It has been said that drinking alcohol intensifies one’s personality. Thus, as an example, if one tends to be an aggressive sharer of personal details then knocking back a few cold ones or a couple dirty martinis tends to get that imbiber into serious TMI territory. Similarly, a person who readily gets hot-under-the-collar is likely to pick a fight in the bar’s vile men’s room over a perceived slight such as using the adjacent urinal when everyone knows that a buffer urinal, if available, must be observed.
Not unlike alcohol, I found that undergoing chemotherapy had a similar intensifier impact on my personality. This stands to reason. What is alcohol, after all, but liquid toxins that one ingests to achieve some end? And while I do definitely enjoy a good drink (or four) – it’s no accident that I suggested as an example above dirty martinis – I am not unaware of the fact that it is tough on the body and the mind. Chemo is also a liquid toxin that one takes to achieve an end. The main differences just being that chemo isn’t typically served in a highball with a little umbrella in it nor a sword’s length of maraschino cherries impaled thereon and its toxicity is much broader than just one’s liver (although I am sure that my liver suffered incalculably from all of that poison as well). As a side note, one other similarity between chemo and Coors is that the remedy for too much of either is fluids, ideally in the form of an IV drip. Of course, it didn’t make me feel any better in the chemo context than in the binge-drinking one, but I imagine one could just view that as yet another thing the two have in common. Also, they both lead to puking.
But involuntary regurgitation aside, I think the most pronounced impact that each has is on one’s mind. In my case, I was already a rather high-strung anxious person, a disposition that having cancer did nary a thing to ameliorate. So when I started chemotherapy, I quickly found that these traits became more intense. I was substantially more anxious and irritable than ever, and although the chemo was an unpleasant experience to be sure, there was no specific, identifiable cause that would lead me to fly off the handle. Rather, without any warning, I could become quite difficult and easily irascible. I was, in other words, a real pleasure to be around.
During this period, I had an episode at my gym. Of course, going to the gym is enough to make most people somewhat cantankerous, and so imagine doing so when weakened and mildly nauseous from vein-loads of chemo. One day, while pedaling away on a stationary bicycle (the less movement for me at this stage the better), a gym “acquaintance” whom I had had many a long conversation with over elliptical workouts and treadmill schvitz sessions walked by me and said, “Hi Jerry.” For those of you who may not have noted, my name is not Jerry. It is Jeff, which has in common with Jerry the first two letters as well as a repeating consonant thereafter. But it’s not the same name. Bobby does not equal Bonnie any more than Jeff is the same as Jerry.
This mis-nomenclature had happened a couple of times before, and I had let it slide. But on this particular day, when I was well into my seemingly endless rounds of chemo, I had had enough. I could no longer be Jerry for this gym rat. He had barely finished enunciating the “y” in “Jerry” when I attacked him. “It’s JEFF, not Jerry! You keep calling me Jerry. It’s Jeff, got it?!?” This poor, tank-topped soul was mortified by my verbal assault. He looked like he wanted to hide behind one of the squat racks or possibly curl up in a ball on the stretching mats. But to his credit, he apologized. (Footnote: He now goes out of his way to call me Jeff, over-enunciating it. I guess I had it coming.)
The point is that normally I would just have let something like that go, by which I mean I would not say anything to the absent-minded mis-namer but would of course complain about it incessantly to anyone else who would listen. But now I was out of control and just let it rip. How dare he call me Jerry! Do I look like a Jerry?!? What does a Jerry even look like?!?
This lack of control over my usually difficult but otherwise manageable imprudent impulses reached its nadir a short time later. One day mid-chemo, I was all over poor eight-year-old Will about something, which had to do with his little league game. To be clear, I have no business whatsoever having any expectations that anyone with my gene package will be any kind of athlete whatsoever. There is a reason why I went to law school. And I am not a competitive parent (mostly). But something had set me off – something that if I called it trivial I would be greatly overstating its significance – and I let poor, uber-kind Will have an earful. That evening at home, after Will had retired for the night, I said to Melissa how I was so disappointed in myself. I could not understand, I lamented, how I have so little control. I asked Melissa, “Could it be the chemo that is causing me to act so impulsively and aggressively?” Melissa was silent for a moment, and then replied, “It could just be that you’re an asshole.”