Ob­ser­va­tions

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - BRIAN BLUM

When I was di­ag­nosed with chronic can­cer last year, a friend of mine said some­thing I found deeply dis­tress­ing. “You’re not sick enough to write about your health,” he in­toned. “No one will take you se­ri­ously un­less you’re close to death.” I brushed off my friend’s un­so­licited “ad­vice” and be­gan to write any­way. But I was nev­er­the­less dogged by his ad­mo­ni­tion.

Could he be right? Was my can­cer ex­pe­ri­ence – so far at least – too “easy”? Af­ter all, dur­ing my first round of treat­ment, I didn’t lose my hair, I never had to be hos­pi­tal­ized, I didn’t spend nights hunched over the toi­let over­come by nau­sea.

No, that couldn’t be the case. Can­cer is can­cer, re­gard­less of symp­tom sever­ity. I must be suf­fer­ing from “im­pos­tor syn­drome.”

Im­pos­tor syn­drome was de­fined in 1978 by psy­chol­o­gists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who de­scribed it as a feel­ing of “phoni­ness in peo­ple who be­lieve that they are not in­tel­li­gent, ca­pa­ble or cre­ative de­spite ev­i­dence of high achieve­ment. [They] live in fear of be­ing ‘found out’ or ex­posed as frauds.”

While Clance and Imes were re­fer­ring mainly to the work en­vi­ron­ment, im­pos­tor syn­drome can ap­ply across a wide spec­trum of ac­tiv­i­ties – in­clud­ing, it seems, health.

Im­pos­tor syn­drome is sur­pris­ingly com­mon. Har­vard Busi­ness School pro­fes­sor Ann Cuddy, who wrote an en­tire book about what she calls “im­pos­torism,” re­ports that an es­ti­mated 80% of Amer­i­cans will feel they are im­pos­tors at work or in life at one time or another.

In re­cent years, an in­creas­ing num­ber of pub­lic fig­ures have come out of the im­pos­tor closet. Neil Arm­strong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, has said he felt like an im­pos­tor, which prompted another Neil – best-sell­ing au­thor Gaiman – to quip that meet­ing Arm­strong made him feel bet­ter,“be­cause if Neil Arm­strong felt like an im­pos­tor, maybe ev­ery­one did.”

“Im­pos­torism causes us to overthink and sec­ond-guess. It makes us fix­ate on how we think oth­ers are judg­ing us,” writes Cuddy, “then fix­ate some more on how those judg­ments might poi­son our in­ter­ac­tions.”

I’ve cer­tainly felt like an im­pos­tor pe­ri­od­i­cally in my pro­fes­sional life. My first ma­jor ca­reer tra­jec­tory was pro­duc­ing mul­ti­me­dia CD-ROMs. Back in the early 1990s, the in­dus­try was so new, we all were im­pos­tors of a sort, ap­ply­ing knowl­edge we brought from other dis­ci­plines and, mostly, mak­ing it up as we went along.

The best cure for im­pos­tor syn­drome is time. The more you do some­thing, the more com­pe­tent you tend to feel.

When it comes to can­cer, though, I’m con­stantly plung­ing head­first into new ter­ri­tory. It was that way when I started chemo­ther­apy. It was that way as I watched my blood scores un­ex­pect­edly drop, and as I’ve care­fully mon­i­tored my body for any alarm­ing changes.

WHILE I’VE be­come more com­fort­able with can­cer as my ex­pe­ri­ence with the dis­ease has grown, there’s one area where I feel like a per­pet­ual im­pos­tor: death.

“Are you afraid you won’t be any good at it?” my ther­a­pist asked dur­ing a re­cent ses­sion.

It seemed like such an odd ques­tion. And yet it makes a cer­tain sense: I will never be able to get “bet­ter” at death over time. It’s al­ways new, a one-time event with which none of us, by def­i­ni­tion, can ever have any fa­mil­iar­ity.

For me, it’s not so much the be­ing dead part – I’m pretty sure once I’m gone, I’ll feel noth­ing. Rather it’s the tran­si­tion, the mo­ment of slip­ping from one state into an en­tirely un­ex­plored one, that’s the source of dis­qui­etude.

The only way to get past im­pos­tor syn­drome around death would be to try it. But how? I’ve seen the movie Flat­lin­ers and it doesn’t end well.

And then, an unusual op­por­tu­nity – a stand-in ex­pe­ri­ence of a sort – pre­sented it­self.

When my PET-CT scan came back show­ing new tu­mors, my doc­tor or­dered a biopsy to see what was go­ing on. Be­cause of the lo­ca­tion of the tu­mors, the radiologis­t had to be ex­act­ing. I wouldn’t be al­lowed to move. The test had to be done un­der full se­da­tion.

As I lay on the hos­pi­tal bed, IV in arm, a chip­per anes­the­si­ol­o­gist wished me “good luck,” be­fore turn­ing on the drip. I felt an un­ex­pected warmth spread from my ex­trem­i­ties to my lungs and then to my head as my blood car­ried the med­i­ca­tion through my body. The only way I can de­scribe it is as a great wash of yel­low.

As the smoggy haze de­scended, I felt myself panic. It was an in­stinct, an un­con­trol­lable re­sponse. De­spite know­ing cog­ni­tively that I was just go­ing to sleep for an hour or so, I fought back, as if I were drown­ing or be­ing suf­fo­cated (al­though with my body par­a­lyzed, there was noth­ing I could do).

The next thing I re­mem­ber, I was in the re­cov­ery room, star­tled awake by the sound of what seemed like a thou­sand ring­ing cell­phones all play­ing the bois­ter­ous open­ing theme to the evening news at full vol­ume.

That tran­si­tion – the yel­low haze and panic – is that what dy­ing feels like? Do I now have a tan­gen­tially re­lated neardeath ex­pe­ri­ence that can help tem­per my fear? Or, when the time comes, will I hold on with the same fu­ri­ous fu­til­ity?

I don’t know. Nor will I be able to re­port back to you (hope­fully many years from now). But, at the very least, I feel ever so slightly less like an im­pos­tor when it comes to that most un­know­able mo­ment in all our lives.

The writer’s book, To­taled: The Bil­lion-Dol­lar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is avail­able on Ama­zon and other on­line book­sell­ers. bri­an­blum.com

It makes a cer­tain sense: I will never be able to get ‘bet­ter’ at death over time

(Vimeo)

IM­POS­TOR SYN­DROME is sur­pris­ingly com­mon.

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