Amy Colver, LCSW
Melody Griffith, MSW, LMSW, OSW-C
AOSW Communications Director
Jeanice Hansen, LCSW, OSW-C
To submit a story or information for inclusion in a future issue of AOSW Newsletter, contact Amy Colver or Melody Griffith on the list above.
The Experience of Living Between Two Kingdoms; Suleika Jaouad’s Memoir of a Life Interrupted
Review by Amy Colver, LCSW
If you are looking for a book that beautifully describes and reflects the experience of living in the “in between” places in life, you will not want to miss Suleika Jaouad’s memoir Between Two Kingdoms. Suleika shares her experience of living in the “in between” places as it relates to a cancer diagnosis. Though her story is focused on cancer, I found that the lived experience and wisdom she shares throughout the book are relatable and applicable for anyone who is living a different life than what they had initially planned. It is also meaningful to the work we do every day as oncology social workers.
Please note that there are a few spoilers about details of the book and Suleika’s story in this article. Please read on as you see fit.
Suleika adopts the concept of two kingdoms related to illness from Susan Sontag’s book, Illness as a Metaphor. She includes the following quote from Sontag in her own book, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obligated, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of the other place.” In part one of her book, we learn that Suleika was living her young adult life in the kingdom of the well, but over time, she finds herself immersed in the kingdom of the sick. In part two of her book, she starts her path back to the kingdom of the well, while often feeling that she is actually living in between the two.
While Suleika was in her senior year college, she starts to experience symptoms that progressed over the course of a year. Regardless of how significant her symptoms were, her life went on. She moves to New York City immediately following her college graduation. In NYC, she goes through a series of events that turned her into a person that she did not like or recognize. She decides to move to Paris after a few short months in NYC. Paris becomes her “escape plan.” Just before her move to Paris, she meets a man named Will and they enter into an unexpected romantic relationship. While establishing her life in Paris, she starts to dream about the future, about the person she hopes to become. Suleika and Will become more connected to each other over time. As she creates her life individually as well as theirs together, her symptoms worsen. She returns to her hometown, Saratoga, New York, to live with her parents while undergoing a thorough diagnostic work up of her symptoms. Close to the time of her cancer diagnosis, she described herself as feeling fragile for the first time in her life. She writes, “It’s like I am made of eggshells.”
In May 2011, at age 22, Suleika was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. She describes her diagnosis in heart wrenching detail, not only her individual experience, but the impact on others, something that she brings awareness to throughout the book.
As Suleika gathers information about her diagnosis, she learns that her specific leukemia is quite complicated with a limited chance of survival. She receives months of chemotherapy treatment followed by a bone marrow transplant. She starts to notice that she is a young adult that is not meeting the milestones of others her age. She quickly learns that she will need to become an advocate for herself, especially as it relates to her own fertility. Her treatment course is described in detail during part one of the book. The physical complications, suffering, losses, isolation, and emotional impact of it all are written with such humanity.
As time goes on, Suleika describes herself as “stuck” and tries to find ways to move forward while experiencing physical limitations. Journaling is something that helps her “find her power.” While undergoing chemotherapy treatment, she starts the 100 Day Project, which gives her an opportunity to work on something creative every day. She chooses writing as her creative outlet and starts a blog. Just weeks before her transplant, Suleika receives a call from the New York Times about her writing and works tirelessly to launch her column, Life Interrupted.
Suleika’s writing gains more and more popularity over time. She is isolated during the transplant process and recovery. She finds the letters and emails that she receives in response to her column to be her lifeline to the outside world. Through the correspondence from others and in being recognized at the hospital during appointments, she finds her “cancer crew,” a group of young adults living with cancer who become her dearest friends. She writes about her relationships with “cancer crew” and reflects on what it is like to be a young adult with cancer. She also writes about her relationships with her parents and brother. Her relationship with Will is a prominent aspect of the book. She gracefully reflects on the issues that she and Will experienced throughout their relationship; issues that continue to build and eventually lead to their separation. Suleika arrives at the time where she is able to write about finishing treatment. She writes about what freedom means to her. She realizes that she gets to a place where the kingdom of the sick is her comfort zone, and the kingdom of the well is frightening. She realizes that she is living in the “in between” place, and she needs to find her own way forward.
As she starts on her path back to the kingdom of the well, Suleika reconnects with an old friend, Jon. She finds stability in him. She develops a deep love for Jon, one that she was not expecting. Readers have the opportunity to witness Suleika’s processing of her thoughts and feelings about being in another romantic relationship after all that she and Will endured in theirs. She decides to focus on travelling. She embarks on a 100-day, cross country road trip to meet a handful of the people that corresponded with her while she was in treatment. On her road trip, she spends time with other cancer patients, a parent of one of her friends from the cancer crew, a man who has lived with a chronic illness for most of his life, a woman who lost her son to suicide, an inmate in Texas, and other random strangers along the way. Each person shares their life with her with a focus on ways that they are living in between two kingdoms of their own. Through traveling, she regains a connection to others in addition to her confidence, independence, acceptance, and insight into her experience.
Suleika’s story is one that readers can relate to in their own unique way. Her story is one of resilience and hope. I have learned a great deal from her lived experience and wisdom. I am grateful to have traveled alongside Suleika in her amazing memoir.
Within the last several months, Suleika experienced a leukemia relapse and is recovering from a second bone marrow transplant. She relaunched her 100 Day Project. She has been focusing on writing as well as art as creative outlets this time around. Also, during the pandemic, she launched The Isolation Journals, which is a creative writing project in which people are invited to write by receiving a specific prompt each week. She writes a blog alongside the prompt and has welcomed other writers into the project to do the same. More recently, as a part of The Isolation Journals, Suleika launched an advice column called “Dear Susu.” Similar to a “Dear Abby” column, people can write to Suleika with questions about “writing and life and everything in between.
For more information on Suleika, please visit her website. She also actively shares her story on Instagram and Facebook.
About the Author
Amy Colver, MSSA, MA, LCSWEditor-in-Chief
Susan G. Komen
Amy Colver is a Sr. Specialist in Health Information and Publications at Susan G. Komen. She received her Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) and her Master of Arts in Bioethics (MA) from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). Amy...
Read Full Author Bio
Amy Colver, MSSA, MA, LCSWEditor-in-Chief
Susan G. Komen
Amy Colver is a Sr. Specialist in Health Information and Publications at Susan G. Komen. She received her Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) and her Master of Arts in Bioethics (MA) from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). Amy has several years of clinical experience in the field of oncology social work. She has worked primarily in outpatient cancer centers in both Cleveland, Ohio and Denver, Colorado. In addition to her clinical responsibilities, Amy is a member of the Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW), serving on the Communications Committee. She has been the editor of the AOSW Newsletter since the summer of 2021 and now serves as Editor in Chief. She has volunteered with The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, The Cleveland Hope Lodge, The Gathering Place, and The Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at CWRU. She has served on various committees within her places of employment and has been involved in psychosocial research. Her career is a testament to her passion of providing psychosocial care to patients and their support systems facing cancer.
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