reached out to say that they care about me but I should feel absolutely no pressure to respond before I’m ready — and who really do back off after saying that — are uniformly people who have personal or familial experience with cancer.

The title of this piece promises an introvert’s survival guide. I don’t know if I’m qualified to write one, but here are a couple tips, for introverts and their support systems alike:

1) Come out as an introvert — make sure people know you experience debilitating exhaustion and depression as a result of over-socializing.

2) Encourage people to text or email instead of calling or making plans.

3) Assure people that you will get in touch when you are ready to hang out.

4) Encourage people to keep checking in, but not in a way that pressures you to respond. Receiving a text like this every so often is all this particular overwhelmed introvert could ask for:

Hey, I’m thinking of you. No pressure to respond, but I’m here if you need me and I’ll check in again soon.

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