In the past few months I have been diagnosed with, treated for and ultimately recovered from breast cancer. At all stages the kindness and professionalism of everyone I was in contact with was impeccable, my partner was emotionally and practically supportive at every step and my recovery has been smooth and relatively swift. However, I cannot help but feel I am now in a sort of limbo, having had a serious disease come and go but not having suffered enough for it to “count”. What can I do to accept and truly own what has happened to me without locking myself in a permanent loop of being a cancer victim as opposed to a cancer survivor?
I once knew a reporter who’d filed from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Beirut. He felt lucky, as far as things go in these places; nobody he knew died, he never saw an explosion. But long after he came home, he still startled easily, slept badly, felt unstuck from ordinary life. Still, he wouldn’t permit himself to use the label “traumatised”. He had a picture of what trauma looked like and it didn’t match what had happened to him.
Eventually his therapist told him something that I try to remember: trauma is anything that was too much for too long. And for some things, one second is too long.
I understand why you feel like you’re in limbo, like you can’t quite say “I understand” to other survivors but people who’ve never had cancer can’t quite understand you. But the trap we can fall into is to think that this comparative ranking of actual experiences is a guide to whether what we feel is legitimate. We get stuck asking whether we’ve got the “right” ratio between the thing we went through and the damage it did.
The problem with this question is that it tricks us into focusing only on what actually happened, when in fact events don’t damage us on their own. They enlist accomplices on the way to hurting us, getting help from our fears and memories and the childishly hopeful part of us that thought we’d make it through unscathed.
But these look completely different in everyone, so the same event can drop into two different minds and blossom in two completely different ways, like inkdrops in water. There just isn’t a reliable ratio between events and damage, and as long as we ask whether we’ve got the right one, we are asking something we are likely never to know.
What we can know, if we let ourselves, is how the things we went through changed us. The task isn’t to evaluate the answer but to learn to spend some time with it – give yourself permission to feel whatever the answer is; you might have changed more than other people, you might have changed less than other people.
This is not the kind of answer you can be wrong about. But somewhere coiled inside it we might find that whatever else our trauma does to us, whether it stamps itself on our bodies or wakes us up at night or just makes us grateful that we still get to wake up and see birds, it gives us a kind of gift: a vivid understanding of the fact that most other people, too, have been through something that was too much for too long.
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