8 Steps to Surviving a Medical Crisis: The Realist’s Rendition

In the summer of 1985, when I was twenty-four years old, I think most people would have described me as a “promising” young actor (I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I want to know, how they would have described me as a human being).

I had already been a working professional for most of the past seven years, and had an impressive assortment of leading roles on Broadway and in films under my belt — enough to be considered “accomplished” in many other arenas.

But “promise” is how we often measure things in this life, and the “promise” of more is what often motivates as we meander (or march, or muddle) our way through.

Then, in mid-September, after a lingering flu led me to various doctors’ offices, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and told it was “treatable, but not curable.”

The statistical and existential whirlpool of data I was suddenly sucked into was not difficult to interpret. It indicated that the future didn’t hold much “promise” at all.

I might not expire immediately (though that wasn’t out of the question), but the odds of my living to even see thirty had plunged well below twenty-five percent.

I sat on my bed an hour after the diagnosis, and I cried. Not really cried, I sobbed and I screamed. I broke down in a way that I had never seen an adult go before.

I sat in a room, alone, moaning and slobbering for close to an hour. And I had no frame of reference at all. For anything that was happening to me. Everything was supposed to be beginning, not coming to an end.

My girlfriend, Jackie, whom I’d been seeing for a year so far, had just moved into my apartment to live with me. My career seemed like it was really about to take off.

I hadn’t yet learned how often a career can seem to be about to take off. Now I know that there are careers in full flight, and those that are constantly threatening to take off.

I was glad that I didn’t have one that was firmly earthbound, and I enjoyed my skips and hops up and down the runway, all the while dreaming of orbit.

While understudying in the Broadway production, I had just been offered the plummest role in the national tour of Neil Simon’s play Biloxi Blues. I had a deal worked out to go to Israel for ten weeks to make a film with a renowned West German filmmaker.

And I had a meeting scheduled for the following Monday with Warren Beatty, for final casting approval on a movie that he was about to make with Dustin Hoffman. That film eventually turned out to be Ishtar, but it still would have been better than what I was facing.

The horror of sensing that my life was over wasn’t something that my mind could grasp. I’m not even sure that a “life,” as a separate entity, really exists.

My perception was one of having been robbed, stripped bare, of every possession, liberty, freedom, hope, and dream for the future. The essence of that concept that allows us to soldier on: “promise.”

If you added those things up, they somehow equaled my life. That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the dreams and plans I had that might never be. A home. A wife. Kids. Having a history to look back on. Becoming the person I wanted to become someday.

Anything that I had ever said or thought before that word — “someday.” Gone. Not for me. That was my biggest fear at that moment. The absence of a future for which to endure the present.

I felt as if I had wasted enormous amounts of time in my life, and that I had to have a second chance immediately. But first I had to go into the hospital for a month, or maybe more (or so I thought; the illness wound up consuming significant portions of the next five years).

I couldn’t even start my new beginning right away. I was going to be exiled from my history, from my future, from my “promise,” from time itself, all in the hope of possibly regaining contact with them.

Time became a concrete entity to me like never before. Never mind being more aware of it, I could’ve sculpted with it. I could have cooked it and eaten it.

I felt far, far away from everything that made me me, I was homesick already, and if there was a journey that had to be made first, I wanted to start right away and travel fast.

The trip wound up being far more complicated, in far more perverse fashion, than I ever could have anticipated. I discovered that themes that had fascinated and frustrated me in life already — the ways that the pursuit of excellence is often inhibited by the forces that encourage, and demand, mediocrity — didn’t disappear inside hospitals. Rather, they were refined, and epitomized, there.

I also discovered that I was a “promising” writer, with a range of experiences and insights that could prove useful to others. I used the promise of existing as an inspiration in the future, as a way to inspire myself through a difficult present (which is now, thankfully, in the distant past).

Though it was always my natural inclination, I made conscious decisions to try to avoid what I found to be the overly sentimental and falsely comforting versions of the inspirational stories I’d been told. Along those lines, I can offer my own take on an advice column here to you.

There is no such thing as a perfectly navigated crisis. The best one can hope for, under certain circumstances, is to avoid escalation to full-blown calamity. But there are strategies one can employ to try to maximize the possibility of minimizing damage.

As someone who’s wriggled free from a few supposedly inescapable binds myself (healthful, long-term survival of what was then considered to be “incurable” leukemia, and its highly treacherous remedies, in the mid-1980s prominent among them), here are some thoughts I can pass along.

Step 1: Gather information.

Learn everything you can about what you’re facing, no matter how frightening that information might be. Yours might not be the worst-case scenario described in what you’re reading — but even if it is you’ll be better served for having read it.

Step 2: Gather more information.

You can never have too much. Some of it won’t apply to you, and some of it will be worthless. But you can never use information you never found, so you should continue to look.

Step 3: Double and triple check the information you’re tempted to start relying on with additional source.

Does it feel like this is getting redundant? If so, print the phrase “Information is Power,” and tape it where others have told you to tape affirmations. Put this on top, though, because it’s going to be more useful than reading “I Love Myself” every time you look in the mirror. Knowing information is power, believing it, and making use of it will not train you to love yourself. It will be the act of loving yourself.

Step 4 (to be performed simultaneously with Steps 2 and 3): Take a good hard look at your family and friends.

Some of them will prove to be more helpful than you ever could have imagined. Others will become more serious impediments than you’re going to want to admit. You must observe, and you must make judgments. Because it’s possible you’re going to have to choose whom to entrust with crucial tasks, and you do not want to depend too much on anyone in the second group.

Step 5: Hand out assignments.

You are the Commander in Chief of your crisis, like it or not. Even concluding you’re too overwhelmed, leaving all decisions to others, is a type of choice (not the best, to my mind, but it is a type). Give careful thought to how you will “delegate authority.” Your outcome might depend on the performance of others. Choose well, and you could be in good shape. Choose poorly, and results might suffer. I don’t recommend handling everything yourself. That would be self-sabotage. I do suggest you take the lead in choosing who does what, based on your conclusions from Step 4.

Step 6: Tell those whose feelings are hurt by your choices so far that you don’t have the energy to take care of them right now.

Sound harsh? Well, you don’t have to say it as harshly as I’m saying everything here. Still, it is the message you’re going to have to send to someone, at some point. Because someone will let you know they’re unhappy. And that shouldn’t be your concern. Your concern is surviving to see another day. Reparations come later.

Step 7: Find someone you can talk to about all this.

In all likelihood, this will turn out to be something you should have done sooner — but there wasn’t time. And problems with your team (and there will be problems) might not have revealed themselves clearly yet. So, deal with the complications of the delay, but don’t delay any longer. It’s possible that someone already close to you might turn out to possess adequate strength and selflessness to help you deal with everyone else, and your crisis, too. If so, consider yourself lucky.

But you should still find an additional advisor. An independent, professional listener, if you can possibly afford it. Because, no matter how saint-like your savior of a friend turns out to be, they’re still only human. That doesn’t mean they’re destined to suddenly pull away — though they might. Or, they might just collapse from the strain. You’re going to have to learn to shelter others from some of your thoughts, frustrations, and fears, and a (good, knowledgeable, and skilled — and they all aren’t) therapist can be a life-saving investment.

Step 8: Jump out of the plane, and hope the parachute opens.

Okay, I’m being metaphorical. But now is the time to make choices, and live or die by them. Believe me: there will be decisions you think you can’t possibly make, because none of the choices are very good, and the ramifications are too enormous. But you have prepared. You have done your research.

You have assembled a team. It’s time to act. Consider your options. Decide on a plan. Put it into motion. Try to trust that you’ve maximized your chances for success.

Good luck.

About the Author

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Evan Handler is an actor and author best known from HBO's "Sex and the City," as well as Showtime's current "Californication." Handler has also played significant roles in such films and television shows as "Ransom, ""Taps," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Lost," "The West Wing," and "It's Like, You Know…" Handler's first book, Time On Fire: My Comedy of Terrors, recently reissued as an ebook for the first time (as well as paperback), details his unlikely recovery from the leukemia diagnosed in the mid-1980s. His second book, It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive, has also been reissued for the first time in both paperback and ebook formats. The book describes the years since the illness, and Handler's surprisingly circuitous journey toward gratitude, using tales of serial dating, absurd relationships, unexpected depressions, and, ultimately, lasting love and a miracle conception. Learn more at EvanHandler.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.

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