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