First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.
What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.
But…what a disorienting time it’s been.
Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.
When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.
Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.
But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.
Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.
This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.
I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.
Tears of fear and anxiety.
Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.
Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.
Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.
Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)
I feel like a lobster cracked open.
I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.
My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.
I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.
But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.
I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.
People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.
That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.
Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?
Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.
As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.
So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.
Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.
You learned to keep your counsel.
So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.
Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.
I was amazed and moved by what I heard.
It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.
I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.
I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.
I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.
Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.
This is not something to face alone.
It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.
The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.
Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?
It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.
Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.
I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.
I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.
No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.
My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.
As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.
She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.
We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.
It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?
I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.
When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.
I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.
Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.
I wonder if I ever will.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.
But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.
At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”
The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.
Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!
I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.
Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.
A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.
I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.
How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?
Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?
A piece in today’s New York Timeshas, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:
RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.
Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).
The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).
A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.
If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.
I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!
I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.
It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!
Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.
It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.
As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”
The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)
I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.
One reason I work freelance alone at home!
I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.
But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.
To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.
So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.
But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.
It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.
I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.
Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.
According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.
For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.
For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.
I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.
Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.
The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.
Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.
Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.
And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)
A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.
But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.
I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…
No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!
Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)
But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.
Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.
Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:
“You can’t be a normal human being.”
By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.
Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.
But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.
Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.
I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.
How about you?
Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?
Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?