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You’re on a hike, much like any other hike. The day is fine, the trail is familiar, and you’re thinking of the calls you need to make when you get home.
In a blind moment, so quick you don’t see it coming, you’re bombarded by an armored tank of fur and roaring teeth. A paw the size of a small car swipes at you and sends you flying down the path. You’re too startled to feel the wound that makes you wipe the blood from your eyes.
The bear isn’t done, though. It’s on you, snarling and ripping at your flesh.
Your thoughts are crystal clear. Play dead. Don’t cry out. Protect your stomach at all costs.
After a few blurred moments the bear pauses. You think it may be done, but then it decides it’s not sure you’re dead yet. You feel its teeth dig into the muscles of your leg and you try not to scream as it lifts you ten feet in the air and tosses you into the forest.
You think, This is it. I guess I’m done. In that moment, death doesn't seem so scary. It it's your time, it's your time. There isn’t time for regrets or resolutions.
Still, you don't let go of life. Your only thought is how to survive.
The bear snorts and lumbers over. You feel its hot breath on your face. Its sniffing is deafening in your ears. But you lay dead still, barely breathing.
With one last snort, the bear finally gives up and leaves. You lay there a while to make sure it’s gone, and to get at least a little of your strength back. After what seems like hours, you can finally sit up and assess your wounds.
Then you struggle back to the path. You look with dread to the left and the right for that hulking force of death, knowing that if it’s there and sees you, it will come back to finish its deadly task once and for all.
You walk and walk, wondering how you’ll make it one step farther. But you take another, and then another.
Within a few miles, the trail ends. To keep moving forward, you have to push through a row of blackberry bushes. Its evil barbs shred your clothes and arms until blood runs into your gloves and boots.
You reach a boulder field. As you cross it, your foot slips and gets caught between two rocks. The pain sends an electric shock through your body from leg to spine. You wriggle and yank until it finally comes free.
You breathe a sigh of relief. That was close.
But the ankle is tender and gives out when you put weight on it. You limp on.
After what seems like a day, you finally come across a Fish and Game officer. She takes one look at you, goes pale.
“Holy shit.” That’s all she can say.
She helps you to her truck and rushes you to a hospital.
That hospital becomes your home for two months. Two long excruciating months of salves and antibiotics and pain meds and, after a time, rehab to get you back on your feet.
Finally, the day comes. You are declared "healed," and you find yourself emerging from your healing prison and returning to life. Fixed up. Recovered. Excited for things to get back to normal.
Only, it doesn't turn out like you expected. You can’t seem to get back into the routine, let alone celebrate. The scars from the attack run the whole length of your body, and your shoulder muscle is permanently damaged. You assume -- hope -- things will get better, and some days they do, but the overall trend is not upward.
And the world has changed around you. Everyone else seems so immersed in the ordinariness of life. You look at them going to work and making dinner and arguing about sports and politics and you wonder, “What’s the point?”
You don’t have the energy to go back to work, but you need to eat. Now, though, the spark isn’t there anymore, and your co-workers seem distant, caught up in their ambition and insecurities.
It all seems so trivial.
Worse yet, you see a bear in every shadow. People wonder why you’re skittish and seem so obsessed with it. “Didn’t you get away from it? You should be grateful. A lot of people who are attacked by grizzlies aren’t so lucky.”
Or if they aren’t saying it, you’re the one repeating it over and over at yourself, accusing.
And you wonder, What now? How am I supposed to go back to life like before? What’s the lesson in all this?
According to LiveStrong’s research, 98% of cancer survivors report having to deal with ongoing emotional, physical and practical issues, even after five years.
For more on his topic, see the blog post How is surviving cancer like fighting aliens?