I am standing in the middle of a chaotic highway. Cars are speeding fast at blinding speeds and I am dizzily avoiding a collision. As soon as one near miss flies by, I am faced with another one. While I am focusing so completely on the immediate danger, I do not feel the earth shaking at my feet nor do I notice the rocks and debris tumbling toward me from the hill to my left. Then it hits and I am swept up into the tide of painful rocks, suffocating mud, and irritating debris.
If ever there was an analogy for my life, that was it.
I have shocking news for you. Life is HARD. It is emotional, mundane, chaotic, and numbing. Yes, some of those are contrasting terms, but is life not contrasting daily? One day you can be on top of the world, pep in your step and everything going your way. The next day, the bottom falls out and your outlook goes with it. Typically, we are expected to face these challenges as they appear. We direct our attention to one thing at a time and figure it out. Stress is manageable and finite so long as we can see the resolution. Now, imagine having all of the typical, monotonous life issues everyone has but compounded by a terminal illness.
When the landslide that is cancer hits your already frantic, middle of the freeway life, how do you function?
Cancer changes every thing, including your feelings.
Every day, someone says to me that I am strong. We talk about the mythology of the strong, cancer fighter who we see displayed in magazines and on television. But what does that mean? Does it mean that we push on even with these insurmountable issues? Or does it mean that we don’t fall down and give up?
The truth is, I do not know how to effectively manage my feelings. After three years of living with metastatic breast cancer, I have just acknowledged this. Even more, I do not freely admit this. The only reason I am even doing so now is because earlier this week, I fell apart at my oncology appointment. It was an emotional vomiting on my part, the kind of which I have never done before. Reflecting on it since, I now wonder what real strength is.
Taking a deeper look at the gooey inside.
For as long as I can remember, life has been a struggle. Not growing up in the idyllic fantasy displayed on television, I learned early on that the only way to get ahead in life is to work hard and take action for what you want. I felt I had to push past the emotions, put the ugly feelings aside, just to get from A to B. And it has worked for me…mostly.
About a year after my first round with stage I breast cancer, my doctor prescribed antidepressants for me to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder that he said resulted from my experience. His words to me were, “you did so good during treatment that you didn’t allow yourself to feel it while it was happening”. True, however that was the only way I knew how to get through it. I faithfully took the medication for about six months, then moved on.
My stage IV diagnosis was earth shattering. That landslide wiped me out. The first year living with this disease, I expected to die at any moment. Every appointment I expected to be told that this was it, game over. During that time, I still had to function. I have a child to raise who needs groceries in the kitchen and a roof over his head. As a single mother, I did not have the option of wallowing in my despair. So I pushed it down, down, down.
Eventually, the pressure builds and the bomb explodes.
I do not think I will ever forget the look on my oncologist’s face when the emotional bomb inside of me exploded all over his office. He has told me that I am his model patient. Three years with stage IV cancer, working full time, single mom, and always cheerful, positive, and with minimal complaints. Once I started saying how I was feeling, I couldn’t stop.
A chronic suppressor, my doctor decried, and it was like a light going on. It is easier for me to function when I do not acknowledge the hard things. I push on, trying as hard as possible never to show my weakness. The contrary problem with that is by not feeling my emotions, not acknowledging the weakness within me, I am not dealing with it. Masking it with humor, of which I am completely guilty, also distances you from having to really talk about it with other people. That level of denial not only keeps others from helping you, it makes it difficult to help yourself.
Sidestepping with the truth.
For all of the lamentations about how strong a person is, are they really if they are not allowing themselves to really address their feelings about it? Our emotions and responses to situations are so much a part of who we are. Ignoring the hard stuff doesn’t seem very strong and I certainly did not sound so in my doctor’s office.
We all need to allow ourselves to really feel they way we do, to acknowledge those feelings, and to be honest with ourselves about what that means and how it affects us. There is strength in embracing our weakness. In the cancer community, we speak every day about how when asked, we mostly respond with “fine” or “good”. We think that people do not really want our honest answers, but what if we don’t really want them either?
It is beneficial and healing to acknowledge these truths about ourselves. I feel I am embarking on a new journey within myself. As uncomfortable as it is, I need to allow my emotions a place in my existence. I am learning and consciously working on this within myself because I am worth it. We are worth it. We will find our strength in our honesty. Maybe the next time someone tells me how strong I am, I will actually believe them.
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