FIGHTING THE FOG I CANNOT SEE

It’s a question that hangs over my head like fog whenever the first symptoms start to emerge.

Am I depressed again?

In this post, I talk about the what ifs that surround me when it comes to a potential cancer diagnosis. I monitor symptoms, research every possible cause, and panic at the inevitable truth—I have cancer.

But that hasn’t come true, and I’m thankful for that.

But what does seem to arise every few months is a bout of depression. I monitor symptoms, research methods of coping and regaining energy, and then succumb to the inevitable—I’m depressed.

Every person’s journey with mental health is unique. Each story deserves to be heard and each person needs to be loved. And as I tell you a bit of where I’m at with my mental health, I ask for that love and grace to be shown to me and everyone in the comments.

My first sign of a depressive episode is always isolating myself from friends and family. That study session at the coffee shop? Sorry, I’m busy. Want to go for a walk tonight? Can’t, I’m not feeling well. No matter the event, I find a way to stay home, buried in my blankets and senseless entertainment. Then comes the sadness that I can’t process—where did this come from? I wasn’t sad last week. The sadness turns to anger, and the anger tries to find an outlet. And finally, I put the pieces together: I’m depressed.

But now what?

I first recognized my depression while living on campus during university. It was there that I began going to therapy on a weekly basis and working through my struggles. I still see my therapist on a monthly basis, five years later. And while she’s given me many tools to manage my mental health, I have to resign myself to the reality that, to some extent, I will always have mental health challenges.

But over time, the way my struggles manifest has changed.

I still isolate. I still get sad and angry and hide within myself. But if this past week has shown me anything, it’s that as I change, my symptoms do, too.

Tonight, I was on the phone with my fiancé when I asked out of nowhere: “Is something wrong with me?”

Bless him for knowing what I meant, because that question is as vague as they come. I was referring to my headaches, my nausea, my inability to sleep through the night, and my preference for laying on the couch watching Netflix. I was talking about the lethargy, the realization that I don’t want to do those things that I find fulfilling, and how all I want to do is cry. My voice never got above a loud whisper as even talking took more energy than usual.

“I don’t know, honey,” he said. “Maybe you’re depressed.”

“I don’t want to be depressed,” I said, almost in tears.

I don’t. No one does. Being depressed is awful; if the symptoms we experience aren’t hard enough, add to it the societal stigma associated with mental illness which makes it difficult for many to reach out for help, and our depression is just compounded.

But it may be happening again. And as much as I may fight it, I may be in the early grips of a depressive episode.

I do have the tools to work through it. I have my therapist, my support network, and my antidepressant medication which helps to keep me stable. But nothing is foolproof, and even with all those measures in place, I still struggle.

And I’m scared. I’ve been here before and it’s a scary place to be.

But as I stare down the barrel of yet another depressive episode, I’m trying to remember three things:

  • It won’t last forever.
  • It’s okay to feel what I feel.
  • I have my God and my people to walk alongside me, no matter what comes.

THE QUIET SIDE OF CANCER SURVIVORSHIP — LIVING IN A WORLD OF WHAT IF

January 27, A.K.A. Classy Glassy Day to my family in honour of my first prosthetic eye, is the day each year that I celebrate being cancer-free. Although I underwent a few rounds of precautionary chemotherapy after the final enucleation, this day will always be near and dear to my heart. After all, it’s the day that I became blind and the cancer was eradicated from my tiny body.

Yes.

And no.

True, the cancer was gone and that part of my life was in the past. It was now full speed ahead into learning braille, using a white cane and adjusting to life as a six-year-old without sight. But what everyone failed to mention was the fact that what I had just endured was traumatic, and that I would live with that trauma for the rest of my life. Yes, the physical cancer was gone, but the psychological ramifications would be a constant fight.

I was in middle school, deep in denial about my blindness, when I was handed a book of reports written by a fourth-grade class… about me. I flipped through it, astounded at what I read. I recall one report vividly which stated explicitly that the doctors expected me to be depressed, but I wasn’t.

“I was supposed to be depressed?” I said to my mom, shocked. I hadn’t heard about this. Why did they think that? I wasn’t depressed.

The Clock Syndrome

“I’m going to die,” I announced to my therapist one afternoon when I was 20. “I’m not going to live past 22. I’m going to die young. You just watch.”

Spoiler alert: I lived, and am now a grand ol’ 25. But what was the deal with 22? It’s hard for me to explain without fearing that you’ll think I’m crazy, but if I write for anything, it’s to normalize the unspoken experiences that many people are too afraid to say aloud.

Growing up, I saw my future stretching before me like a road. I could see the twists and turns and the landmarks that I would pass by on my journey through life—high school graduation at 18, travelling abroad at 19, earning a university degree at 22, and then—
Then what?
That’s where the road stopped. I had no more visual concept of what my life past university could be. It was blank.
To me, the emptiness of the road meant there was no road at all.

But I kept this to myself. To be “normal,” I dreamt about what life might hold for me, and I even planned parts of it. I wrote a list of my favourite baby names, I designed wedding invitations when I was 15, and I speculated at what kind of old lady I’d be. But deep down, I knew it would never happen—I would die before I got the chance.

My therapist and I called this the Clock Syndrome. Many days, it was a physical weight on my shoulders and I felt the tick tock, tick tock, thumping in my brain like a hammer. “Don’t waste your life,” it whispered. “Pack in all the experiences you can now, before it’s too late.”

As a result, I raced through my late teens and early twenties. I graduated from university in three years, enduring a five-semester streak that ran me into the ground. I pressured myself to get married and have children before I lost my opportunity to, and I made myself a deadline to be a published author by 25.

The fear that I would die young was paralyzing.

And every time I contemplated my inevitable death, it was because of cancer. I had it once, of course I’d get it again. And I wouldn’t be lucky enough to survive twice. But what kind of cancer? And when would I get it? Would I have symptoms? What if I had it now and just don’t know it? Thus, I fall into what I term “cancer spirals,” and they look a little something like this:

  • I feel fatigued. It must be leukemia. Wait, where did that bruise come from? Am I having a night sweat or am I hot because I sleep under four blankets? This hasn’t happened before—it must be cancer.
  • I’m not on my period, so what’s this discharge? Is that a sign of ovarian cancer? Cervical? Have my periods been extra painful lately? Wait, was my period on time last month? It must be cancer… I’ve always been regular.
  • My heart is beating faster than normal. I heard that advanced lymphoma can cause rapid heartbeat. Let me check the results from my last blood test; is anything out of the ordinary? What if the blood test doesn’t catch it, and then it’s too late?
  • Do I want to undergo chemotherapy again? What about immunotherapy? Where do I get a wig? Maybe I should get one now so I have it… just in case.

If you’re exhausted reading that, welcome to my brain. These cancer spirals are as normal as dipping chocolate chip cookies in milk. I don’t even have to have symptoms to fall into the world of medical articles, diagnosis stories, the latest experimental cancer treatments, and which secondary cancers to be on watch for. I live every day, expecting to be thrust into this reality. Yet, it mightn’t ever happen. I might die before I turn 26, or I may live another 70 years in perfect health.

But, what if I do get cancer again?

It’s that what-if that keeps the clock running. And every day, I wonder if I’ll ever outrun it.


September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a busy time, with fundraising for cancer research and programs to support the children and their families taking their well-deserved place in the spotlight. But amidst all the activity that September brings, take a moment to remember the quieter side of survivorship.
Remember the ones who live each and every day with the fear of relapse and recurrence. The ones who won’t tell you that they lay awake, examining their body for any potential threat. The ones who have to leave the room because the smell of bananas triggered a memory from the hospital. The ones who have trouble remembering things because of the chemotherapy. The ones who you didn’t even know had cancer.

Take a moment this September and remember us. Our stories are still unfolding, and at least for me, all I pray is that with each page turn, every childhood cancer survivor will know that they are loved, supported and heard, no matter what happens.

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF AIR TRAVEL

I am not a good traveller. As a kid, there was nothing more exciting than waking up at 3 AM, dragging my suitcase down the stairs (and usually over someone’s toe, oops), and heading off on some grand adventure. Whether it was a road trip across Canada or a flight that would transport us to Disneyland, I was eager for it all.

But upon returning from studying abroad after high school, my budding anxiety had already attached itself to many a victim, and flying was one of its first. I vividly recall walking to and from classes at university and as airplanes passed overhead, stopping to cover my ears until it faded into the distance. Many a friend held me in the middle of campus as this new fear gripped me tight. And it was then that I realized that if I was having this strong a reaction to the sound of airplanes, flying on them would be unbearable.

And as I’ve just recently returned from two plane trips, one trip to Michigan to take Cricket to his forever home and one to visit my family, I’ve been reflecting on the process of travelling as a blind woman. Seeing as I’m often asked about how it works, I thought I’d take a moment to share my reflections with you and maybe help to answer some of your questions.

So, how does it work practically?

When I travel independently by air, I make a note in my reservation stating that I am visually impaired and require assistance to board and deplane. Thus, when I arrive at the airport and check in, there’s a well established system that I’m immediately taken into:

  • A customer service agent guides me from check-in, through security and to my gate where they seat me and inform the airline agent that I need assistance on to the aircraft.
  • When pre-boarding is called, the airline agent assists me down the ramp and on to the airplane.
  • Here, the flight attendant guides me to my seat, helps me settle in, and often gives me a description of the plane, where the nearest exit is located and the safety protocols.
  • I sit back and attempt to bear the flight as best I can, often with headphones blasting tunes until the Ativan kicks in and I fall asleep.
  • Once landed, the flight attendant guides me to the ramp where I am met by another airline agent who guides me either to the gate for my connecting flight, or to arrivals.

Being passed from person to person is at times quite overwhelming and exhausting; I find myself on high alert, taking note of my surroundings, who’s assisting me and where my bags are at all times. It can be a convoluted process, but it does accomplish its goal: it gets me safely from point A to point B, and I’m just thankful that airlines have policies and systems in place to assist their disabled passengers.

But I’d be remiss not to address the issues inherent in this system. Let me take you back to 2016 and my most notable solo air adventure. You’ll see why.

For my reading break, I booked a week in California, soaking up the sun with a friend of mine from Bible college. To save myself money, I booked the most inconvenient trip—three flights spanning an entire day. Needless to say, when I landed in Sacramento, I was utterly spent.

The first two flights were blissfully uneventful. But before I could board my final flight from Denver to Sacramento, I had a four-hour layover, and for its entirety, I sat in a chair. Just, sat. When the airline agent came to assist me to my gate, I was stiff, cramped and relieved for the opportunity to stretch my legs.

Pre-boarding was just beginning as I arrived and I was passed off to the airline agent for my flight. From here, it was a short walk down the ramp and on to the aircraft, and as I’d walked on and off all my flights and through the airports, I expected to walk this also. But the agent had another idea.

Many blind travelers that I’ve spoken to have been offered a wheelchair as a means of getting from point A to point B. While I know some visually impaired individuals prefer this method—it can be less stressful, faster and easier to manage luggage—it’s never been a method I use or appreciate. I prefer to walk, and I said as much to the agent who had a wheelchair at the ready for me.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said.
“Honey,” she said, her tone not at all kind, “you need to sit in this wheelchair so we can get you on to the plane.” She proceeded to grab my arm and pull me down into the chair, knocking me off balance. I stood up and planted myself firmly in front of her.
“I would prefer to walk on to the plane, thanks.” I could almost see the glare I knew she was giving me.
“Honey.” Again, that tone. “You’re making a scene in front of all these people, and you’re holding up the line. Just sit in the chair.” Once more, she attempted to physically force my body down into the wheelchair, but I resisted. I was losing my cool quickly, but again, I said, “I don’t need this wheelchair. I prefer to walk, and if I could just take your arm for you to guide me, I’d appreciate it.”

She was right. It was a scene, and I knew my fellow passengers were watching. But I wasn’t making a scene. I was asserting my independence, advocating for my rights, and being denied.

It was then that an angel stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said to me, “I could guide you on to the plane. May I?” I have to admit that it was a fight to keep the triumphant smirk off my face as I took the woman’s elbow and walked down the ramp and onto the plane. As it turns out, this woman was returning home from visiting her aging mother who was visually impaired.

I was exhausted and fuming by the time I fell into the arms of my friend. And even now, five years later, I find myself reliving this experience and asking myself the same question:

Why are disabled people valued less than the systems in place to serve them?

During that trip to California, I was patronized, verbally dismissed, and physically coerced, the result of which was the unmistakable feeling that my life as a disabled person isn’t worth as much as an able-bodied person’s.

But Rhianna, isn’t that a bit exaggerated?

No. Not when I’ve lived two decades as a disabled woman and continue to hear and endure countless experiences like this, and worse. Being disabled has forced me to take a good, long look at the world I live in and see it for what it is. Too often, it’s an ablest, discriminatory place with people and systems that show an unwillingness to learn, change, and do better for their fellow people.

But people can’t do better unless they’re taught how.
I won’t claim to know how to accomplish this because it isn’t merely an attitudinal change but a systemic one and I’m only one voice out of a global community facing these challenges. But I’m doing what I can, sharing my perspective as someone who lives in this reality, and praying that it might spark one person to action.

So to the woman at the Denver airport, I say this:
I’m not mad that you offered me a wheelchair.
I’m not mad that you were following the directives of your company’s policy regarding passengers like me.
I’m not mad that you assumed I needed the help. After all, that’s what you’re lead to believe by the world around you.
But I am mad that you didn’t value me enough to listen, and trust that I know what’s best for me. I’m hurt that you didn’t respect my body enough to treat it with care and consent. I’m disappointed that it was a fellow passenger who stepped into help while your coworkers stood by in silence. I’m angry that in a society that prides itself on equality for all, I was treated like anything but an equal.
I did not feel like a person in that moment, but rather a task on your to-do list.

And now I ask the all-important question:
Now that you know how, will you work to make a change?

LOOK UP! — FINDING GOD WHEN I FEEL BLIND

Starlight Serenade

Sing, oh ye stars above!
Sing upon this earth with love.
Sing thy song with beauty inlaid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to those who lie awake
Sing for the brokenhearted’s sake.
Sing a lullaby for those afraid
Sing your starlight serenade.

Sing to shine thy Father’s light
Sing to give His strength and might.
You’re fearfully and wonderfully made
So sing your starlight serenade.

© Rhianna McGregor

It was a seventeen-year-old Rhianna that wrote Starlight Serenade, sitting in the window of the spare bedroom at midnight. The cul-de-sac was silent except for the lone cricket singing his own serenade into the night. A neighbour’s fountain was trickling and if I settled my thoughts and stilled my heart, I could almost believe that I could hear the ocean. But what I heard above all this was the night itself speaking to me.

It was my escape and my safe place. In high school, when my life was shaken up like a snow globe and didn’t know how to settle, I turned to the night as a means to cope. The spare bedroom beside mine, which once belonged to my brother before he left for college, offered me a window ledge wherein I would sit, wrapped in a blanket with the window open all the way and only a screen separating me from the outside world. The breeze was gentle, constant, and I always wondered what the wind had seen; had it come from the sea, or had it visited someone else who was up late, crying over a broken heart? No matter what I was going through, the night was always there.

Most nights found me in the window, praying, crying, writing poetry, or a mix of all three. It was here that, all at once, I felt whole and distinctly broken, lost but safe at home, abandoned yet I was wanted.

It was where I met God.

But there was a catch. As with all things beautiful, they are never without heartache.

Here, my heart ached because in the silent beauty of night, I was acutely aware that I couldn’t see it. Here, I was blind and there was no escaping the truth. I couldn’t lift my eyes to the sky and get lost in the sea of stars, too numerous to count. I couldn’t make friends with the man in the moon, nor wish upon a shooting star like I had as a child.

I was blind. And my body knew it. This article discusses phantom eye syndrome, a condition classified by the presence of phantom vision, phantom pain or phantom sensations that individuals who have had one or both eyes enucleated can experience. In the years since my eyes were removed, I have often felt like I fit into the category of phantom sensations. But whether I am clinically accepted as experiencing phantom eye syndrome or not, I do not know, but what I do know is how it feels to want to see and not be able to.

I describe this sense of “feeling blind” to my friends and family as reaching for something but you come up short every time. Your fingers graze the edge, you strain and stretch to grasp the thing you so desperately want, but you can’t. It’s just a little too far, and no matter what you do, you won’t be able to reach it.
This is how my eyes feel. They want to see, and it’s almost as if they believe that in trying hard enough, they will. But they can’t. No matter how much they strain to encompass the visual world, they can’t.

But don’t think that I move through every moment of my life feeling this yearning to see that will never be satisfied. There are a handful of circumstances that I’m aware trigger these phantom feelings. And when they arise, I get myself into wide, open spaces. These phantom feelings aren’t dissimilar to claustrophobia in that I feel trapped in small spaces, so fields, beaches, even empty streets can help to alleviate the anxiety.

Here is a brief list of those circumstances:

  • The night sky
  • The sea
  • Looking through photo albums

Feeling blind doesn’t stop me from going stargazing or reminiscing over old photos. But I do keep mindful of its weight which at times, can be very heavy.
It reminds me that I am different
It reminds me that I am missing out on an entire sense and world of experiences that many people take for granted.
It reminds me that the visual memories I rely on to build new ones are quickly fading with time, and I’m working with limited resources that cannot be replenished.

But it reminds me too, that it won’t always be like this. CS Lewis said that “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Being outdoors in the middle of the night is when I always feel closest to God. And I often wonder if that something that I’m reaching for but cannot grasp yet is God himself. I am a fallible human, incapable of grasping the truth of who God is and what His plans are for my life. I cannot grasp the ways of God or understand His thoughts in the midst of my humanity. Isaiah 55:8-9 says that “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

And when I look up into an endless sea of stars, I am reminded that the world is so much bigger than I am. And so is my God.


Is feeling blind frustrating? Absolutely, it can be. I believe that it is a physiological response to the trauma my little body endured at five years old. But can it point me to the one who is bigger than my blindness, more powerful than my problems, and in control of whatever happens in my life?

Yes. And that’s what I try to remember when the blindness overwhelms me and I cannot reach what I’m so desperately searching for. I take a breath, tell myself that it’s okay to feel it, and channel the overwhelm into my heart’s yearning for eternity with God. There, I will see Him and that’s the truth that keeps me going for my time here on Earth.

I’M STILL BLIND WHEN THE LIGHTS ARE ON

According to medical professionals, I’m blind. My optic nerve has been removed, my hazel eyes have been hand painted and my faithful sidekick is a cuddly, golden lab guide dog. I would say I qualify as a blind girl.

I also struggle with depression and anxiety. Now, I have not been given any medical diagnoses for these. At times, this has been frustrating because there are those people who require a diagnosis before they believe it’s real. At times, it is liberating because it gives me hope that I don’t have to live within the label that so many ascribe to those who have official diagnoses.

And there is one more thing I should mention before we go any further. I am a devoted believer in Jesus Christ, and my faith has made all the difference.
But when you take my faith, blindness, depression and anxiety into one and try to reconcile them with each other, that’s where many people run into roadblocks. Especially those people in the church.

The church has been my home for my entire life and I have found much love, encouragement and compassion there. However, I know there are sadly, those within it that do not embody the deep love, encouragement and compassion that I was shown. And they, among others, are who I hope will read this.

No one would deny that I’m blind. We’ve covered this. My prostheses are enough evidence of that. But because I cannot offer physical evidence of my depression and anxiety, some would see this as evidence itself of its invalidity. And to those who doubt, I will say only one thing:
I’m still blind when the lights are on.

Within the church, I’ve encountered varying views on mental health struggles, and unfortunately, many are negative. Here are some:

  • “You must not pray hard enough.”
  • “God is a god of joy. Depression is the opposite of joy. Are you truly following God?”
  • “He can take away your anxiety. Just ask Him.”
  • “The Bible says not to worry. Having anxiety is a sin.”

To those who hold these views, I offer you this scenario:

I walk into a room and am searching for a chair I’ve been told is there. I know to look on the left side of the room, but I don’t know where along the length of the wall it will be. A stranger comes into the room behind me and seeing me slowly searching the space, exclaims: “Oh dear! You’re blind! Here, I’ll turn on the light. There, that’s better. Now you can see where the chair is.”

How silly! Turning on the light wouldn’t change a thing. My optic nerve still doesn’t connect my brain to my eye. Turning on the light doesn’t change my blindness.

But people seem to think it should change my mental health.

If one could just turn on God’s light, then their depression would disappear. If they would just pray, they wouldn’t have panic attacks.
But that is not the case. Of course there is power in prayer and it’s not wrong to pray for healing or help to cope. But prayer isn’t a machine that vomits the right answer if you pray the right prayer. It’s a way to draw closer to God and listen to what He wants to tell you.

So, maybe He won’t take away my anxiety or depression. Maybe He won’t miraculously transform my acrylic eyes into real ones. But somehow, this doesn’t come across very clear to some people in the church. Because these illnesses are of the mind, their legitimacy is often questioned. And because they can be questioned, it’s easy to point fingers and accuse those dealing with them of weak faith.

“If you could just pray more, you wouldn’t be depressed.”
“If you would just trust more, you wouldn’t have anxiety.”

But if you turn on the lights, a blind girl is still blind.
If you have faith, you can still struggle with mental health.

Even if we believe in God’s power to transform our hearts and perform miracles in our lives, it doesn’t equate to a life without hardship. I believe in Him and I’m still blind. I believe in Him and I still struggle with anxiety. Our faith in Jesus shouldn’t change because of our circumstances. But what I pray does change is the view that our circumstances should.
Though to be quite honest, I don’t care if people’s circumstances change or not. As long as their hearts do.