I have never been one to sugar-coat my responses to, ‘How are you?’ If the answer is not truly, ‘I’m great,’ I will likely share how I am doing. The words I use and the detail I go into indeed depend on the audience, but my goal is honesty. I have always been a natural sharer, maybe even an over-sharer. However, after being blindsided with a form of cancer that I did not even know existed, and one that was lethal enough to end my life within days, more than ever, I felt it necessary to share. I can remember being a young girl and sharing with my close friends about my relationship adventures, only to be met with anger by the boy who was our topic of conversation. I felt guilty for doing what was natural; sharing. I endured negative responses often enough that it became part of my internal dialogue. I started scolding myself for sharing, trying to isolate myself, questioning everything I said to my friends, and ultimately felt shame for sharing.
Over the years, I did learn to give myself grace and recognized the unhealthy patterns of those relationships. It took learning to love myself to be able to do that. After my diagnosis, I began noticing how people reacted to my honesty. It is no surprise that people are uncomfortable with talking about ‘the big C’. I am acutely aware of this, as I used to be one of those people. Still, I had this driving need to honor myself, to speak my truth, and, maybe most importantly in this case, to raise awareness of an illness I never even knew existed until I was sitting in front of a doctor telling me I had it.
As I am sure, anyone can well imagine what it might be like to hear something like that, especially after being brushed off and assured for days that I was fine. Not only did this thing invading my body exist, but it had happened fast and the only person who had been concerned about it was me. So, yes, I made it a point to answer questions honestly, even if they were only meant as a social pleasantry.
Eventually, I learned that there is a difference between being honest, informing, educating, and emotionally dumping on others. So, I became a little more mindful of who I shared with. However, even among the select audience I fully opened up to, I noticed an interesting pattern emerge. It is the seeming impulse others experience to swiftly move me out of uncomfortable emotions. I recognize that people do not like the feeling of experiencing someone else’s negative feelings. It is never pleasant and many people default to being fixers. Nevertheless, it took me back to those times as a young person who felt guilt and shame for sharing. It did not feel right to me. It felt important to be with these feelings and try to clarify what was causing them and whether they served me in any positive way.
It felt invalidating to be reminded of how grateful I should be if I was having a moment. I could not convince myself that I should just be more grateful. The reality is, I was grateful – am thankful. But day by day, sometimes minute by minute, what I feel is not necessarily gratitude. In fact, I could feel gratitude in one moment and sadness in the next, and anger in another. The good news is, the world is now at a place where we acknowledge and hold up the concept of fluid emotions…as long as they are linear. No, we do not need to experience happiness in every moment of our privileged lives to be deemed grateful or emotionally stable. It is acceptable to have a difficult moment, even a bad day, and it is equally acceptable to wake up the following day reset and ready to embrace joy. However, I could not shake the concept that if I expressed my negative emotions, which, let’s be honest, we ALL have, my audience would have me believe I should not feel a certain way. Usually that I am lucky to be here, or I am cancer-free, or I should focus on being grateful, that in some way, the implication was I am not mindful of my luck or grateful. Fortunately, I have spent enough time sitting with my therapist to begin trusting that our intent is not usually to offend, undermine, or invalidate other humans. So, that could not be it. I chose to believe that most of those people who reacted that way respected me and my experience and were not out to hurt me or make me doubt myself. So, I sat with it a little longer until a different puzzle piece fit.
It happened recently when yet another fantastic human I had the pleasure of knowing was taken from us by cancer. Her name was Rebecca; you may recall me writing about her in my previous article, Overcoming the Whispers of Self-Doubt. I met Rebecca among a large group of other young adults who had been diagnosed with cancer. Some were in remission; others were still in treatment, and others were palliative and looking to be with people who just get it. Rebecca was the former. We were the same age, both mothers, and we connected with ease. Her cancer was spreading, and she was running out of options. Several of us who met at that event kept in touch, and our most recent virtual meeting was at her request because the end was near, and she just wanted to be with us for a while. Many of us obliged.
I make it a strong point not to check my social media, email, or text messages in the morning before I have had the opportunity to fuel up on caffeine, but on this particular day, I woke up and opened my FaceBook right away. The first story in my feed was a message from Rebecca’s daughter that she had passed peacefully surrounded by her family. It was devastating. Given the news, the state of the world, my own emotional struggles with isolation, and fear of the Covid19 virus, it was too much. I cried. I was angry. I needed to disconnect from my job for the first time since the pandemic had started because I could not hold myself together. I needed a break.
After hearing the news, I reached out to another one of the amazing women I met there. She is a decade younger than me, but we are both mothers and survivors of leukemia. Her light shines so brightly it could warm you from a world away. I just wanted to let her know I was thinking of her. We made a couple of exchanges. One of which I mentioned was that I was both devasted and felt immense gratitude. On the one hand, it was infuriating that we had lost another bright light. I was angry at cancer and the state of our environment which is not helping any of us. Sad for Rebecca’s family and all of us who were lucky enough to have known her. But I was also reminded of just how lucky I was to be here also. How grateful I am to be here still to raise my kids, experience the joys of marriage and continue breaking the ceiling of my own personal goals. Thankful that I could again pretend I do not have an expiration date. But the emotions were not linear. It was not a ‘one or the other’ experience. It was an ‘and’ experience. I was angry, and I was sad, and I was grateful.
My emotions are not linear, they are plural. I had always known it to some degree, but it had not come into my conscious awareness until this moment. Furthermore, it firmly placed another puzzle piece in the mystery of the reactions of others. I believed it likely that those people who tried to redirect me assumed that because I was expressing sadness, anxiety, frustration or any other negative emotion that I did not feel any of their counterparts. That just was not the case. My understanding of my emotions had evolved and I acknowledged that they had likely always been plural. But is that ok? I started researching.
I found that the word closest to my experience is ‘ambivalence’. However, this word, in almost every reference I found, denoted indecision or confusion. But I was neither confused nor indecisive about how I was feeling or my actions as a result. I looked it up on social media hoping to find a more progressive description or perception, but I still did not find it. I continued to ponder this concept.
Today is when I decided that I no longer need to sit on this. It was about eleven o’clock in the morning when I looked down at the date on my work laptop only to realize that it was the anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with cancer. As it does every year, the emotions of December 8th, 2017, rushed back so quickly it was like slamming into a brick wall. The day’s images flashed behind my eyes, and along with it the fear, disbelief, denial, sadness, anger, closely followed by the gratitude I feel for still being here and the pride of using my second chance to spread awareness and inspire self-advocacy in others. It was like a symphony playing a moving melody throughout my whole body. It was hard as it is every year, but the fact that I felt such a plethora of things at once did not make me less likely to accept my next speaking event. It did not make me more likely to stop writing, and it surely did not make me feel confused or shameful.
And so, from now on, until I find a better, more acceptable term to describe it, I will embrace my ambivalence. I will carry it with me close in my mind and heart because it is yet another piece of what makes me me. And each day, I continue to rise, grateful for the new day and loving myself just as I am.
The question remains, is it still ambivalence if we are not indecisive in the face of fully feeling our array of emotions? If not, what is that word? If so, do we need to make this the next viral term that we dig into as socially misunderstood, working toward giving the true nature of the word and emotions behind it the respect they deserve?
I suppose we shall see. Until next time, we’ve got this.