I was chatting with a friend the other day about our respective surprise! divorces. He is about 5 years behind me in the recovery process and admittedly, still struggles with all of the anger and turmoil and the in-your-faceness that is the devastation of a spouse walking out on you. As we talked, I began to realize just how “over it” I was, how that part of me which had once seemed so big and awful and defining seemed so tiny compared to who I am at this moment, and the life I have now.
I assured him that somehow, you do get to where your life isn’t about what happened to you; to where it’s no longer about the divorce. “It’s not that you forget,” I explained, “It’s just that what happened doesn’t seem like such a big part of you anymore….you detach.” I explained that I got to where the abundance of good in my life had overshadowed the bad, so much so that my new life seemed infinitely better than the old one. Enough so that I didn’t mourn the old one any longer.
“I’m not there yet,” he said.
Wanting to offer a pathway, I tried to remember how I had gotten myself to this point. I explained that sudden divorce is a trauma and what psychologists will tell you about trauma is that you can’t really erase it or expunge it from your memory, but what you can do is build bridges around the trauma. You can build bridges of new memories and positive things and good stuff around it and over it, creating a virtual super highway infrastructure all around it per se. “Suddenly,” I said, “You wake up one day and there is so much good, so many bridges of good stuff, bridges to what we want in life being accessible again that yeah, even though the ick is still there, its presence doesn’t matter.” Indeed, all of the sudden, you don’t care that this murky little dried up river o’gloom runs deep below, because all that matters is what happening on the bridges and where the bridges are taking you.
I had worked hard at bridge building I told him, making new traditions with my kids and creating a new life and career, and making so many good new memories to where quite frankly, the old life and what was before, didn’t look nearly as fun and good in the wake of my new life. Building not in spite of what happened, but despite what happened, I had created a life where my joy or ability to access joy was hampered or held back by the trauma anymore.
After my mom died I spent months and months and months weeping; I could barely make it through the work day and once I got home, I dissolved. Finally, a friend mine sat me down and said, “Look, there is good news and bad news about losing your mom, the bad news is, you will never get over losing your mom, but the good news is, you will never get over losing your mom.”
Many years ago, (so forgive me if some of the details/quotes aren’t exact) I was listening to “The Story” on NPR. Dick Gordon was interviewing a woman who had been in a prison for a very long time. The gist of the story was that when she was younger, she had been an honor student and really had a lot going for her but she took a wrong turn one day, and found herself in the wrong place in the wrong time. This was just after the law had changed in her state about a mandatory life sentence for people who are also in a car when a crime involving cocaine was committed. She had no idea the person had drugs on them; really did not even know the driver of the car. Anyway, the story goes that an innocence project group had worked for years on gaining her freedom.
Poignantly and evenly, she spoke of talking with her elderly and wise grandmother on prison visits about the circumstances of her life. As she cries to her grandmother about what has happened to her, her grandmother repeatedly says, trying to soothe her, “Outlive it; outlive it baby.”
“Outlive it. Outlive it…” she said quietly in the interview and paused. “You know, my grandmother said that to me again and again, and I always thought she was talking about living long enough to see the end of my sentence, outliving my prison sentence so I would eventually get out; that I would see freedom if I lived long enough.”
Freedom finally found her many years later. “After I got out,” she said, “I was talking with my grandmother about what it had meant, ‘outlive it’” Her grandmother said, “No baby, it wasn’t about living longer than the prison sentence, it was about outliving all the bad things in your life, living long enough that the good in your life is more than the bad; so that you outlive the bad.”
Cancer is not unlike any of these instances. It is a full on trauma like divorce, or imprisonment or the death of a loved one. The question I get most in my practice, and have asked myself over and over about my own stuff is, “Will it ever go away, will the darkness about what happened ever cease, will the dreaming about it and waking up thinking about it every day, the in-your-faceness ever stop?”
The answer is, “The bad news is we will never get over having cancer, the good news is, we will never get over having cancer.” There is some good in having bad in our lives, it gives us measure of how good the good is. But the real answer to this question is, “Yes.” But it takes some work.
We must build bridges of good experiences around it and over it and through it and under it. These repeated positive experiences serve to remind us that cancer doesn’t have that much power over us anymore. New and happy experiences overshadow the cancer, making it smaller at least, and not so incapacitating. Each new experience, each piece of goodness, is yet another pathway around cancer, and soon, these bridges become the walkway of our life.
It’s not about getting over the trauma, but getting over the trauma; building above and around it and not wallowing in the murk of the river. A trite, “build a bridge and get over it,” doesn’t apply here because honest, we never get over it; but indeed, we can get over it. We don’t avoid the trauma, we just learn how to live with it.
We must actively work on making a bridge to a new identity after cancer. We must not allow ourselves to be the girl who something happened to, but must become the girl who made stuff happen. Yes, we may have to carry a 20 lb cancer rock around with us the rest of our lives, but we can buy an ergonomic backpack, and build our leg muscles and really live a normal and full and large life doing everything we want and more. And we sure don’t have to announce it at every turn, “Oh I wish I could, but I have this 20 lb rock I am carrying.” Trust me; people don’t want to hear about the rock, they get tired of hearing about the rock. Rocks sink you in the murk when you fall off the bridge. Rocks have the power to pull you right over the railing if you let them.
Trauma may be an anchor mired deep in the water, stalling our boat as we try to sail through life, but when we say, “Okay the anchor is there, instead I will just buy more rope, enough to sail the world,” we are no longer moored, but alive.
There is an old saying I love, “Let go or be dragged.” As long as we are in a wrestling match with what happened to us, and holding onto it, we can’t envision what can be, and our hands are not available and free to build. If nothing changes, nothing changes. That is, until we turn, pick up a hammer and begin to build. To get out there and live us some good.
I remember my friend’s words; “I’m not there yet.” I think we all feel that way early after cancer and that’s okay. “Yet” is the operative word. “Yet” has promise and hope; it will come punkin, just as soon as you are able to start building those bridges, as soon as you buy more rope, and just as soon as you start putting pennies in the Bank of Good.
As soon as you choose, to outlive it.
And suddenly, the abundance of good in your life will overshadow the bad, so much so that your new life will seem infinitely better than the old pre cancer life. And suddenly, weary from building, you go to bed and dream of swimming in the ocean with dolphins and school plays and birthday cakes, and not of cancer.
Outlive it; outlive it baby.
“You can’t be brave if only wonderful things have happened to you.”
Mary Tyler Moore