When Life Squeezes Flesh and Bone, I Do Like a River… and Flow

When a person who has never been ill is diagnosed with a life changing disease, the first days after the diagnosis can be hell… particularly when the person in question is young.

The grandmother of an old friend of mine emailed me to say her grandchild had been diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. The cancer has spread, and the recommended surgery will cause serious damage to one of her lower limbs and immune system. She is only 34. The changes to come will be even tougher on her because she has been a performer since she was a preteen. She won’t be able to do her job anymore. Some of the people in her circle have started to distance themselves from her.

She called me yesterday afternoon. I could hear tears in her voice. I let her talk about her latest doctor’s visit… gave her time to cry… waited until she asked specific questions… She made many inquiries, but in truth her last question was the one that really mattered. She wanted to know, “How will I continue to be myself when this shit is taking away all the things that make me who I am?”

“This might sound somewhat silly,” I said, “even a bit patronizing. But we aren’t what we do for a living; we are much more than that. Time will show you different ways to keep on being yourself, or to evolve into a different self that you can be proud of.” She didn’t say anything, just sobbed quietly. So I kept on going, trying to soothe. I told her about the sadness I felt when my shoulder, hip and back worsened and I could no longer do the job I loved. “But I found different things to do. You have so many great people in your life,” I said. When her sobs got louder, I stopped talking.

“He told me he needed time,” she said after a while. “He won’t call. And when I call, he lets it go to voicemail.”

I didn’t ask who he was. I knew she had been living with the same guy, on and off, for a few years. To be honest, I wanted to be a coward and just talk about something else. But I went for it. “You know, I’ve had to walk away from a lot of people over the years. Not just because of living with chronic illnesses, but because our interests have changed. Also, because I kind of had to accept that I don’t have enough energy to shoulder my pain and their anxiety. Sometimes you just have to let them go and move on. It might not be as—”

“That might be easy for you,” she said, “but not everybody can be as cold as you are.”

Her harshness took me by surprise, but I just kept on talking. “Sometimes, you’ll feel the need to lash out at people close to you. Those who care about you—and who have experienced similar situations—might even let you abuse them for a while. But the moment the mistreatment becomes too much for them to bear, they might walk away. One of the most difficult side effects of being severely ill is not physical. Even though it hurts, you’ll have to find a way to let go of those relationships that are impossible to maintain, and hold on to those willing to walk through the shit with you.”

The conversation ended shortly after that. She was no longer crying, and I could almost hear her brain-housing group processing what we had just discussed. I’m not sure how she’ll proceed from now on, but I emailed her when I woke up this morning; told her that I’m here for her… She replied with a picture of a huge black and red heart, cradling a wee pink glittery heart with stitches on it. The message made me smile. I replied with a painting of a girl flying with a giant crow, and wrote, “If your legs ever grow too weak, those who love you will be there to help you fly.” I’m hoping this wee bit of truth makes her grin a little.

Girl with Crow“Crow Girl”, by SunshineShelle

When Motivation Carries a Whip

Have you ever said something so ignorant that when you think about it (or life teaches you better) you can hardly believe such nonsense came out of your mouth? I have; some time ago, I made a rather stupid comment about happiness and depression. I can’t remember the exact words, but the comment suggested that happiness is something any person can achieve if he or she has the strength to fight for it hard enough.

A Wicked Darling, who taught me perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult, pointed out that when someone is depressed happiness is something that doesn’t even register; strength be damned. I’ve remembered those words often since I first heard them. Not just the lesson, but how it has altered the way I approach similar situations.

I thought about those words a few days before the Fourth of July. More specifically, I wished I knew how to summon the sense of ignorance-be-gone that they evoked in me. You see, my Wicked Luvs, I was invited to speak at a retreat for service women who live with disabilities. I almost accepted. Then the person in charge of the event explained what motivated her to issue the invitation:

“What these women need,” she said, “is someone to come and show them that the world is not for the weak. I know you got me off my butt. Come give them hell, Staff Sergeant.”

I wanted to give her hell… with one of my fists. I didn’t. I just declined. I know, I know, my Wicked Luvs, I should’ve done it for the women; I should’ve come up with a wonderfully angry speech to motivate them and show the idiot, who extended the invitation, that she was full of it. But I was too upset to see anything at the time. But worry not; for I’ve spent the last seven days contacting the women individually and chatting with them.

So why are you bringing this up now, witchy woman? (Yes, I can read your minds). After posting about having to change my diet (again), about giving up foods I love, about getting off meds and choosing pain over zombiehood, many sent messages to say how proud you are of me and how you which you were just as strong-willed as you believe me to be. I truly appreciate those comments—empathy, support, and good old cheerleading keep the soul going on those days when the body thinks of only three things: pain, pain, pain.

But a phone conversation, a side effect of the same post, brought to mind my long ago witless comment about happiness and depression; while talking about pain, body image, weight, and about people’s reactions to despair, a good friend of mine told me that she didn’t understand healthy people who are always complaining about their weight. “I would be fine becoming a whale, if the pain went away,” she said. “Complainers make me sick. They wouldn’t last a day if they had to deal with real suffering.”

“How do you know what would constitute ‘real suffering’ in their minds?” I said. I think, my Wicked Luvs, that when we go around believing that our personal experiences make us privy to other people’s exact feelings about similar situations, we are mostly wrong.

My friend and I discussed that hypothesis for a long while… I shared my close-minded happiness and depression anecdote and how I feel about it now… She told me about a time when her mouth said things her heart didn’t really feel… By the end of the exchange, we agreed that just because we believe that we’ve walked a mile in another person’s shoes, it doesn’t mean that we know how the shoes feel while on said person’s feet.

Yet, I think the experience should teach us just how much hurt someone can cause by saying that we aren’t strong enough to walk as fast or as steady as the person before us. Motivation is a great thing to give and to receive, but it is not all that helpful when it carries a whip.

Catwoman and Whip
Catwoman goes with everything *cough*