"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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This, too, shall pass

I saw a counselor this week. After all of the preliminaries about insurance and appointment times, she wanted to know why I was there. I spent over an hour with her and did most of the talking.

I wasn't really sure why I was there. I have some ideas about it, but I'm feeling mixed up, confused, depressed, so we started there. I told her that maybe it's about the time of life I'm in right now. I suspect it has to do with loss--either real or perceived.

Going through cancer treatment was one kind of loss. I lost my old identity in the process. I feel detached from my body--still don't trust it--and also from people close to me. I don't know why.

What I do know is that cancer is a very isolating experience. I don't mean to be ungrateful after all of the wonderful support I had from family, friends, my church family, and co-workers, but the bottom line is that you're going through it alone. I especially felt it when I walked into the radiation room every day at 3:00 p.m.  You hear the technicians bolt the heavy door to the radiation room and then you lie there with the machine shooting your naked torso with radiation. No one comes near you while the machine is in use, although you can hear voices from an intercom in case you need to communicate.  You can't miss the irony of how dangerous it is for the technicians to get close to the radiation beams, yet you're lying there getting up close and personal with the machine. Yikes.  It's kind of a microcosm of the whole cancer experience. I won't lie--I felt very isolated throughout the whole cancer experience. No matter how much my loved ones cared about me, they couldn't take my place or walk into that room with me.

Maybe it's a good reminder to help me understand that, ultimately, that's what life is all about. We came into the world alone and we go out alone, too.

Our family dynamics are changing (as family dynamics are wont to do), and I am keenly aware of the impending loss of a certain type of relationship that I've had with my daughter. We're navigating the tricky waters of independence since she still lives at home and is supported by us (for some reason, parents seem to think that gives them a say in the kids' lives). It's all perfectly natural--it's all a good thing--but it's a transition nonetheless. I hate transitions. I'd rather just get over to the other side of the transition NOW.

I've been through a lot of transitions in my life. Rheumatic fever. Divorce. Moving to another state one week after getting married. Bankruptcy. Infertility. Losing our home. Breast cancer. Each one of those transitions has taught me that life goes on. Really, it's one of the nice things about getting older. You begin to incorporate the “this, too, shall pass” mantra into your life.

So, anyway, back to the counselor. I talked while she took notes. She stopped me a few times to ask for the names of people I mentioned, but other than that, she just let me ramble. I felt like I was trying to give her my life story in 30 minutes. I would start to describe one situation and then remember that she should probably have more information about that particular subject, so I'd switch gears and tell her something else. I'm glad she was being paid; otherwise, I would have felt guilty for monopolizing the conversation.

Toward the end, she made a few remarks about what we'd talked about and asked me if I'd thought of a particular situation another way. She gave me an angle I hadn't considered (which is why I was there, thankfully). She didn't give me answers, she merely planted seeds and asked me if I'd thought about this or that and challenged me to ask myself some key questions. She was good. Two things she said to me really made me think. My hour-long drive home was quiet while I considered the things she said to me.

I've been to a few counselors in my life and I'm here to say there are good counselors and there are bad ones. My husband and I still shake our heads over the counselor we visited about ten years into our marriage. The guy actually lost his temper and swore at us. Someone else told me that the same counselor fell asleep during one of their appointments. After that experience, I almost didn't want to ever try counseling again. But I did, years later. And I'm glad I did. I'm a firm believer that sometimes you just need an objective person to help you sort things out.

The first counselor I saw was when I was in my 20s. A year out of high school, I married my high school sweetheart. A couple years later, he wanted to be single again. I was devastated (I was under the impression we were going to be married for life, silly me). He was jerking me around a lot, not wanting to be married, but still wanting to see me. So I went to see a counselor. The main thing I remember about the counselor (a man) was this--he told me that there were two kinds of people in this world: “those who wait for things to happen and those who make things happen.” He had me correctly pegged as a person who waited for things to happen (I’ve since tried to rectify that). He recommended that I give my estranged husband an ultimatum: get counseling for our marriage or go our separate ways. “Get off the fence.”

It was very good advice and I followed it by giving my husband an ultimatum, assuring him that I loved him and wanted to get counseling to work out our problems, but that we couldn’t go on in limbo for months or years on end. Unfortunately, I learned of his decision when I was served divorce papers as I was getting into my car after work. Oh yeah, and it was my birthday. That wasn't the response I was hoping and praying for.

I think one of the hardest lessons I learned throughout the whole, painful divorce was that I had no control over someone else's choices. It simply does not matter how stupid, destructive, or painful their decision is--it's their choice and you have to accept it. That lesson has come in handy many times since then. And really, that's how God treats us. He does not force Himself on us. He respects our choices.

So I'm in this season of life where there's a lot of change going on and I'm experiencing the fear of impending loss in pretty much all of my relationships. I'll admit that the thing that kept me going through cancer treatment was the desire to live to see my future grandchildren and to be a part of their lives. Literally, that's what I thought about every time I laid down on a table for a test or sat down for a chemo treatment. It helped give me hope and make sense out of a very disconcerting time. I'm still looking forward to knowing my future grandchildren, God willing.

I realize that this blog entry has rambled and I apologize for that. It's a good indicator of the state of my mind lately. Just a lot of thoughts and impressions running into each other. I wish I had some profound words of wisdom to share to wrap everything up nice and tidy. But life isn't like that (lesson learned).

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Reader Comments (6)

Thanks for the post. I needed that. I agree there are good counselors and not so good. As a counselor, it is a good reminder to me to try to be a good counselor one day at a time. I have gone to counselors myself and it helps me to be in the "client" seat. Just a few words can make all the difference, either for good or bad. I know a nurse who probably got her cancer from working in a radiation treatment center. She is doing well know.

I can relate just a little when I had a carcinoid tumor. The world around me seemed to be still going on while I was stuck with the news. I didn't need treatment. But I was scared. I called some friends for support, but it just couldn't fix what was going on inside of me. I knew that cognitively. I just felt alone and isolated. Simultaneously, I did feel more support from people praying for me. I then felt really infantile. How could I be ungrateful. People have to deal with this every day. It caused me to cry out to God for support. I didn't necessarily feel any supernatural comfort, but I felt like, "well, this is what I need to do, which is seek God in all of this." Over the years, that experience has helped me in a way. I am not sure, how. But, maybe I am a little more sensitive to people with illness, or alone-ness. I do believe that we do get comfort eventually, when God want us to experience it.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErik Bohlin

Dana, you are such a beautiful person and I love your openness and candor, I only wish I could be the same way. Don't apologize for rambling, it is YOUR blog! I can see how going through cancer can seem to be a very isolating experience as no one can go through all that you yourself have to go through with you. Your comment "we come into the world alone and we go out alone, too" struck me. It made me think of Kurt Cobain's words in one of his songs when he sings over and over "all we are is all alone, all we are is all alone", very sad. But as Christians we have hope, for God is with us. We are not all alone. He is in our hearts even though sometimes we don't feel him there! Sometimes He withdraws a little so that we may seek him all the more, but He is still there! Of course, I'm probably not telling you something you don't already know! The holy fathers (St. Isaac of Syria) talk also about the demon of despondency, maybe their writings might help. I haven't read them extensively (although I should, because we all suffer from despondency in varying degrees.) Google demon of despondency, I believe the OCA has a good write up about it. It just might help along with the counseling sessions. Love to you, Patty

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatty Hart

Thank you, Erik and Patty, for your comments. I am blessed to say that I am not despondent, thanks be to God. If I were, I would be much more worried about my spiritual state. I do believe that being in despair is a terrible state, as there would be no faith or hope in God.

Patty, I took a look at the OCA website (thank you for suggesting it), and liked this excerpt:

"The only remedy for despair is humility and patience, the steadfast holding to the life of faith, even without conviction or feeling. It is the simplification of life by going through each day, one day at a time, with the continual observances, however external, of scriptural reading, liturgical worship, fasting, prayer, and work. In the advice of Saint Benedict (6th c), it is to remain stable in one's place, and to "to what you are doing" as well as you can, with all possible attention. In the advice of Saint Seraphim (19th c.), it is to visit with spiritual friends, with those who are hopeful, merciful, joyful and strong. It is to stand fast to the end while passing through aridity and darkness, until the light of blessed hope and comfort are found."

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDana Chrysler

Dana, A beautiful post. It seems I'm surrounded by people in my life with cancer lately and what you talk about here is what I see in their eyes even when we're having a "deep conversation".... they are going it alone in the end. Facing death is a one on one with God alone. Indeed we are all dying and I'd probably say that the denial of the fact also affects our relationships. It is when we are all faced with its reality that we become, well... real, and sometimes our "real" isn't pretty. And we have to learn to deal with the reality of "not pretty" and also learn to accept and embrace the graces and love, however imperfect, of those who love us. Thanks for sharing this.

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenters-p

Dana, I still recall 30-plus years ago (gasp! THAT long ago? :-) when the pain of your divorce was still very fresh for you and how openly you shared your hurt at that time with friends and co-workers. While I'm sure it wasn't always easy for you to do that, I can't help but think that your openness was an important factor in your healing from that hard time.

I think the same applies in the case of dealing with your cancer. You are being very open to your friends, and I am sure it will contribute greatly to your long-range healing.

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Fortmeyer

One more thought:

I had to chuckle a bit, Dana, when you wrote:
"We came into the world alone and we go out alone, too."

I understand what you are saying there, but if you take that thought more literally than figuratively, I am actually one of a few exceptions. I have a twin sister. So I DIDN'T come into this world alone. I had company. (Although I was first to arrive and she waited another 20 minutes. We tease her about being late for everything...:-)

But even though we entered the world at roughly the same time, I can assure you that Lynell and I have absolutely no scheduled arrangements to depart this life together! :-)

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Fortmeyer

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