I Am Not Me Any More
Stand up straight, DJ, Keep your chin behind your shoulders. Don’t start slouching and shuffling, that will put you three steps closer to the grave. I’m relieved to not have a FitBit or any such device tracking my steps, my climbing, my speed, my sleep, my energy, and so much more. I don’t want to be constantly measured and monitored. I don’t want to live my life as a video game character.
Today, my wife and I are going to visit a friend who is in physical rehab. He is getting physical therapy to learn how to get out of bed and use a walker to get across the room. He is eighty. He has had a couple of heart attacks and has fallen a couple of times recently. He is clearly no longer who he once was.
Eighty is old; I’ll admit that. I am only seventy-six and my wife is two years younger. We are still up and around, very active, and except for remembering proper nouns, most mentally sharp. But, it is clear that we also are not what we once were. I can play with my grandchildren but I can’t run more than four steps. I can still hit the ball but I have to walk to first as fast as I can. I can still jump, but the landing will hurt me for two days. I can still make set-shots but from twelve feet, not twenty.
I have a diagnosis. I was treated for breast cancer three years ago. I am still taking pills to prevent it from returning. My friend T, 78, has had two strokes. S, 74, has a mild case of MS. R, 73, is taking steroids to treat a disabling form of arthritis. Q, (not that one) 78, gets around on a scooter due to his neuropathy, and then he had a heart attack. P, 79, is on dialysis and is also depressed. I’ll stop there, but I could easily list another dozen, just from our circle of friends. There are very few people I know who are over seventy-three who do not have a diagnosable condition.
Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. This kind of falling apart is the natural result of how humans have evolved. We have evolved to live long enough to successfully raise our children. After that, we are on our own to figure out what we should be doing. But, another thing is clear from the list of my friends: if it wasn’t for the medical advances of the last thirty years most of us would be badly crippled and dying, or already dead. Most of us are very grateful that we are alive.
But, we are different from what we were, and we are different in more ways than we acknowledge. We all admit that due to the natural deterioration of our muscles, ligaments, hearts, and minds, we cannot, and should not, do many of the things we did thirty years ago, or even ten years ago. That part is expected, and most of us accept that with varying degrees of grace. I am one of those who still gets frustrated by some of these physical losses.
However, there is more to it than that. Most of us are different because the things we do to stay alive change us. In some ways, these changes are more difficult to detect, yet they are more pervasive. We are different due to the treatments we had to endure, the chemicals that we put into our bodies, the devices that many of us have attached or implanted into our bodies, and the impact of having been directly confronted with our mortality.
I read an article in the April 26 edition of The New Yorker Magazine that describes the experiences of people who received electronic brain implants to help them deal with severe epilepsy. One of the women felt that it made her life so much better. She felt in control of herself for the first time. Others who received the device were disturbed by how different they felt. They sensed that their brains and bodies were being invaded. Even more upsetting was that the company that made the device went out of business, and the woman who was so pleased with having it had to give it up.
But “advances” such as these are happening all the time and coming at a very rapid rate. Some of them have worldwide benefits, such as the COVID vaccines, but many people are skeptical of even those, in part because of experiences, real or imagined, that people have had taking any new medication.
I have never taken any psych-meds, but I have worked with many people who have. Everyone who takes those medications has to balance the side effects against the benefits they can deliver. I have seen that the biggest obstacle to continued use is not the well-known side-effects such as weight gain or loss of libido, but how the person reacts to their new mind, moods, and attitudes. The medications are designed to try and change those. Some people feel very pleased, as they feel more in control of their thoughts, and thus their actions. Others feel as if they are being muffled and stifled, and they miss the excitement of the highs and lows of their lives. They don’t enjoy being the new person they have become.
I can see these how having to do things just to stay alive has affected most of my friends. Like me, they know they have to take their pills, shots, or infusions. But now they are different, some more hyped up and anxious, some more mellow, some depressed, and one has obvious cognitive difficulties that can be attributed to the strong anti-cancer drugs he has been taking.
These changes happen in younger people who seek different drugs to help them meet different goals. The ADHD medicines to help people focus, the steroids for strength and energy, and the testosterone supplements to help men get erections that resemble the Chrysler Building, all have strong effects on their personality. Some of these effects can lead to rages, violence, and abuse.
After three years and a lot of reflection, It has become clear to me how much going through all of my treatments for cancer have disrupted and then recomposed who I am. It feels very much as if I was beamed into another world, but all of my molecules recombined slightly differently than they were before I left. The most obvious are the physical changes, such as the damage to my lungs from the chemo, which makes many physical activities more difficult. I also feel that I have never regained the level of energy that I lost due to the effects of the radiation treatments.
But, from what all the doctors tell me the cancer is gone, so that makes all of those treatments worth it.
Another part of my treatment is the ongoing use of Tamoxifen. Since I had the type of cancer that feeds on hormones, this drug limits my production of hormones. Over time, that seems to have changed my thinking and my psychological outlook more than anyone told me it might. Hormones are the driving force behind a lot of energy and passion. I noticed, now that I have fewer of them, that I have become less intersting and less interested. It’s not that I don’t seek pleasure, or that I don’t like the things I used to, or that I don’t care; it’s that I don’t care as much.
In many ways, it’s not a bad way to be, but it’s a lot different. It affects so many basic things that I used to do, such as eating, drinking, sex, tolerating boring people, rugby ( that was a long time ago), staying up late, and trying hard not to offend people. Now, those things do not bring me pleasure the way they once did, and I don’t miss them. I rarely think about doing them, so it isn’t at all difficult to do without them.
There were many times when I enjoyed staying up late, having a few drinks, and discussing many weird, unrealistic ideas with my friends, (but never being as loud as those jerks at the next table). Now, after one good drink, I get a nice buzz for about an hour, then my mind shuts off, and soon I’m asleep. I’ve learned that a second drink will make me feel very uncomfortable and give me a headache.
Another example is that I’ve always been very involved and very passionate about politics. I still am, but the passion is less, and so are my expectations. I have learned that people, including myself, have many varied reasons for believing the strange and improbable things they cling to. I no longer feel any need to argue with them anymore. I often enjoy talking to those I disagree with more than those who agree with me, as I am really interested in how they arrived at where they are. But I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, and I don’t care what they think of me, but I don’t bother to get all worked up over it.
My main goal now is to do what I need to do to stay as healthy as possible. That often takes a couple of hours a day. I know that there is a slim chance I will get better than I am now, and there is a very large probability that I will get worse at some point. I don’t want to think about that. Still, the possibility of illness and death intrudes upon my thoughts and influences my decisions. This is magnified by what I see going on around me with so many of my friends. Especially since there are now more than a handful who are not with us anymore — and not because they’ve moved to Arizona.
I make a point of trying to prioritize doing the things I enjoy. I don’t have a “bucket list” except to stay upright and avoid pain. Beyond that I like to have a good conversation almost every day, most of them live, and some by typing on this machine. I also like explaining things in sarcastic terms to my grandchildren until their eyes glass over. That’s my genetic imperative, to influence the next generation. I intend to pass on my values, which I’ve mostly done to their parents, and to make sure this next generation can dribble and shoot with either hand. I’ve accomplished that with my son and it improved his life. Now, I can do it was both my grandsons and granddaughters.
If humanity survives until my 100th birthday in 2045, I think the societies of the world will be functioning in a much more caring and harmonious way. There will probably be several big disruptions before we get there. We are going through one now. My goal is to be able to be there to find out. My other goal is to live longer than Ray Kurzweil. He is a man who expects to extend his life by using many artificial means. But that’s not real because then he, like me, won’t really be who he is now. Does it count if he is still “alive” and conscious, but he has upleaded his brain to a harddrive?
Still, I hope there will be enough of me to be able to tell what’s going on, and that humanity, in some form, has used all of it’s technological creativity to improve the lives of everyone.