Coping with fragility





By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.


Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.



29 thoughts on “Coping with fragility

  1. Your piece reminds me of something that occurred to me recently – that Americans seem to be burying their heads in the sand instead of addressing issues (which would include human illness and health issues). This is something Canadians have been accused of, but the shoe seems to be switching over to the other foot. No one seems capable of dealing with Trump (why isn’t your Congress taking some action over this guy’s behaviour and putting some limits on him? Not that I have a good understanding of the American legislative process.).

    Yes, you need to be good to yourself and beg off when you need to.

      1. Thanks. I was lucky — my MD allows us to drink Miralax in water (albeit 64 ounces within 4 hours) so there is no nasty flavor to swallow. Much as one gets tired, that made a huge difference.

      2. A colonoscopy? Oh my god. I remember being booked for one – I was in my late twenties. I duly drove to the clinic. I parked up. I even made it into the waiting room. I sat there for five minutes. And then I fled. As spontaneous healing goes it was a miracle. Seriously. I was cured; any symptoms suggesting medical intervention to never return. How crazy is that?


  2. I am caring for a cancer patient, whom I suspect is going through this as well. When we feel frustrated, I try and stop and remind us of what we have to look forward to, and how hard he fought to get to where he is. It’s not easy, do what feels right. You have more strength than you know 🙂

  3. I try to believe the Universe sends us lessons as we can accept them. And, you’ve shared in previous posts that vulnerability wasn’t a comfortable area. But it sounds like you’re being asked to move into it, feel the discomfort and pain, and conquer this challenge. And it sounds like you’re moving toward that every day. I hope you feel how momentous that is, and are proud of your progress/bravery.

    1. Thanks for sharing that….especially living in a busy city, and in winter (!?) it can be really tough to move more slowly. The world doesn’t know what to make of fragility.

      1. I remember feeling triumphant when, a month later, I was able to walk down Woodbine Beach to tour the Winter Stations.

        It was not fun. No damage, and the pain was not that great, but still, the injury and the weakness and the pain was there all the time. It is never fun.

      2. It is humbling and frightening and, having been through a lot of this (hip replaced 2012 as well) I really get it. We need to feel strong. Glad you are better now!

  4. Roma

    It is ok to have fragile moments and to accept them without judgement. Our society is so fast paced it is all about doing and emitting and you are right we are conditioned into this but -sometimes we need to take stock and stop for a while. And it takes an illness or a death that forces us to do this.
    I often repeat that wonderful poem
    “What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare ……
    Well I am doing a lot of standing and staring and it feels good.

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  6. Ursula

    I feel for you. Like you I have always taken strength for granted. And still do. Though, by the same token, I don’t think there is any weakness in admitting to feeling fragile at times. Or, as I say, slightly frazzled round the edges. When I do, I retreat – so no one is any the wiser.

    Truth is, and who knows what might test me in some distant future, that I can’t even imagine being anything other than strong. Even when I was down with two broken arms, on my back, pinned to the sofa by a heavy cat purring my hearing out, watching Bette Davis films on a loop, I was fine. Just fine. Hampered. But fine. Took it as a sign to take some time out and THINK. Reflect. Which I did (in between Bette Davis on a loop). Thus I learned patience. I have always been patient; yet being incapacitated tweaked my ability to be patient onto another plain.

    I wish you all the best. I won’t chime in with Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t break us makes us stronger”. Scant comfort. And not necessarily true. As much as Nietzsche, the poet’s philosopher, speaks to me – that saying doesn’t.


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