Updated: Mar 11
In the past few months I have started, and abandoned, several blog posts. I felt like I'd left a story unfinished - with a rather abrupt break - and I wanted some closure. Or perhaps to offer some closure. But I couldn't muster the mental energy to write. I was also avoiding any kind of analysis of what was going on. It was overwhelming enough just to experience it.
As I worked with my critical mind - reminding it that I would be ready to write when I was ready - a phrase came to me. Honor the magnitude. Honor the magnitude of what we're going through.
I tend toward minimizing, which I learned from my family. "It's not that big a deal." "It could be worse." "This too shall pass." "Onward and upward." These sentiments - though well intended - can encourage denial of the truth of our lived experience. When I deny the magnitude of my feelings in the moment (and sometimes we have to just to get through) they fester and linger and junk up my life in an ongoing way. Or, they come out all at once in an unexpected and disruptive explosion.
When I was 11 and my sister was 13, we both had to have four teeth removed before we got braces. My sister was terrified that she was never going to wake up from the anesthesia. She talked about it incessantly in the weeks and days leading up to the procedure. To try to calm her fear, she had a special appointment with the surgeon to explain every detail of what would happen. When the time came, she sailed through and awoke relieved. I, by contrast, believed I wasn't afraid at all. Her fear felt extreme and overwrought. Such drama! It's not that big a deal, I said to myself, as she fussed and fretted.
I woke from the surgery hysterical, screaming and crying. I remember my mother desperately trying to calm me and a nurse coming in to say I was scaring the other patients. I was totally out of control, unable to stop sobbing. Over time that story became a metaphor for my tendency toward delayed reactions to difficult events. I'd be calm before and during, and then break down afterward. I imagine this is a common pattern. It has its adaptive advantages.
I now understand that the lack of emotion before/during a traumatic experience is how an organism responds to overwhelm. When we can't fight and we can't flee - when it's awful and we have to stay in it - we freeze. There is mercy and protection in the freeze response. It dulls pain and conserves energy. It allows us to survive when we are, essentially, trapped. During the course of my husband's treatment, I could not afford to be terrified, furious, grief stricken. I had to act. I had to dig deep to access my capacity to connect with him and be a calming presence. I had to communicate with his care team. I had to plan, organize, and keep track of everything from his growing list of medications to the daily calorie count.
In the first month or so I ran on adrenaline, feeling energized and purposeful. Then, about halfway through, I felt myself go numb, blank. I kept functioning but I didn't really feel much other than a low level of irritation and frustration. And exhaustion. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I filled empty time with iPhone games and reality TV. I slept a lot. Interestingly, I didn't have much physical pain, despite the dramatically heightened level of activity and stress. Driving, sitting in waiting rooms and exam rooms, I'd notice that my body felt mostly neutral. Perhaps this was do to the work I'd done with pain reprocessing in the month prior to his diagnosis. Perhaps it was due to the numbing effects of adrenaline and endorphins. Regardless, it was a blessing and a surprise.
Then came the aftermath. When his treatment was finished and he was beginning to heal, my emotional and physical pain had space to surface. It scared me. The crisis is over, I thought. Why am I a wreck NOW? My support people (without whom I would never have made it) kept reminding me that we'd been through a lot. That of course I was a mess. He was the one with cancer. He was the one who lost his strength and control, his ability to eat without torture, his sense of being safe in the world. That was his trauma. Mine was different. We went through the same thing but had completely different experiences. I lost my Person, if only temporarily. I had all the fear and no control. I had to watch and witness while also holding it all together. As the patient, he could honor the magnitude of his experience. He could articulate how horrible it all felt. Everyone around him affirmed him that this was really really hard. But I felt like I had to protect him from my negative feelings. I had to stay strong and composed. I had to make it look effortless.
The most challenging emotion for me to accept was resentment. Resentment registers in my body as a sudden burning heat in my belly when a request is received. Then there's a reluctance to move, an urge to flee or to scream NO. Resentment felt unacceptable so I overrode it and did my best to deny its existence. I got up and did what needed to be done. It reminded me of having a new baby. I'd hear the cry in the middle of the night and wake with a sort of dread and heaviness. And then I'd get up. No one talks about how caregiving generates resentment. It's taboo, a shameful secret that all caregivers feel. There's no place for it to go. But of course it comes up. How could it not?
In hindsight, I know I wasn't fooling anyone, especially him. He could see the toll it was taking on me - of course he could. I now see the futility of my effort to protect him from my distress. And I see how that effort added to the emotional weight I was carrying. As the burnout grew, it took ever increasing amounts of emotional energy to try to hide it (from myself as much as from him).
In the aftermath, as the feelings surfaced, their power and magnitude took me down. Things got dark for a spell. I felt like I'd been completely broken by his illness. The urge to flee came over me with overwhelming force, but there was nowhere to go. All of that survival energy - that got trapped inside me during the period of freeze - came rushing out all at once. Not ideal, but definitely familiar. And then, blessedly, it passed. As he came back into himself, we were able to reconnect. We started to talk, to process, to share. We named the magnitude not only of his trauma but of mine. We also named our strength and resilience. "Everyone has their limits," he said. "It's not anything to be ashamed of." Wait, it's not? Hmmmm.
There is still a part of me that wants to minimize. She's there in my head, rolling her eyes at me, calling me overdramatic. Perhaps it's partly shame - shame that I am not stronger or more resilient. I know that my inner Minimizer doesn't serve me. It makes sense to me that it's there. It's deep and fundamental conditioning. But it's not accurate or realistic. It's undermining. My ongoing work is to recognize it and let it go.
It's hard to honor the magnitude of something horrible. It needs to be done in small bits rather than all at once. We can only take in so much before overwhelm and shut down set in. This is normal and helpful to our survival. The body knows how much it can take, even when the mind argues otherwise. Ultimately, either way, the effects will be felt. Pain and distress will make themselves known. The more we can acknowledge strong feelings as we go along (gently and within our window of tolerance) the less likely we are to decompensate afterwards. We are also less likely to have physical symptoms like pain and exhaustion.
My dad used to say that "some lessons in life need to learned more than once." It was his understated way of saying "this is a lifelong journey." To honor the magnitude - that is a lesson I have needed to learn more than once. Thanks, universe, for handing me a sledge hammer as yet another teacher. 🙃 I'm sure the learning process will continue as long as I live. I hope I can use what I've learned to help other people find balance in the face of crisis - to honor the magnitude without being completely upended by it. It's a fine line to walk and no one ever gets it just right. It helps to have wise witnesses, as I did, to reflect reality back to me. It helps to give ourselves grace and compassion and forgiveness for however we cope. It helps to have the benefit of hindsight. Because the sledge hammers will always come. May we always know we did the best we could.
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If you'd like to read earlier blog posts on a variety of topics, you can find them here.
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