Bravery Takes Practice
Someone once told me that the most commonly experienced side effect of cancer is living with the fear that it might come back. Yep. I have that side effect. I’ve joined the world of the living again (figure of speech). I’m going back to work (slowly). I’m seeing friends and colleagues that I haven’t seen since being diagnosed. I find myself telling my story, repeatedly. And, as I hear myself telling my story (repeatedly), I can’t quite believe it happened to me. And, as a matter of fact, I feel like I’m telling someone else’s story.
In my field (mental health), I”m using a defense mechanism called dissociation. I love defense mechanisms! Here’s a little mental health 101. Defense mechanisms are designed to protect us from feeling the depth of the emotional pain before we are really ready to feel it. You’ve heard of denial? Another helpful defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms become maladaptive when we rely upon them to shield us from our emotions never allowing ourselves to learn, grow and gain insight from our struggles.
Back to my story. Telling my story as if it were someone else’s story protects me from facing so many of my fears about my cancer diagnosis. When I’m in a fearful place I wonder:
did the surgeon successfully resect all of the cancer (even though she told me she did)?
was the chemotherapy really effective (even though I have all indicators that it was)?
will the cancer come back? (I have no idea and neither does the medical team).
what will I do if the cancer returns? (I’m really too afraid to think about this one).
All of these questions really boil down to my wondering…
how much longer do I have to live?
That’s the million dollar question. None of us know the answer to this one though we live as if we have a thousand tomorrows. That, too, is a defense mechanism and not entirely a maladaptive one. It can be paralyzing to live with the full awareness of our mortality. I speak this truth with first hand knowledge. So, I’m trying to balance time spent facing my fears with time spent forgetting that cancer was ever a part of my life.
Facing my fears means tapping into my bravery bank. My funds are running low about now as I’ve spent most of my bravery on getting through surgery and chemotherapy. And, I’m coming to realize that learning to live life after cancer takes a another type of bravery; one which I have no real life experience.
So, until I figure out how to live my life in the face of my death, I will practice being brave. In the meantime, if it looks like I’m in denial or dissociating, please don’t disturb me. I’m pretending to forget.