When we received Mark’s third cancer diagnosis almost two months ago it wasn’t shocking. I think after so many sucker punches over the past few years we just accepted the hit as a devastating blow and agreed to fight with resigned apathy. Another battle, another scar, another confrontation with the devil himself. But we hadn’t replenished our energy yet from the last round. At least I hadn’t.
Our surgical oncologist, Dr Wang, is every inch the professional. He’s brilliant and kind and a good listener. Whenever I’ve questioned him about curing Mark’s cancer he’s always reassured me he will do everything in his power, but there have never been any promises. Which, of course, he CAN’T promise miracles when miracles aren’t in his spiritual wheelhouse. Yes, he can save a life, and has saved Mark’s, but ultimately cancer does what cancer wants.
Dr Wang had walked into the room, his eyes compassionate. He said of the new report, “This is disappointing.”
Mark asked if the cancer returning again is bad and I waited for Dr Wang to give a non-committal answer and instead was astounded to hear him say, “Yes, this is bad.”
I went numb and the next day I could barely function. Mom tried to take me out to lunch and cheer me up but I couldn’t stop crying. We had to rush out of the restaurant and on the way home I threw up in a neighbor’s yard. I spent the rest of the day in bed and the next four days on the couch. My whole body felt heavy, all I could do was stare straight ahead. I was nauseous and scared, my sinuses painful from so much crying. I couldn’t breathe correctly and my heartbeat was erratic and annoying.
I remember Mark standing over me, his face thin and anxious. “You can’t fall apart on me,” he said. “I need you.”
I wanted to weep harder. Real cancer was happening to Mark’s body. My mind was responsible for making ME sick. I was failing him on so many levels.
I hesitate to tell you the above about myself because, to me, all of those emotions and my consequent inactions, are shameful.
Let me start by saying not everyone in my life knows I’m in therapy. Therapy, although long overdue and 100% necessary for me personally, may be considered by some to be taboo. So the vulnerability really begins there. Am I in therapy because I’m crazy? Because I have a mental health disorder? Because I’m feeble and can’t handle my own problems? I remember when I first started sessions with Rosamunde… my main goal at that time was: I want to learn how to be an adult. When she asked what that meant to me I said, “To be self-sufficient mentally, emotionally and financially.” Isn’t that what life in America is all about? Complete independence? Being strong, standing up for ourselves and others? Working the grind, killing it on a side hustle? An entrepreneur who’s her own boss, doesn’t need a man and finds validation and self-worth from inside herself?
I’m none of those things. I wish I were. I’ve tried and failed horrifically, beating myself up with constant negative self-talk. You know that negative voice, right? That mean one in the back of your head, the bully, the crass be-atch who snidely asks, “What is WRONG with you? Why can’t you be more kind/successful/intelligent/powerful/beautiful? Why can’t you be a better wife/daughter/friend/writer/dog mom? You’re so weak/lazy/hopeless/needy.” The voice… it doesn’t stop. I’ve learned to drown her out sometimes, but she’s still on my case, relentless in her pursuit to bring me down. On the days I don’t respond to her cruelty she pulls out all of my worst moments and replays them in vivid detail.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with solitary individualism. I very much adore a sense of community, a camaraderie with those I support and encourage and lean on. I do understand that we should not fully weigh down others with our needs, but the thought of not finding soul friends to love and trust squeezes my heart with lonely anguish. I yearn to be a part of something. I wish… to BELONG.
So I’ve tried to mold myself into various groups over the years… be what they wanted, act accordingly, wear whichever mask was called for at the right time. I gave my all to blend in wherever I was and the thing is… none of it made me happy. I didn’t fit in anywhere. Not really. It was draining always being what I thought other people wanted in exchange for love and acceptance. And now I realize that doesn’t make sense because no one was accepting me for the *real* me.
Rosamunde once said, “People who do not feel understood usually do not understand themselves.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Maybe it’s not so much that I don’t know myself, but that I’m embarrassed to tell people the unpopular things about me. Masking is easier than admitting I’m not a go-getter. I’m not a girl boss. I’m not a take-charge, no-nonsense badass. I’m not a leader. I’m none of the things I long to be. I crumbled when my husband had cancer for the third time. Does it make me weak to admit all of that?
And do you think less of me for craving a loving community full of kindness and non-judgement instead of striving to be the independent bulletproof hero in my own story?
In the meantime, I’m trying to be gentler and more forgiving with myself even though my inner critic thinks that’s an absolute pansy-ish way to handle life. I just don’t want to waste energy on her attacks when the true combat lies elsewhere. Although Mark’s cancer has been eradicated again through surgery we now know how insidious, resilient and absolutely determined it can be. This is war, and if we can beat the devil back little by little then perhaps our battles will make miracles happen.
And maybe, just maybe, the magic of healing is in the fight itself.