The Gift

I can distinctly remember a shirt I hated as a child because it was itchy. I remember throwing a fit because of it. I still hate itchy or restrictive clothes. I have to have 400+ thread count sheets and they have to be cotton, not sateen. Otherwise they feel scratchy and I can’t get comfortable.

I’ve also always been keenly aware of scents, and it’s helped me in cooking to know just the right type and amount of seasoning to add to get a certain flavor.

I used to love horror but always hid my face when I knew the scary parts were coming. I can’t watch anything where a bone is broken or out of place. It creates an overwhelming feeling of disgust in me.

Starting in middle school, I could play music by ear. I would put on a CD and find the note and play with it on my alto saxophone. I could read music, too, but that wasn’t nearly as fun. When I played in a ska band, myself and another musician once jammed and found this groove and harmony together and it was blissful. That was over 30 years ago and I’ll never forget that feeling.

I was in the gifted classes and loved to write. I loved to create in general. I was bad at drawing, but I loved photography and making “movies” and eventually creating things using apps.

I would stop the car to stare at sunrises or sunsets, or the way the light was hitting the dew on the ground. I still stare in awe at the stars on a clear night. Sitting in nature feels like home, even when its just my backyard. It always has.

I didn’t know that there was a term associated with these things, coupled with my intense feelings of empathy and emotional responses. I had no idea others didn’t see the world like me. Apparently I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. This isn’t a disorder, but considered a personality trait; an innate, unchangeable part of who we are from birth.

Of course, the downside to all of this is it also came with intense anxiety/OCD and depression. While the beauty of the world always astounds me, and I can pick up on emotions and connect with people deeply, I also pick up on anger and fear and hate. I learned to cope with OCD. Anxiety became my security blanket, keeping me “safe” from the negative feelings that overwhelmed me so much. It also became a fantastic scapegoat.

In high school, I developed the anxiety and depression. It was like a switch flipped when I started dating my first boyfriend, who wasn’t the best person, and my world went dark. I started failing classes I would have easily passed. I stopped going. I dropped out my senior year, halfway through. I didn’t understand how to handle everything I felt. I was overwhelmed by just existing at that point. I somehow went back to night school and got the final credits I needed to graduate with my class, but the darkness was still there.

Eventually, I found the right combination of medication and therapy to bring me back to life. I’m still here now, and I’m still learning about navigating life as a highly sensitive person at almost 40 years old. Some days, especially now during the second year of the pandemic and after years of political turmoil and hatred sprouting up everywhere, I retreat back to the safety of my anxiety. And most days, I still haven’t figured out how to be alone in the world, to go do something I want to do just because I want to. I constantly worry about being judged or not doing it right or “what if…, ” the worst phrase in an anxious person’s vocabulary.

But I also still stop and stare at the sunset. I still sit outside and feel the breeze and it brings me back to my true self, my core, my energy. I still connect with people deeply and fully, and I’m finding more people like me who understand and can walk with me. I have survived trauma others couldn’t dream of, and I’m still here, able to see the beauty in the world and grateful for the life I’ve been given. I will always have more growing to do, more practices to learn to break the chains of anxiety and embrace who I am at my core. But at least I can do so while fully appreciating the feeling of the sunlight on my skin and the colors of the sunset sky and the brightness of the stars.

Being highly sensitive is difficult in this world, but its a gift I would never trade.

Summertime Sadness

Ah, Summer. The warm air. Crickets chirping. Beach trips. Family vacations. Cookouts. A sense of inexplicable depression and dread.

Record screech

Wait, what?

This time two years ago I was discovering myself and learning to accept myself. I was getting into working out more, had met a really great guy, my son had just finished Kindergarten, pandemics were just in the movies and history books, and I didn’t have cancer (well, I didn’t know I had it, anyway). My Summer had started off phenomenally well. It was the last time I ever felt that Summertime happiness.

PTSD is a sneaky thing.

I think last year maybe it didn’t hit me quite as hard because literally the whole world was experiencing a collective, ongoing trauma. This year almost everyone is getting back to normal and I’m like wait. . . I wanna go back, too. I wanna go back to Summer 2019 when I was Old Stef who was blossoming and doing awesome and having fun and still able to drink wine and get a tan and eat whatever she wanted. I wanna be ignorant to this awful disease and go back to when I hadn’t lost multiple friends to it. But I can’t.

The hardest part of all of this, of any struggle, is knowing we only have two options: quit or keep going. Turning around isn’t an option. Going backward isn’t an option. Undoing the past isn’t an option. And that seems so simple to understand but man is it hard to accept.

I’m learning to live with the pain, the food restrictions/complications, the swelling, and the body changes. I’ve even learned to live with fear of recurrence. This is just one more thing now and it’s honestly the hardest to combat (along with Survivors Guilt but I’m sure they’re related).

I know I’m the only one who can cultivate the peaceful mindset I’m seeking. I know only I can heal what’s hurting inside of me. But I’m so tired of constantly healing. I’m incredibly weary and I just want to rest.

I guess I’m writing this all out because it helps to make it real. It also helps knowing maybe my raw expression of everything will help someone else feel less alone. And I guess that’s where I get most of my strength to get back up and keep going.

Sigh

So let’s go.

Looking a Gift Horse Squarely in the Mouth

Cancer survivorship is complicated.

Every single day is a gift to be met with open arms. Except it’s a gift from your 97-year-old Great Aunt Edna who thinks you’re still 7 and love Pepto-Bismol pink wool turtleneck sweaters with cows sewn on the front. And it’s the only thing you can wear for the rest of your life now. And you hate pink. And cows. And turtlenecks.

So you humbly accept it (it’s the thought that counts, right?) but you don’t necessarily like it. But then you feel guilty. Some of your friends would have given anything for Great Aunt Edna’s gift. What the hell kind of ingrate are you? Then you question whether you even deserve this gift in the first place. Some days you want to say no thanks and hope it’s donated to someone more deserving. . .but it’s your gift. No exchanges, non-transferable.

Eventually you learn to love the gift. You notice the beautiful details. You begin to feel grateful for the warmth it provides and laugh at the silliness in it’s design. You begin to own it. You realize your uniqueness is pretty badass, and you begin to meet other people in the pink cow turtleneck club. These people understand every emotion that comes with wearing it.

There are still days you hate it, don’t get me wrong. There are days you fight putting it on and instead want to lay in bed all day. Then there are days you just sort of stare at it in awe and can’t even explain how you feel. As I mentioned, it’s complicated.

We are an elite club of people who never wanted to be in the club. We didn’t ask to be here and the hazing to get in was pretty intense. But we’re here now. Wearing our wooly, pink, cow-emblazoned garb. And even on our worst days, we always have each other.

Whether you’re hating your gift today or embracing it, whether you’re celebrating or grieving, I’m glad you’re here. Welcome to the club. I love your sweater.

A Eulogy to My Former Self

Today I miss her. I miss her smile. I miss her sarcasm and how she would sit outside on Summer evenings and savor a glass of sweet wine. I miss her love of spicy food and trying new things and pushing the limits of her physical capabilities. I even miss her naivete. Sometimes I especially miss her naivete.

Of course, I’m referring to Stef BC (before cancer).

Buddhism teaches us that attachment is the root of suffering, and that’s absolutely true. If we aren’t attached to anything we don’t suffer. However, unless we’ve reached total enlightenment, we’re still going to experience the painful lessons in life. And I’m far from enlightened. I’m always working on becoming better, but far from perfect.

I guess we could also loosely compare it to The Phoenix, dying and being reborn. Does the phoenix ever mourn the old self? Probably not, or it wouldn’t be able to keep transforming. But maybe, on occasion, at least right in the beginning of it’s new life, it looks back at the ashes and mourns.

Transformation occurs when we can let go of the past. As the adage goes, you can’t drive forward while looking backward. And I think an important part of letting go of the past is allowing ourselves to mourn for a period of time, to get to a point where we can accept that it’s gone, and to find the courage to accept whatever is happening in the present.

I don’t think I’ve properly mourned Stef BC. Most of diagnosis and treatment was spent in disbelief and almost detached from reality. I knew what was happening, I felt it all, but it didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t seem real when I tell my story. It feels like I’ve completely removed myself as the main character, probably my brain’s attempt at protecting me from the trauma I endured. I effectively compartmentalized and dealt with everything without ever really stopping to feel the loss of my self. Well, except for that one time when I first got home from the hospital and punched the mirror. I skipped straight from point A to C and now missing out on B is coming back to haunt me.

If I want to keep growing and becoming a better version of myself, I need to let go of my attachment to the past. Memories are fantastic, and I want to be at a place where I can look at photos of Stef BC and not feel depressed, but rather proud of who she was and how she got me here.

So today (and however long it lasts) I allow myself to mourn. Today I allow myself to feel the negative and accept that it’s normal and healthy to do so. I allow myself to cry for Stef BC, to acknowledge that losing oneself is a valid loss, and to accept that I have to let her go. I’m going to thank her for her sacrifice in allowing Stef 2.0 to emerge. Today I’ll send her out on a beautiful raft and draw and fire the flaming arrow to light her pyre.

Tomorrow, I’ll rise.

Out of the Darkness Comes the Light

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly emotional, I just start writing. This came to me a few days ago when I was feeling down about post-treatment life. One thing I find so amazing about creative writing is it almost always leads me to the mindset shift I need to pull myself out of the darkness. It allows me to light my own way, in my own way. This time it reminded me I’m not alone.

The Aftermath

I live in a house
On a beautiful beach.
With firey sunrises
And lilac sunsets.
Life is good.

Then the tsunami comes.
No warning. No reason.
I run to shelter on high ground
As my house is torn apart.
Everything is gone.

“At least you made it!”
“You’re so strong!”
“Just stay positive”
And my favorite,
“My aunt died in a tsunami, you’re lucky.”

People send money,
Their thoughts and prayers.
When a new house is built,
And the well-wishers move on,
I’m left alone to clean up the debris.

I look up and down the coast
And notice others like me,
Alone, cleaning up after a freak disaster.
I introduce myself. I tell my story.
And now together, we begin to rebuild.

– S.G.
3/29/21

2020 Vision

Well, I think it’s safe to say most of us are pretty ecstatic to leave 2020 behind us. I feel like we’ve never been more divided into “us” and “them” than we became this year. We stopped listening to what one another had to say and our ignorance and selfishness has hurt us more than the COVID-19 virus ever could on its own. Many of us look toward the new year with hope.

But as much as we all want to believe that things will get better at the stroke of midnight, that isn’t how the world works. The annual celebration of one year gliding seamlessly into the next is exciting, but not magical. The real change comes from us.

This year (and always), I resolve to just be better than I was yeterday. To try to give myself grace and accept the “bad parts” that I’ve spent all of my life trying to hide. The jealousy, the anxiety, the need to be right…it’s all normal and human to feel, but it doesn’t define me and I don’t want to be ashamed of those parts anymore. This year I want to accept and even honor those feelings for what they accomplished (pushing me to become a great student and leader, keeping me safe in certain situations) but also let them know I’m safe without them, that I have grown enough to not need their protection.

We all want things to change when they’re uncomfortable, but in order for that to happen we have to be the change. We can’t rely on a president, a leader, a religion, or even a mentor or parent to do it for us. The longer we wait for others to make our lives better for us, the longer we will stay in the same damaging patterns. It’s easy to look back at a year and pretend it was just cursed; the real work is facing ourselves and letting down our armor to reveal our true identities and vulnerability and loving ourselves anyway.

I challenge you to embrace yourself this year. All of yourself. The good, the bad, the weird, the valiant. . . they all make you who you are. Love yourself and give yourself grace and watch how the world changes. If I’m wrong, the worst that can happen is you’ll have a newfound love for the beautiful person you are.

Dorothy Jane

I only saw my grandmother cry one time in my 38 years with her, and that was at the funeral for her husband when he passed away 5 years ago.

Dorothy Jane (or Bunny as she was known to those close to her) was a stoic but compassionate woman. Her smile and her laugh were frequent and infectious. Everyone who had the pleasure of meeting her remarked how wonderful she was. I never heard one bad thing said about her. She was a gift to this earth and all who knew her.

That beautiful woman left this earth last night so that her spirit could continue it’s journey.

Me and Grandmom in 2010ish

I remember growing up having dinner every Sunday at her house (or at least it felt like every Sunday). I remember going to the store and wanting something and her slyly handing me five or ten dollars from her purse when my mom said “no.” I remember when she and my grandfather moved to Delaware and we would visit and stay the weekend. I would ride her old bike around the neighborhood and take string, whatever bait I could round up (usually aging lunch meat) and a net down to the dock and catch tiny crabs off the pylons. I remember pontoon boat rides and lively family dinners and reunions and laughter and love.

After my grandfather passed away, she moved into an assisted living to be closer to us. Her health was slowly declining and she couldn’t be alone anymore. I had also just transferred up to the local hospital as a nurse, and almost every time she fell or they thought she was sick, I was there working and would go see her. She usually rolled her eyes at my admonishment at her being there and made a joke about seeing me, asked how my son was, and then talked about how good looking the doctors were.

When she broke her hip and needed help getting cleaned up, I was there to wash her and help the nurse. When she was sick and needed a ride home, I was there (her 4’10 frame was much more easily transferred into my car than anyone else’s). One night on the way home, I can’t remember the exact conversation, but I remember her jokingly saying she would get a tattoo on her ass. I knew at that moment the apple definitely didn’t fall far from the tree!

Then, last May, she was brought to the emergency department for the last time. It was just after Mother’s Day during the pandemic, so no one had been able to visit with her in over a month. I was working and had brought in the rest of the coconut cream pie I had made for my mom (both she and my mother love coconut) so I snuck down to see her and brought her a piece. I asked the doctor if it was ok for her to eat and I fed her. Unfortunately, I got caught by a charge nurse who knew I wasn’t supposed to be there when I went to find her some water and got in trouble and was made to leave. But I would do it all over again for her.

After that hospital trip, she and her daughters decided it would be best to enter hospice, so she wouldn’t need to be carted off to the ER every time something wasn’t quite right. At 88 years old, and not in the best health, she knew she wouldn’t have much chance at a meaningful recovery if she got very ill. So we focused on making the rest of her life as comfortable as possible.

I would have loved another 38 years with my grandmom, but she was ready to end this journey. So together with my family I will mourn our loss, but I am absolutely positive her energy now surrounds us and is free from suffering. Her body is gone, but her tenacious spirit will live on in each one of us for many, many more years.

Thank you, Grandmom, for being the best grandmother I could have ever asked for. I’m proud to carry your genes, your memory, and your love with me for the rest of my days.

The Power of And

I saw a post today about mental health and cancer survivors and realized yesterday was Mental Health Awareness Day. If you’ve spent any time at all reading my posts you have probably realized that mental health is a cause as near and dear to my heart as cancer. Since my treatment ended, I’ve been working hard to try to figure out how to improve the long-term physical side effects associated with it, as well as the mental ones.

You see cancer, whether “cured”/NED/in remission or not, is a chronic illness. It changes people deep below the visible scars and noticeable physical disabilities. I’d go as far as to argue that its mentally harder to handle cancer after treatment ends.

During treatment, it’s all a blur. It’s hard physically but mentally we don’t even have a chance to really comprehend what’s happening. Once treatment ends (for those of us fortunate enough to have that happen), it’s like sitting in a dark alley alone after being jumped and trying to figure out what the hell just happened…grateful to be alive but also completely overwhelmed with trying to sort it all out and get back on our feet. It’s a process, and it’s difficult and messy and scary and frustrating. Many survivors end up with PTSD, survivors guilt, depression, and/or anxiety.

That being said, I also talk a lot about being grateful in a way for my cancer experience because it has made me stronger emotionally. This is absolutely still true. But how?? Well, we can be thankful for the rain because it helps things grow, and also be sad that it ruined our plans for the beach. It is possible (and common) to feel contradictory emotions at the same time about the same thing.

I think one of the ways we can start to really heal, and help one another, is to accept and embrace that life isn’t black or white, good or bad, happy or sad. We don’t have to choose just one. Life is happy and depressing and joyous and stressful and scary and amazing all at once! And so are we.

Mental health matters, not just for cancer survivors but for everyone, and it’s ok to admit we are both struggling and succeeding. It’s ok to be proud and frustrated. It’s ok to accept and have compassion for others who have different struggles and still deserve that same compassion for our own.

I think it’s time we all stop forcing the division of or and start embracing the power of and.

Are you Better?

The first thing people ask me when they find out I had cancer is always something along the lines of “are you better, now?” Generally I answer “yup, two scans show no evidence of disease!” because that’s the easy answer, the answer people want to hear when they make polite conversation and just want to be reassured they’re not standing next to someone who has the Grim Reaper on speed dial.

But here, I can be honest. Here I can give you the real answer. The whole truth:

Am I better? That’s a loaded question. As far as the cancer cells, yes, it appears for now that they have been obliterated. Scans every few months show that there is no new cancer growth and the old is gone. But I celebrate that fact cautiously because I know it can come back at any time. I’m at highest risk for a recurrence in the first two years, but the risk is never zero and always higher than someone who has never had cancer or radiation.

Am I better physically? Well… I’m better than I was immediately post-op and immediately post-radiation for sure. I’ve gained back all the weight I lost when I was literally starving during and just after radiation. My blood levels have normalized and my body is almost back to functioning normally. . . except the lack of saliva, a fried thyroid that doesn’t work right anymore, having half of a normal tongue that has ridiculous neuropathy and taste changes that I can’t keep up with, chronic neck/jaw pain, weird nerve side effects from radiation, and permanent numbness and massive scarring on my donor arm. . .to name a few cancer-related changes.

Am I better mentally and emotionally? Hell no. I’m doing my best to stay positive but with career loss, a pandemic, astronomical daycare and medical bills on top of the cancer stuff, I’m losing ground on this front daily. Truth is, I’m more depressed now than I have been in YEARS. Decades, even. I cry almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I have been irritable and withdrawn and completely not myself. I want to sleep all day. I don’t want to do anything at all. I want to be numb because when I’m numb (or ignoring the issues) then I can’t feel the cracks forming my inevitable breakdown that I know is coming.

So, am I better? No, I’m not. I’ll never be physically the same as I was before cancer, and I still have a lot of emotional baggage to unpack and sort. I imagine that when the other major stressors let up I’ll be much more inclined to say I’m doing well, but I’ll never be better. To me, the phrase “I’m better” means I’ve completely overcome something, that it’s no longer a part of me. This disease and it’s treatment have changed me in both good and bad ways, and it will always be part of who I am.

One Year.

Song credit: Morning Comes written and performed by Delta Rae

August 7th marked one year from the phonecall that started the most life-altering time period of my life thus far.

One year of fear, tears, anger, depression, helplessness, jealousy, and pain. But also one year of growth, resilience, strength, learning, and hope. A year of obstacles and a year of climbing over them no matter how hard. A year of wanting to give up but persevering. A year of discovering who I really am under the emotions, the ego, the protective walls my brain has constructed to keep me “safe.” A year of dying, and a year of becoming.

This year has taught me there are two sides to every story. We can choose to focus on the negative and allow it to consume us, or we can search for the positive and strive to follow it. We can have a million things going well and allow one negative to completely destroy us. The choice of where to focus our energy is ALWAYS ours, even when it feels impossible.

None of us can control what happens, no matter how much we try (that’s the hardest lesson of all for me), but we can always choose how we respond. Even a story rife with tragedy and loss can have a happy ending.

Take that, cancer.