Vulnerability is a very good thing – especially when you have cancer

Baby Tami needed a hand up then, and  she still needs it now.

Baby Tami needed a hand up then, and  she still needs it now from time to time.

Sometimes you have to hit bottom to transform your life. It is a common theme in the 12-step recovery program, and it seems to have applied to me lately. The other night I was experiencing what could be called the dark night of the soul. A lot of scary and depressing things were happening at once:

1. My oncologist confirmed my scans showed progression. She is starting me on a new trial, which looks promising (will explain in next week’s post), but it was hitting me that I am again in uncharted territory.

2. I had just returned from a trip to see a friend who is suffering and dying.

3. To top it off, I was sick from and run down from all my traveling, suffering with a cold, nausea and a pulled shoulder muscle.

I had one of those “I want my mommy feelings” except I never had a mommy who was capable of nurturing me. And she has passed away anyway. I started going down a slippery slope. Am I too wimpy to face the true pain and suffering that I’ve seen my friends face? A very judgmental voice rang in my head. “What is wrong with you? You know people who are going through much worse. What happens when you really get sick? You couldn’t handle it. You’ll probably just give up and ask hospice to knock you out with drugs. You are not strong enough to do this.”

It was awful. Not only was I not giving myself the permission to experience pain and fear; I was shaming myself for it. I would never say these things to anyone else, but there I was mercilessly berating myself. I thought of calling someone to talk with, but the friends I’d usually go to were too sick or, frankly, no longer on this earth. This is the double-edged sword of becoming close with other stage IV survivors. They understand like no one else, but sometimes you lose them.

Then I just threw it out there on trusty Facebook. A complaint. Yes, I gave myself the permission to complain. And I got support, love and nurturing comments. Several people told me I could call them any time. They all weren’t survivors, but they cared. And that, I found, was all that mattered. We all understand pain, and we can be there for each other even if we aren’t experiencing the same exact thing. I have no problem giving that support to others, but why do I find it so difficult to be vulnerable enough to ask for myself?

After years of therapy, I have identified the source of that awful judgmental voice. It was my mother’s. She was a prescription drug addict and had borderline personality disorder. The world revolved around her and her perceived illnesses. I was never allowed to feel ill or vulnerable. My job was to take care of her. Even when she learned I had cancer, she had to prove she was sicker than I was.

Yesterday, after my dark night of the soul, my daughter had menstrual cramps (sorry for the TMI!). Of course I was there to take care of her. Then I had a memory of when this happened to me as a teenager. My mom mocked me, saying “If you can’t handle something as little as menstrual cramps, how will you be able to handle a serious illness like mine?” This was often the answer to my needing nurturing. If I was sad about a boyfriend breakup, she’d say, “How will you handle true heartbreak if you are so upset over this?”

THAT was the voice I was hearing in my head the other night. My mother has been gone for almost a year, but that voice is still there. I realize her actions were the result of her mental illness and substance abuse, and I have forgiven her. But it was a huge insight for me and why I often struggle with asking for support.  I do not cry easily, but I am brought to tears when someone offers compassion and help so freely to me because I never had that growing up.

I had a conversation with a friend I’ve known for more than 25 years. We know each other better than we know our family members. He gave me the gift of reference by telling me that when he met me he would never have anticipated how strong and resourceful I would be faced with such a situation. He has every confidence I will be able to handle anything that comes my way.

I’m learning it’s good to be vulnerable and be on the receiving end once in a while. It is not weak to not feel strong. In fact, it allows others to recognize their own vulnerabilities and compassion. It’s what makes us human. Wow, what a concept! Thanks for all of your love and support. It means so much to me. I hope my honesty helps some of you who have similar issues. We’re all in this together.

 

14 Comments

  1. tamilb
    Jul 15, 2015

    Thanks so much Donna. I appreciate your prayers!

  2. Donna Williams
    Jul 9, 2015

    Hi Tami,

    On your last post entitled “Roller coaster report: My new treatment” I shared words of prayer for you, and I’m glad to hear someone has heard them and that you are showing progression. It really brings me joy to know that you have such a nurturing support network, especially when I strive to be a pillar of support myself for many women enduring much of the same at the Sisters Network of Central NJ, the organization I mentioned before that I volunteer for. I am going to continue rooting for you girl and hope that the voice you hear from here on out is your own – a voice that is so strong it draws in hundreds to read your blogs.

    Many blessings,

    Donna

  3. tamilb
    Jul 8, 2015

    Hugs to you Jackie and thanks so much for commenting and following my blog. xoxo

  4. Jackie D
    Jul 4, 2015

    I relate to this so very much. I think my least favorite sadness is the one that is accompanied by a yearning for the loving, nurturing mother I never had. (As my therapist always says, it IS possible to miss something you never had when that something is a mother. It’s in our DNA.)

    I’m glad you reached out however you could. Isolation with those feelings just makes them worse. Even the strongest of us need to be taken care of from time to time.

    Thinking of you often and sending my best wishes always.

  5. tamilb
    Jul 2, 2015

    Good for you, Sam. Thanks!

  6. tamilb
    Jul 2, 2015

    Thanks Vicki! We will have to talk sometime!

  7. Vicki
    Jul 2, 2015

    Thanks for sharing, Tami. You are entitled to bad days and being vulnerable. My mom is a narcissist so I was never able to own my own feelings or opinions. Some days I’m still under her spell (she lives 3,000 miles away). But it’s great that you’ve had this epiphany and can learn and be a better person and mother because of it!

  8. sarah (Sam) elliston
    Jul 2, 2015

    TAMI<
    I am glad you had this insight, despite the pain of the process. I too have a critical mother's voice in my head and it stops me often. I learn about balancing myself and believing in myself from you – more than you could know. Thanks
    Sam

  9. tamilb
    Jul 2, 2015

    Thank you so much Beth! So sorry you had a similar experience growing up but it is evident you have overcome your circumstances and used it for good.

  10. Beth Gainer
    Jul 2, 2015

    Tami, this is a remarkable, insightful post. Oftentimes, it’s those voices of childhood that influence our vulnerability in the present. Know that you are worth being nurtured, and it’s fine to vent, rant, cry, and be upset. It doesn’t make you a weak person.

    My mom always thought if one cried, then it meant that person was weak. Well, imagine her reaction when I cried because of cancer! I was told I was weak.

    You are a strong person; strong people share their vulnerabilities. You are a human and are entitled to feel the way you feel.

    Hugs,
    Beth

  11. tamilb
    Jul 2, 2015

    Thank YOU Jeanne! Your comment made my day. God bless you!

  12. tamilb
    Jul 2, 2015

    Hugs to you Caroline!

  13. Jeanne
    Jul 1, 2015

    Tami-Your book pulled off the cliff’s edge when first diagnosed as stage IV. I would be honored if you ever called, texted or emailed because you needed a soft place to land. I did have a nurturing mother and grandmother. I know how to do it well. So many of my BC Sisters have helped me. I hope to repay a fraction of that to other survivors in moments of need. We know that is what they are, moments. We will get past and move forward. Sometimes it sure doesn’t feel that way. I truly miss my loving mother. I find pieces of her in the women that surround me and you are one of them. Thank you.

  14. Caroline
    Jul 1, 2015

    My mother is oh so nurturing as well. While she does not have dependencies both my parents just don’t know how to parent. There is no contest about who is sicker and who isn’t.
    I have often wanted my mommy but never had one as well. I find my support in my husband and my friends. (And don’t ask about my MIL, she offers no support either.) We all need to make our own support. It sounds like you have friends to support you. Hugs.

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  1. Weekly Round Up: The Independence Day Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer - […] Tami‘s latest post on expressing her vulnerability was one of the first posts on my catch-up list […]

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