'I Survived Cancer and a Surprise Divorce, I Know We Can Make It Through the Pandemic'

I'm not saying that I'm enjoying the world with COVID-19 in it, but the chaos and confusion does feel somewhat familiar.

The entire world has had our ordinary existence ripped away from us in an instant—we're all dazed and stumbling and trying to rebuild ourselves.

A lot of us are realizing that the way we thought the world worked hadn't been working for us at all for a long time—but we just want to get back to normal. I've been in a similar position twice before.

In 2009 I worked as the director of digital communications at Time Warner Cable. As a lifelong artist and smartass, I never thought I would end up representing a broadband provider on Twitter while wearing a necktie, but it kind of snuck up on me.

I was sparring in a Muay Thai class after work one night and took a front kick right to the crotch. That kind of kick never feels wonderful, but this one felt like a sparkling mushroom cloud. I went straight home and called a urologist. In the time between the kick and the appointment, I kept telling myself "just keep acting normal and soon everything will be back to normal."

The doctor's sonogram revealed a testicular tumor like a dark killing moon, a malignant Terminator pulsing with poison under a cloak of healthy living tissue right where my clumsy sparring partner kicked me.

Cancer, Divorce, Coronavirus, Lockdown
Comedian Jeff Simmermon at The Nest under Bluebird in Brooklyn, New York in 2019. JOE ORECCHIO

"This testicle comes out tomorrow. We've got to move fast before it hits your lymphatic system and spreads to your whole body," the doctor said.

I staggered out of a taxi 24 hours later with an incision in my groin, opioids in my pocket and silicone in my scrotum. I was back in the office in less than two weeks. Months later, I discovered that my body no longer produced testosterone naturally.

It took over a year to get my levels right. During that time, I repeated the same phrase over and over again: "once things get back to normal."

A few years passed. I married the woman I was dating during my cancer struggle. She was a cancer survivor too, and I felt so lucky to be with someone who shared an adjacent experience and stuck by my side through that slow-motion hell train.

Eventually, I left my job to focus on standup comedy full-time. Suddenly my days were formless and I couldn't tell the difference between weekdays and weekends. I was doing shows all the time, but clawing to get onstage five to 10 times a week makes a nine to five routine seem relaxing.

I'm not sure what the worst kind of divorce is, but a surprise divorce has got to rank right up there.

I told my wife, "things will be fine once I settle into a normal routine."

Then it was date night, two weeks after our first wedding anniversary. She said "before we go out, I just want to tell you something real quick: After you left your job to do comedy you changed and the feelings I had for you at our wedding are gone and they're not coming back. I'm moving out this weekend while you're out of town, and that's that."

I'm compressing here, but not much. I'm not sure what the worst kind of divorce is, but a surprise divorce has got to rank right up there. I spent the next few months in a haze, wandering around New York City; spending my nights on squalid stages and my days crying in coffee shops.

Twice a week, I'd say to my therapist "I just want everything to get back to normal." One day he said to me "Listen, healthy marriages don't end in a surprise divorce. Whatever you think you miss probably wasn't working for you either."

I spent months following both traumas trying to make sense out of what happened and get back to normal. Both times, I only found a "normal" once I accepted that what happened made no sense at all.

I have now realized that what we think of as "normal" is just what happens in our lives most days, whether or not it's functional or healthy.

But though we fall into routines, we also have the power to mould our routines and let them be a sense of comfort. I did sprints in the park and drank a kale and protein-powder smoothie every morning for months after my divorce.

It's not like somebody knocks on your door and hands you a special badge to wear that says "I'M OK" on it.

"The next 23 and a half hours might be terrible," I thought, "but at least I started right."

I can't say that I'm necessarily happy that the cancer or divorce happened. But instead of thinking of these events like asteroids that fell on my house, I see them more as forest fires that burned out a lot of dead wood on my life's forest floor. Both times something wasn't working, and both times I'd accepted that as normal until it all got cleared out with a lot of heat and screaming.

Cancer, Divorce, Comedy, Standup, Coronavirus
Jeff Simmermon performing standup comedy at Secret Loft in New York, 2018. TUCKER MITCHELL

All I would suggest for people trying to navigate their way through this pandemic is; try and enjoy the things that are right in front of you and work to put more enjoyment in your reach.

On my best days, I take my medicine, exercise and laugh with my fiancee and then do a few shows and take it all for granted. It's not like somebody knocks on your door and hands you a special badge to wear that says "I'M OK" on it, it's just a change that happens over time.

Like when a caterpillar goes into its pupae to become a butterfly, and totally liquifies. If you were to slice that pupae open, this weird goo would dribble out. But that goo is totally alive and rearranging itself into a butterfly.

And when the butterfly comes out of the chrysalis it has to sit there on a branch and let its wings dry off, fill up and stiffen.

And as that wet butterfly sits there on the branch, it probably thinks "when the hell are things going to get back to normal around here?"

Then the breeze picks up and the butterfly flies away.

Jeff Simmermon is a standup comedian, writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, New York. He also teaches storytelling and his work has appeared on The Moth podcast and "This American Life." He has just released his second album of standup and storytelling, called "Why You Should Be Happy." He can be found on Instagram @jeff.simmermon

All views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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