It has taken me 3 full decades to understand what being “strong” actually means. No, correction, it took a cancer diagnosis and then a recurrence of said cancer, for me to fully see how emotionally strong I am.
For so long I thought I had misunderstood what it means to be strong, and, for the most part, felt weak. More specifically, I felt emotionally weak. I saw myself as being an emotionally weak person. Physicality wise, I always knew I was strong. I was from “New England stock”, and I was proud of it. I had proven time and time again to myself that I was physically capable of the physically trying and demanding.
For those who think that the various forms of strength go hand-in-hand, they don’t. Psychological strength, emotional strength, psychical strength, etc.etc. are all vastly different and how we perceive them, and ourselves within spectrum (of ”strong” and “weak”, whatever those mean) shifts from one form to another. Often, the mentality that one form of strength translates from one to another is dangerous and a detriment to our growth and development.
When I was diagnosed with cancer my greatest fear was how I would handle it emotionally. I knew that physically I was capable. In fact, the oncology nurses told me repeatedly during treatment that they had never seen a patient “manage” treatment so well. I didn’t know how to respond, in my mind i just thought, ‘well, I’m from strong, New England stock.’ Though, it was after I left the treatment room and the clinic that I started to crumble. I don’t mean physically, I would go home and visit with my family, eat a good dinner, and then retire for the evening. I wasn’t feeling 100% these nights, but I was able to maintain, what I later told my oncologist was the “facade” around certain people. I had emotional outpourings in front of my family and loved ones, but these were minor, few and far between, and I always held on. I held on to the side of myself that could maintain a firm emotional grasp on my bearings wherein I could wipe my eyes, shrug it off…
This took strength, but not the type of sustaining strength in which I should have invested my energy and actually grow. What I needed to do was let myself collapse, to fall apart whether this be piece by piece or all at once. This is how construction of a person begins. I understand this now, fully. Yes, it takes strength to undergo certain physically demanding adventures and expeditions. However if the entire person is not being groomed the construction is only partial and it is merely a matter of time before the (aforementioned) crumbling begins.
Not everyone is capable of maintaining that presence, of bearing witness to one suffering. I understand this in hindsight, blissfully 20/20, as always. I felt less and less safe and comfortable exposing this emotional collapse to people. It seemed when I tried to pass a small amount of weight, a fraction of all that I was experiencing and going through, to another, to free myself momentarily from the burden so that I might fall apart, it was too much for them. Then, I was left collecting myself and putting the pieces of my own struggle back together and also trying to soothe the pain felt by others. This, too, is understood only in hindsight.
After dinner, on those nights after 8 hour long infusion days (that ran 5 days in a row), when I retired, I would fall apart. In the privacy of my room, behind the closed doors surrounded by own company, I gave in to that which was tugging at me, to that which was pulling at me and clawing its way through my emotional and physical being. I needed to address the fear, the anger, the pain, the uncertainty.
I needed to ask questions about frailty, about strength, about growth. Questions that, for as long as I can remember, were akin to someone who was emotionally weak. The addressing of pain, emotional pain, heartache and sorrow – the pain a cancer fighter knows all too well – takes exposing oneself, opening oneself, revealing oneself to themselves and embracing that which rests there. Denial, as I see it now, the negation of such emotions and doing all that is possible to push them to the periphery and beyond… this is weakness.
Guilt, expectations, personal history and experience… these have an interesting way of ingraining themselves into one’s character. I am not even sure if that is the right word, “ingrain”, but it’ll do. Those nights when I let the facade fall and gave way to the sadness and pain, even then I would have these moments of feeling annoyed at myself for doing so. I would feel “weak”… So established in my very makeup, perhaps even on a cellular level, that I, alone in my room, door shut, in completely privacy, I would feel a sense of weakness when I finally broke-down and sobbed.
Under normal circumstances I would have been able to push these “questions” and feelings of heartache and pain away. For the better part of three decades I did just that, I pushed away questions and dismissed emotional pain and accused myself of lacking strength. With cancer however, when one is “sick” and their body is being pumped with a variety of toxic chemicals, nothing can really be “dismissed.” Well, it can, but for long. The emotional/psychological/etc. state of a cancer patient is one of perpetual vulnerability. The very nature of the disease is stemming from within. Thus, there is no running, hiding, “pushing.” Even on a basic, primordial animal level, a patient is hyper vigilant; they are in a constant state of adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight. You mix this primal state and desire to survive with the modern being who is in the throws of confronting their own mortality… questions will arise.