The Weight of Surviving
“You are so strong.”
“You are such a survivor.”
“You must be so thankful to have come through so much.”
It was an innocent enough start to a conversation with a family member this week and yet those were the three sentences that broke me.
You see, I am a survivor. I’ve had cancer; twice actually. I’m a person in long-term recovery from alcohol and substance misuse. I’m the surviving sister of my younger sibling’s tragic and sudden death. And those are just the biggies. My challenges and traumatic experiences certainly do not make me unique, but they have made me tough. But now I find myself facing some new challenges, and I don’t feel so strong or thankful. Not even a little bit. I’m just mad.
And you know what? That’s ok. That’s more than ok. I’m not sure tough or strong is what I want to be. Because those have not served me well in the past.
In the past, carrying the burden of being the “resilient” one broke me, and I turned to all kinds of unhealthy things to help me cope and pretend that I was okay with feeling that way. “Strong” became a label that suffocated me, because I didn’t leave a space in my life for pain and hurt. When they showed up at my door, I pushed them away in the name of being the survivor. I numbed away the anxiety of having a medically fragile daughter, my brother’s death, my failing marriage, the return of my cancer in a different area. I couldn’t cope with feeling all that pain. So I numbed.
Glennon Melton, one of my recovery (s)heroes says “Lives are like glo-sticks. They don’t really glow until they’ve been busted up a bit.” The longer I live, the more I believe this truth. We hear a lot about surviving and recovering and rising, but what I forget is, first comes the breaking. The breaking isn’t fun; the breaking is messy and ugly. The breaking is where the pain is. It’s also where the fire is. The fire that burns away all that we are not so that in the end, we can see who we are.
So friends, here’s my breaking. I have an illness that is requiring more chemo treatments as I wait on a bone marrow match. And lately I find myself thinking things like “you should be thankful, at least your hair isn’t falling out too bad this time” or “at least you aren’t as sick as some people.” And that’s true; I am thankful. But that doesn’t mean I have to feel only that. If I heard a friend say this, I would scoop her up in the biggest hug and remind her that her pain is real and it’s valid and pain doesn’t fall on a continuum of “bad” vs. “not so bad.” Life is hard because it’s hard. It’s not a competition.
Thankfully, I had a friend remind me of that today. That my pain is valid and it gets to be felt, just like all the other things. There’s no numbing and that means I get to feel what I feel. I say get to feel instead of have to very intentionally here. I’ve worked hard in recovery for the right to feel all the things. When you numb the bad, you numb the good; I’m learning there’s lots of good to be felt. Feeling all the things doesn’t have to be a burden.
I’m going to choose to keep feeling. Even if that means I’m mad as hell right now. Those labels and feelings aren’t too heavy anymore, because I’m not carrying them alone. I’m sharing them with you, my recovery sisters, and I bet that there are things you might be tired of carrying too. You can walk with me. We will carry it together.