Cancer’s a jolting teacher – and one life preserving lesson for me is that to have a chance at staying alive, I must let go of toxic people that I’ve always tried to fix. Yes, it’s the holidays, and I’m talking about my family.
Like so many of us women in pain, there was a ton of trauma in my childhood. This included domestic violence, divorce, mental illness and suicide which lead to much physical illness, non-communication and substance abuse. Being the oldest girl, middle child and the sensitive one, I naturally played the fixer. For years growing up I did much of the cooking and cleaning while trying to mend fences between everyone and everything. There’s nothing more important to me than family, and when I saw no chance of the clouds parting, I even starved myself in hopes it would bring us closer.
Yes, when I was twelve, I endured forced hospitalization for anorexia. I almost died because of them then, and I’m on the path to dying because of them now. But I’m steadfast in my new-found resolve to pick the lock, to unshackle myself from those I love most and who hurt me the deepest.
After getting CRPS 37 years ago, most of my family members pretty much high-tailed it. And though I got cards from a few well-meaning relatives, apologetically pledging their future support, it never happened. The sad truth is the sicker I am, the crueler they get.
Years ago, a family member (out of guilt, I suspect) told me that he took care of everyone he knew with cancer. In fact, he baked each of them a cake. “On their really bad days, it picks them up. It’s the least I can do.” Wow, that admission hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d been living with “The Suicide Disease” for three decades at that point, and I’d never received so much as an inquiry about my health, let alone a cake. Now I have cancer, but still not a lick of frosting.
For Thanksgiving, I made the massive mistake of spending the day with my family. While I’ve for the most part stayed away from gatherings for the past decade, somehow I thought that because I now have the deadliest form of breast cancer, I’d be safe – and as the fixer, I could mend some wounds. I was wrong.
When that family member showed up with his brood, insults quickly escalated to injury – and after dinner, I called him on a cruelty, asking to talk it through. Instead, he and his family verbally attacked me together and individually. It was ugly and pathetic, like when there’s a sick bird, the others peck away at it until it dies. John and I made an exit before dessert for self-preservation. After talking with my therapist, I understand that my cancer makes them even more uncomfortable with their feelings.
When I recently saw my wonderful pain doctor, who knows me well and sits on For Grace’s Board, I asked if he agreed with my oncologist that CRPS caused my cancer. He stunned me with this bitter pill. “I believe the many years of your family strife, mixed with your pain, has put immeasurable stress on your body, giving you cancer.”
Bingo! For more years than I can count, I’ve intuitively known and shared with John my fear that somehow my family would end me. To put a finer point on it, it’s my inability to let them go that’s placed me on the doorstep of death.
A decade ago, a family member sent me an email of good-bye, her reason was that I love too much, code for “I’m not strong enough to be there for you.” I was devastated as she and I had been the closest growing up and, before becoming a substance abuser, she called me her “soul mate.” I don’t think I smiled for about eight years as the depression never lifted. I struggle to this day.
In an attempt to save myself from her and them, I took Buddhism classes and often visited a local temple for private teachings with a monk. Also, I continue to practice mindfulness meditation daily – and have gone through years of intensive therapy. Though everything I’ve learned about detaching one’s self from a dysfunctional family makes sense in my head, I always trip and my heart pulls me back. John and my close friends plead with me to stay away from them, but still I falter.
With all due respect to the loving, caring souls who have pulled every lever in their arsenal to lead me to the light, cancer is my ultimate teacher – and it has left me with two choices. One, step away from my toxic, illness-inducing family and have a chance to live, or Two, stay enmeshed and die.
I’m choosing One. And it’s the hardest, most heart wrenching thing I’ve ever attempted.
Over the holidays, I’m being deliberate by spending my time with supportive, life-affirming friends and colleagues, along with the few family members who stayed. These angels, including wonderful John and my dear mother, will be by my side through cancer treatment which will begin with my first chemo infusion on January 7th.
Before then, for my 59th trip around the sun on New Year’s Eve, instead of waiting by the phone in hopes that a family member will think of my birthday and call, I’ve blocked their numbers – and will travel back east to be with one of my most beloved girlfriends. Ruby has multiple auto-immune diseases that have required many infusions over the years. My port placement was an off-the-charts nightmare due to CRPS complications, and she’s one of the dear souls who’s kept me on the road to treatment. When I return, a colleague who I love dearly will visit all the way from Amsterdam to give me a hug.
“There’s nothing more important to me than family.” That hasn’t changed. But though it feels like my insides are being pulled and twisted as “blood” bleeds me out, I’m yearning to change my definition of family.
So many of us women suffered exquisite familia trauma which provided the building blocks for our adult onset high-impact pain… and maybe cancer. It devastates me to see sisters hanging on and taking blows while trying to fix the unfixable. Save yourself and leave before it’s too late. Stop hoping for cake when all they’re going to give you are crumbs. And toxic ones at that.
There’s a whole bakery out there, full of sweet affirmations. I hope we can all find the strength – which took me decades and cancer to embrace – to move on.