How the hell does a childless woman struggling with infertility end up on the maternity ward being handed another woman’s baby to breastfeed?
I bring this up because of an email I got the other day.
It started with a blog post. Without the imagination necessary to write fiction, I stick to experiences, feelings and lessons learned. Of course, it’s the dark stuff of life that demands the most attention and writing is a surefire way to get behind the pain.
Basically, writing is cheap therapy.
It’s also a way to connect. When people email me to say my writing “resonates” with them, I know I’m not alone. The power of “Me too” relieves a lot of pressure for the both of us.
This was not that type of email.
Instead, my email buddy rebuked me hard for a grammar mistake. She was right, but was mean about it. She said I should go back to school. She said I didn’t know the basic rules of grammar and that my writing was “crap.” She insisted that I remove her name from my mailing list.
Okay, I screwed up. I admit it. As an English major and daughter of a grammar fanatic (sorry Mom,) I’m embarrassed it slipped by me. But, it seems to me her reaction went well beyond a slap on the wrist by the grammar police.
Obviously, we didn’t connect. I know my mistake irritated her immensely, but I think she lashed out from a much deeper place: “I’m also very tired of hearing about breast cancer al (sic) the time when there are so many other types of cancer affecting women.”
My former reader wasn’t feeling me, because she was feeling too much of her own pain. And to that I say, “Me too.”
I get being filled up to the brim with pain, with not an iota of space left for a drop of sympathy, empathy or joy for anyone else. My husband and I struggled with miscarriages and infertility for five years before our first child was born. During that time, I was the woman glumly attending (or concocting excuses not to attend) baby showers. I’m the aunt who agonized over her decision to skip a niece’s christening.
Being around infants (and their happy parents) was like rubbing salt into a gaping wound. There was no way to avoid it when I was scheduled for surgery and ended up recuperating on the maternity ward (where I stuck out like a reproductive loser in a field of champions.)
The coup de grace of torture came when a nurse negligently brought another woman’s newborn to my bedside and tried to hand her/him to me. If I was ever going to lose it, it should have been then.
But I didn’t.
I think I was afraid of the magnificence of the bomb blast that would have occurred had I let it fly.
Seventeen years later, I was back to the hospital for a mastectomy. I thought that was the worst of it, until the post-traumatic stress kicked in with a vengeance. Unable to understand the level of irritability, fatigue, impatience and general misery I felt, my therapist explained it to me this way: Imagine yourself as a full cup of water. You can’t take in another drop. Now, someone pours more water in your cup. What do you do? You overflow. You have absolutely no tolerance for one drop more.
“Overflow” is a euphemism for exploding and losing it. When you overflow, you write nasty emails to people you don’t know. You use words like “crap” to insult them. You shun family celebrations because you can’t be happy for someone who has what you desperately want. When you have cancer and your daughter is learning to drive and hits the gas instead of the brake, you go bonkers and order her out of the car.
You’re mean. You’re nasty.
You’re not yourself.
You’re an overflowing cup of pain and hurt.
And, if you’re anything like me, your explosive behavior is just as painful to you as it is to the people you foist it on.
How do you keep from overflowing and going bonkers?
My therapist’s words helped me immensely. I wasn’t any less stressed out, but I started to understand the depth and breadth of my pain. Self-compassion came hot on the heels of understanding. I hadn’t realized it before, but teaching a teenager to drive while dealing with cancer was just too much to ask.
So I stopped.
I explained to my daughter how hard it was for me. She understood. In fact, she was relieved.
With self-compassion, I learned I didn’t have to be constantly “able.” I could “slack off.” I could say, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t (do that, be that or give that) right now.” Honestly assessing my stress level and guarding my resources was necessary to take care of me.
“Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Plato
Everyone isn’t everyone minus you. Everyone includes you.
If you don’t, you will overflow and blow sky-high. And it won’t be pretty.
Debbie Woodbury is the founder of WhereWeGoNow, author of You Can Thrive After Treatment and How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment, and a Huffington Post blogger. She is an inspirational speaker bringing hope to cancer survivors and the patient experience to medical professionals. Debbie gives back by working with the Cancer Hope Network, The Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, and the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board at Overlook Medical Center, Summit, NJ. Debbie is a wife, mother, and a former very stressed out attorney. To learn more, join her at WhereWeGoNow and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Andrew West.