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Existentialism As a Coping Mechanism

How I Regained Control of My Life After Beating Cancer

Growing up, I liked to think that all things had reason.

It wasn’t necessarily out of any attachment to the idea of a god. I was raised Jewish, sure, but in my eyes that was more of a community than it was a strict ideology.

But, the idea that life had checks and balances sounded ideal to me. That each unfair outcome should be matched with a fair one later down the line. That each individual got what they deserved, in the end.

Perhaps this was the daydream of a child who grew up bullied and alienated. Either way, I convinced myself of it. No matter how miserable my adolescence was, I counted on that pain meaning something eventually.

At one point I relayed these beliefs to my mother.

“I guess I just think that things happen for a reason,” I’d mused.

And my mother’s expression had darkened in a way that made her features almost foreign to me.

“They don’t,” she’d said. “Your father didn’t die for a reason.”

I didn’t bring it up again.

I sometimes liked to take my father’s old chess set out and smooth my fingers over the pieces, cool from dusting in the back of my closet. I was never profoundly sad about this loss. My father had died of cancer back when I was only an infant.

I wasn’t sure what to think of my dad’s death, so I didn’t think about it at all. I pushed the thoughts of him aside.

I didn’t truly think of him again until, at 19, I was diagnosed with cancer as well.

It was a different sort than what he’d died of. I had an osteosarcoma of the jaw.

Either way, there was no feeling quite as horrifying as getting a cancer diagnosis.

That entire appointment was a blur; I cried the whole time. My mother did the talking.

This represented more than a medical crisis for me. It also represented an overturn of my entire belief system. Because after a 14 hour surgery, after crying while my mother worked to feed me through a nose tube, after six months of chemotherapy and after nearly dying several times...

It was clear to me then that things didn’t happen for a reason. No human should have to go through what I went through. Knowing intellectually what cancer treatment entailed and experiencing it firsthand were two entirely separate things, and I was horrified by just how much suffering one can be made to endure in the name of healing.

I was declared cancer-free eventually, and I tried to get back to my life. I re-enrolled in college and managed to last a few months.

But my mental health had taken a huge hit from this experience, and I ended up dropping out to seek help at an inpatient mental illness treatment center.

Therapy sucks, and I’m not going to wax poetic about that. Trauma therapy especially is absolutely brutal. But after about four months of working on myself, I finally saw progress.

And I saw it through existentialism.

I feel that its negative connotations are undeserved. At its core, existentialism as a philosophy effectively unshackles humans as a whole from the chains of destiny or any god or gods. Every person has complete control over their life. There’s no outside force pushing you down your path; it’s up to you to make it yourself.

It was the opposite of how I’d viewed life up until then, and it was completely liberating.

For a long time after the whole cancer debacle, I struggled with feelings of intense anger toward the world. I was fixated on how unfair it all was. In my past world view, what had happened to me made no sense and it was infuriating.

I wondered whether I’d been doomed from the start, set to face one trial after another until death finally took me. I wondered if I’d been meant to die young and my survival was a fluke.

I was finally able to move forward with my life when I finally stopped acting as a victim of these unknowable outside forces.

I lined up every aspect of my life that upset me. I examined the few that were within my control, and troubleshooted how I could make each thing better.

By working actively to change my circumstances rather than accept them as some sort of given, I regained control of my life and was better for it.

Over the course of the next year, I started working and found that this lifestyle suited me more than college ever had. I successfully built a resume that started with jobs as a camp counselor, a play place attendant and ended with me working full-time as a daycare teacher.

I won’t say that this success was entirely due to a change in philosophy. My psychiatrist and I had also finally found the right combination of medications for me, which did wonders to make daunting tasks a little more manageable.

Still, if I’d continued to hold on to that anger that stemmed from the feeling of being somehow wronged by the world, I doubt I’d be nearly as happy as I am today.

Life, I decided, could be random and terrible. There was no pattern in the tapestry of its happenings. Its only consistencies came from the people within the world, striving to make it better.

I’d like to think that I’m still an optimistic person. People tell me I am.

But my optimism today is derived from my faith in the good in people. The wonderful doctors who held my hand through treatment and the lovely coworkers I have today who are so shocked to hear what I’ve come out of. My mother for raising me and caring for me through these struggles.

Even if there’s no spiritual reason for what’s happened to me, I still have the power to create a cohesive and meaningful existence where there once was nothing.

And that’s what I’m set on doing.

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