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How cancer helped me battle my addiction

Theatre director Raz Shaw on how he battled cancer and a gambling addiction at the same time, and overcame them both. Funny, searing piece about men, risk and mortality.

In life we are nearly always defined by what we do.

‘So what do you do?’ is often the opening small talk line at a dinner party. Or any party come to think of it. It’s the second line on a blind date (second to ‘Are you Raz?’ or if things are really new, to ‘what’s your name?’). Awkward!

If your job requires any kind of explanation, or is boring, ‘What do you do?’ is often the question you fear the most (though if you are an actor or a theatre director, the question you really dread is ‘what are you up to?’ NO! Don’t ever ask an actor or a director that question. The ‘ah, well, not that much at the moment…’ is too excruciating).

In May 1995, I wasn’t a director, and I REALLY dreaded that question. For a mountain of reasons. When asked, my answer would be accompanied by a face twisted in pain and embarrassment. The answer would be something like this:  ‘erm, I sort of run a telesales company. Well, no. I do run a telesales company. Selling industrial cleaning chemicals and fluorescent lights over the telephone. That’s what I do but I’m really a director. A theatre director I am. Though I’m not directing right now. Haven’t really directed anything at all. Ever. Actually.’

I was lost in a vortex of self-hatred, job hatred and life hatred. Oh, and I was being ravaged by a gambling addiction. I forgot about that bit. Not only was I doing a job I knew I shouldn’t be doing, I was draining every penny of my not insubstantial wages into the pockets of the bookmakers and the casino bosses. Could life get any worse? Well, yes. Yes it could.

On June 13 1995, the day after my 28th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer of the lymph glands, to you and me. More of that later.

Over the years I have come to understand that addiction boils down to a two basic premises. Firstly, you don’t like yourself very much. Secondly, and related, you have a gaping void inside you that you just can’t fill. So you endeavour to stuff it with something that will make you forget it’s there, help you forget that you’re there. That’s your addiction. At first, that addiction fills the hole inside you and makes you feel good; feel satiated. Like you’ve escaped – for a moment at least. But once the high has faded, whatever kind of high you’ve gone for, as time goes on you need more and more of your addiction of choice to keep you on an even keel and, gradually, it takes over until you are out of control of yourself and your life.

Plus, you never give yourself time to breathe. To actually breathe. Because you haven’t really been breathing all this time. Not properly anyway. That’s what addiction is. A self-harming, never-ending quest to not take a breath. Because breathing is thinking, and thinking is exactly what you don’t want to be doing. Thinking leads you to recognising that you have that chasm-like hole inside you.

In 1995, I was stuffing that hole with a gambling addiction so all-consuming that when stage 4 cancer came along it felt almost like respite. Which of course it very certainly isn’t. Or wasn’t. When cancer took hold it tried very hard to push the addiction to the back burner. But addictions are stubborn, limpet-like suckers and so the fight was on.

Three weeks before my diagnosis I had given up my six figure telesales job at the insistence of my writer friend Debbie. Everybody around me knew that my job was draining every drop of a soul that I had left. Everybody knew that I had a vocation that I wasn’t following. I had lost myself inside a vortex of my own making and I had no clue how to get out of it.

But Debbie knew how. She had written a play, had found a venue for it at the Edinburgh festival and wanted me to direct it. The only stipulation was that I left my job immediately. And to everybody’s surprise, most especially mine, I did. The very next day. And for the first time in my recent memory, I felt free. For a few magical weeks I had my life back. I still had a gambling addiction to deal with but I had overcome a huge hurdle. Surely beating gambling wasn’t too far behind. And then cancer came knocking.

Being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer is just plain weird. My prognosis was quite good. Being a young man, they gave me about a 70% chance of survival. As a gambler, those were good odds. Big money odds. But it’s still weird. And in the year that followed, cancer and gambling went head to head for my attention. The ultimate prize in that battle was my life. Anything less just wouldn’t cut it. If you couldn’t find me in the hospital, I’d be at the blackjack table.

It was a rollercoaster nine months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, defying my doctors to go to weddings I wasn’t well enough to attend and endlessly reading Nick Hornby. Side effects included moulting like a sick cat (and I’m a hairy man); a mysterious disappearing arse (seriously); 350 mouth ulcers at once, in one mouth; a really quite surprising amount of sex, considering the circumstances; and a brief but acute loss of my own sense of humanity. Like I said, it was a rollercoaster. In March 1996, I was given the all clear and walked out of the hospital a cancer-free man. That’s when the grieving started.

It’s a phenomenon that I have since come to understand is quite common when people get given the cancer all-clear. However insidious, however threatening, however much it’s like having an evil little brother at the end of the bed whispering that he was going to make your life a misery, the cancer is part of you for so long that its absence feels odd and you end up feeling strangely bereft. My punishment for these detestable feelings was doled out by my addiction – a three-week, out of control gambling frenzy. Cancer may have finished with me but addiction hadn’t and as almost a last flexing of its muscles it forced me into a terrifying last hurrah. A mania directly linked to the self-hatred I felt as a result of the weird and debilitating feeling of grief at my cancer leaving me.

After three very long and exhausting weeks, my body and soul finally wrested back control and just said ‘ENOUGH!’ And it was. Enough. I had indeed had more than enough. A moment in a betting shop with another pitiful soul held up a mirror and that was my epiphany. An almost born-again, never-gambling-again moment. And from that day to this I haven’t. More to the point I have had no urges to gamble again. I believe that final three-week splurge drove those urges from me. It was life giving me one final warning, before giving me one last chance.

I haven’t worked in an office since. In fact, I finally made it to my vocation. I have been a working theatre director for the last twenty years, with a multitude of awards and successful productions behind me. And I wrote a book, about that terrible, incredible year – Death and the Elephant: How Cancer Saved My Life. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t got cancer. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but in my particular case, it forced me out of my trance like addiction and onto the path I have taken ever since. So you see, in a strange but very real way, cancer really did save me.

Death and the Elephant: How Cancer Saved My Lifeby Raz Shaw is published by Unbound and available on Amazon


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