Change happens, and it affects everyone around us like the ripples that appear when a rock is thrown into a lake.
I grew up with two alcoholic parents who separated when I was five. My father left for parts unknown until I was 12. That left my mother, sister and me. We moved four times before I was 12, so I had a first-class education in managing the ripples (that sometimes felt like waves) in my lake.
Watching my mother drink away her career as a secretary, and helping my sister run our household molded my personality to being the funny, strong-willed peacekeeper. I learned at an early age that being funny could quickly diffuse an argument. A few well-placed tears would end a conversation, and being able to “let things roll off my shoulders” was admirable. I became a master of deflection. I rarely let anyone know how I really felt. When asked how I was doing, “I’mfine” became one word.
Later, as a married mother of two, the rock thrown in my lake was stage 3 breast cancer.
After completing 18 months of treatment and surgeries, a once hyper, funny, strong, peacekeeping personal trainer, was now a slow-moving, bald, one-breasted, depressed woman. I hated looking in the mirror, I hated looking at my body. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t even make jokes about it. Being strong for me was simply getting out of bed. My tool box of emotional defenses no longer worked. I couldn’t joke my way out of this, I couldn’t be strong and there was no peace to keep. I hit bottom. What do you do when you wake up defenseless one day in a different body?
I returned to work one week after chemotherapy ended. I had radiation every day for five weeks, and I was getting my expanders (new breasts) filled every week. I had to take valium so my chest muscles wouldn’t contract and destroy the temporary implants. On top of this, I couldn’t find my sense of humor, my strength or my confidence. I felt like a stranger in my body and in my life.
After joining a survivor’s support group, I learned that this is all part of the process of transitioning from patient to survivor. We are challenged to rebuild ourselves from the inside out. At first I was pissed off that this was yet another change to deal with.
At some point, I thought, "What if this isn’t a challenge? What if this is a gift? What if I took this opportunity to see how the other half lived?"
So I tried on a few new emotions to see how they fit. I played around with vulnerability, letting folks know that I loved them by actually telling them why I love them. I dabbled in compassion, giving my kids and husband space to figure out how to deal with me and my cancer instead of telling them what they should be doing. One of my favorite new toys to play with was self-esteem. I learned how communicate my feelings with compassion. I gave up being strong as a crutch. I let my defenses down, and went with the flow. I stopped trying to fix things and people. I no longer felt a need to protect people from emotions (mine or theirs).
I even started to dress differently, wearing beaded jewelry instead of silver or gold. Makeup wasn’t so important. I finally stepped out of the closet with my love of big hoop earrings. This was my chance to become my version of the “tree-hugging hippie” I’ve always felt lived inside me.
It was uncomfortable at first; I got blank stares when I would tell people my kids were driving me crazy, but I was still happy to be here to argue with them. I no longer wanted to play the game, “My _____ is more fabulous than your_______.” I felt the stares and heard the comments from friends and family as I made these changes. I learned that in some relationships, if we're not complaining or comparing, we don’t have much to talk about.
A couple of my friends asked me how long my “newfound life affirmation” stage would last. A few of them told me I was becoming too serious, that it was time to get over cancer. And a few of them embraced me and love me for who I am. People have come and gone from my life throughout my survivorship. I love and respect them all as they are on their own journey as well.
I feel as though I’ve come full circle. I love my beads and my big earrings. I embrace my humor, my strength and I love my mad peace keeping skills. But now I get to use them when I choose, when I feel they are appropriate to the situation.
I still catch myself saying, “Imfine,” but when I do, I laugh to myself, take a breath and start over.