by Susie Merz
Recently, I read a couple of books about aloneness and the two sides of that coin: solitude and isolation. One story was of a man who voluntarily chose to enter a long period of solitude, finding a remote island off the coast of southern Chile to be on his own for an entire year. He was interested in taking this amount of time alone to explore his relationship to nature as well as the impact on his mental, emotional and spiritual health.
The second story was of a man who went out on a fishing boat off the coast of Mexico during a storm and ended up lost and adrift on the Pacific Ocean for thirteen months. Another man on board with him died after four months, and then he was on his own until being rescued after washing up on a remote island.
In these two stories, one chose solitude, with an end date, and the other unknowingly embarked on an epic journey of isolation, with no way of knowing if or when he might be found.
Although these survival adventure stories could not be further from my everyday life, reading them sparked thoughts about aloneness and cancer and the somewhat solitary nature that exists in severe illness. The second story resonated with me as a metaphor for going through cancer. Being thrust into an unexpected storm, surviving it and yet still adrift, alone in a way with the experience (even with supportive people around) and all the challenges that come with it.
But then washing ashore, a rescue of sorts. The experience of healing from treatment, and of finding a caring community like Callanish is like stepping off the boat and finding myself on an unknown but welcome shore. Discovering that there are others who went on a similar journey and whose pain I understand, as they understand mine. I am not as alone as I might have felt along the way.
Yet at times I still feel adrift, with uncertainty as to how the story will go from here. Adrift within moments where I experience a strange disconnection from the person I was before cancer, or the awareness that many dear people in my life now will never know that pre-cancer me. That person who feels familiar but changed, and there are things about her I miss sometimes.
It seems that even with my feet planted on the solid sand of recovery and remission and community, I cannot help but scan the horizon, looking for some lost shore.
438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin
Susie Merz first came to Callanish as a retreat participant in 2015 and has since joined the staff team as a clinical counsellor. She has worked as a therapist for over 14 years, both in nonprofit agencies and in her own counselling practice.