Mental Wellness

Shifting Landscapes

At some point in my life, I earned the reputation of having a good memory, but this seemingly infallible memory of mine is a learned skill–a voluntary change I enacted within the fabric of my personality. Growing up, I cared very little for remembering things and I definitely didn’t bother with paying attention to the passage of time. My childhood memories are mostly blurs; I never seem to hold onto contextual details like others. I remember learning how to ride a bike but I could never tell you how old I was. And why would I? My whole existence was constructed and manipulated by much more authoritative sources: my mother and father, by grown-ups who were in control, by God. I had no need to remember these details. The world inside my head was much more enjoyable than the outside world anyway. What are birthdays when the flowers tell you jokes and fairies give you goodnight kisses? What are dates and ages when the clouds were really dragons and the earth was alive (you know because you can feel it hum under your feet with secrets)? 

What does stand out to me, though, is the gray tint of shame that comes with not knowing something about myself that I should have memorized by now. In a lot of ways, it’s those shades of inadequacy that have led me to exercise my memory, to build it up and make it stronger, to become almost obsessive in Remembering. This change was very much a direct attack against my laissez-faire collection of memories from young adulthood and earlier. 

Not all changes are conscious developments of personality; yet, it’s crazy and beautiful to continue discovering these little snippets and connections throughout my life, to confront the fact that who I am, my strengths and my failings, have been quietly forming under the surface, like the worms that live on the underside of a rock. I’m walking through this forest and overturning rocks to see what’s there. Sometimes, I’m tripping over them, other times I’m gingerly lifting them and then placing them back down quickly, curious of what I’ll find but not quite ready to face it. It’s important for me to remember that I am a shifting landscape and shouldn’t hold onto things that don’t serve me anymore. That rock doesn’t need to be there, so let’s toss it away. I’m mapping out this landscape, moving through my memories, my life, my soul. I’m navigating the forest, unafraid to acknowledge the changes I’ve made and to consider why these changes were made. 

Right before I was diagnosed with stage 2B Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I googled “left supraclavicular lymph node” and came across this phrase: “The seat of the devil.” I don’t think anyone in my life knew how close a cancer diagnosis was to me. It was very easy to brush off the possibility, particularly when I seemed so healthy. Deep down, the fatigue had already snaked its way around my bones, threading through my muscles– until my fatigue and my body were one-in-the-same. Every bit of research I did in the initial stages of my testing led me to cancer: every pathway I took led me to cancer. When I was officially diagnosed, the knowledge snapped neatly into the space I had already carved out for it. I had held so much anxiety and grief within myself that the knowledge gave me a small reprieve. I wasn’t calm or happy by any means, but a diagnosis is a treatment plan, and a treatment plan is better than uncertainty.  

Of course, any cancer patient will attest to the fact that a well-informed treatment plan does not eradicate the uncertainty. If my life was a trail through the forest, then my cancer diagnosis was a rift–a gaping hole that halted my progress. It’s like being paused, as everyone around you seems to be fast-forwarding. If I was writing my life story on a piece of paper, this is where I would rip it in half. 

This forced change in lifestyle was devastating. It would be months before I felt like I could continue my life. Months before I could feel safe even thinking about my future, searching for those lines that could lead me forward and help me define my experiences. Because the thing about lines is that they aren’t always walls that keep things out or something in–they can be powerful, necessary definitions of the world around us; they show us the shape of the world, the shape of ourselves within that world, and how we can connect with others. They show us where we’re headed and where we’ve been. 

In its simplest form, a scar is a line and I haven’t quite figured out if I should let them define me or not. I have several scars, but my most noticeable is the one I wear on my chest, left from a catheter surgically placed inside of me to facilitate chemotherapy. On the one hand, I cherish my scar. It serves as a physical reminder of my cancer survivorship and the person I’ve become since chemotherapy (for better or worse), the strength I’ve gained, and the people I’ve found along the way. If life is a pathway, then my scar is the vital turn that transformed my journey. Yet, I have to be careful not to let past traumas guide me too much; I can’t let them light the way as I move forward. The light is weak and misleading and bends back onto itself to show you too much of where you’ve come and not enough of where you’re going. 

However, that line does reminds me that I don’t have to always be the same thing. I am always “me”, but “me” changes as I earn lines, scars, lessons, experiences. In the same way that those lines separate me, it they join me together. I am the sum of my experiences, after all–the sum of the lines that compose my life, the lines that have derailed my path, and the lines that have torn me apart only to put me back together again, forever changed. These lines are dotted with rocks–rocks that are lined with moss, hiding worms and sitting gently and quietly within dense forest, waiting for me to overturn them or trip over them or place them where they belong.

In the end, we are all forever shifting landscapes to alter and explore.

by jessijess

Jessi Lynn Whitaker is an Austin-based artist who writes to explore her experiences as a cancer-survivor and to evolve her visual practice. An avid lover of abstract art, poetry is often present in her work, and can even be seen in longer personal essays that explore ways to process and move forward after past traumas. Through her words, she hopes to provide encouragement for inquisitiveness and a space for genuine self-reflection. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, reading, and a well-crafted cocktail.


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