Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

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Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.

The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.

So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.

They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)

But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.

The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.

Armstrong and Kübler-Ross

I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.

So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.

Here are excerpts:

… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]

… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]

My thoughts TODAY

Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?

Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).

So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.

The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.

So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.

And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.

13 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

  1. I don’t think it was a mistake to include him–or even other living people. To me, one of the important themes of the book is change and dealing with it. Change is inevitable and no two people or even instances in one person’s life are the same. When we have all the facts, if ever, it will be interesting to see if LAs reaction to this controversy (not contesting it) rather than being an admission of guilt is really a transcending act. Who knows? . . .

    • Yes, you’ve hit it spot on. Still big news that is not ‘accounted for’ in the text is somewhat awkward for a writer. But you’ve absolutely got the spirit of it.

  2. I like the mix of living and historical figures. It makes the concepts more tangible. In this case, Lance now has a disaster he has to absorb and then channel his “inner Scipio” and turn it into a triumph. It will be fascinating to watch how this unfolds

    • That’s good to know, Kevin. I mean, that the mix of living and historical worked for you.

      And yes, Armstrong is young enough that he may have more Scipios, Fabii and Hannibals in him yet.

  3. From what little I’ve read of l’affaire Armstrong, the imbibing of performance-enhancing substances was so widespread in the cycling milieu that any cyclist not imbibing them would have been at a competitive disadvantage.

    So, if Armstrong did imbibe them he was merely creating for himself a level playing field (or level cycling track), so making his seven Tour de France victories undiminishedly remarkable. If he didn’t imbibe these substances, his seven victories are even more remarkable.

    In any case, all the help he’s given in the fight against cancer will be his greatest legacy.

    • Technically, I think it was a matter of injecting, not imbibing. But yes, a whole lot of them seem to have done it. I don’t know where that leaves the individual racer — ie, whether to do it (or do anything) when “everybody is doing it” is OK.

  4. Thank God Amy Tan is still clean (I hope).
    I found this recent news about Lance Armstrong disappointing, especially in light of all the young cyclists and athletes in general who were motivated by his story.
    Oh well.
    And interesting that when a genuine sports hero is squeaky clean (like Tim Tebow) how the media despises him (especially if the hero is religious). There is a certain glee in it all.

  5. To take up Thomas Stazyk’s point, Kipling meant us to treat triumph and disaster as if they were just the same, impostors. That is the way to keep a cool head and cope with ever-present perils and uncertainties, whatever the current state of our fortunes. Living honestly with all-consuming doubt and deferring decisions where necessary, impervious to acclaim or denunciation, tests our courage and resolve.

    One might say, therefore, that the only valid illustrations are living ones.

  6. In hindsight, it is a bit unfair on Armstrong who claims to be the “world’s most tested athlete.” He has cleared some 500-odd blood/urine tests. He was never caught during his ‘playing career’. It’s strange that the anti-doping ‘technology’ was not up to snuff to detect any of the substances that he injected and mysteriously good enough to fell other athletes. If that is true, Armstrong would have pulled one of the biggest heists in sporting history.

    I am glad you had some like Amy Tan, Tiger Woods, Armstrong, & Steve Jobs (who was still alive when you included him). Had you not included them, wouldn’t it have been a timid move? Moreover, they make alluring subjects for folks especially in their 20s and 30s who would love to know what makes these living legends tick. For instance, in your Tiger Woods story, you explain how he approaches his sport. If I were a golf fan, I would have loved it. I am not. I still loved it. Why? Because I sure as hell want to know why on earth is there such a huge gap between him and the second position in his sport. I can relate to him better than say a character from a 100 years ago who was equally famous. I may pick your book from a store or online because it has stories of some familiar living characters in it and then be blown away by reading other stories like those of Eleanor Roosevelt (which incidentally happens to be one of my favourite chapters in your book).

  7. Like mentioned above, Doping in cycling is widespread. Even cyclists on amateur tours are doping. I don’t see it as a surprise, can you even fathom these riders riding for 20 days straight without much rest and competing at such a high level?
    Regardless of doping, as you pointed out its Armstrongs story of battling and triumphing through tragedy.

    I have a hold on your book at the local library and am anxiously awaiting its arrival.

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