Sunday, June 11, 2017

Cave Drawings

(Published in The Enneagram of Death: Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dyling, by Elizabeth Wagele.)
Research suggests that trauma survivors can head off long-lasting symptoms by letting friends know what they're going through. Susan Lien Whigham, "The Role of Metaphor in Recovery From Trauma"
I had not thought of my 2010 breast cancer diagnosis and surgery as trauma until I read the transcript of How the Brain Helps Us to Survive Trauma and understood that any life-threatening event can be traumatizing -- war, a terrible car accident, a natural disaster, a heart attack, cancer.

And the measure of how well or quickly we recover, compared to those who might develop post-traumatic stress disorder, is whether or not we can discharge the energy created by the shock. Some of our response to stress is determined by our own emotional resiliency, but much of it depends on whether our caregivers, family, and friends contribute to our feeling helpless or support our gaining a sense of control. We can begin to take charge of our fate when we're able to talk about our feelings, absorb the reality of our circumstances, and move into action.

My strongest urge while convalescing from surgery was simply to be listened to. And yet, I didn't really have the words to express what I was experiencing. Some of my friends interpreted my early quasi-silence as a desire to have my spirit lifted, and entertained me with stories. I loved them for this, yet also needed help to find words for what I was experiencing.

So I was relieved to read how listening for metaphors can help recovery from trauma. I remembered an earlier blog entry where I tried to express my reaction to others' view of my "bravery": 
It's like driving in a heavy rainstorm late at night. You'd rather be home by a cozy fire, but you're on full alert, every sense attuned to what's happening in your immediate environment. You don't have time to be afraid.  
I didn't feel brave; I felt swept up in a tide of experience. During the two weeks of diagnosis, biopsy, and surgery I was in a kind of trance, floating, as if rocked on the waves of a deep ocean.

Notice the quality of water in these metaphors -- rainstorm, tide, waves, ocean. And notice also how these water metaphors are hard to pin down (another metaphor); how fruitless it would be to try to capture water with a "pin" of any sort. And yet, these watery images helped me embrace a shock too big to encompass with left-brain language.

Breast cancer brought death into my house. Paradoxically, the mastectomy brought a change to my body that meant I could stave off death, probably for many years, so I denied the surgery as trauma. It took almost six months for me to see the loss of my breasts as a disfigurement, to notice how I'd been  dressing to hide it from the world, how quickly I covered myself after a shower--when I used to be so happily naked.

I finally let in the loss by following my metaphors, diving in to the ocean, being swept by the tide to a barren shore, finding a flat terrain with strange plants and unknown dangers, dark caves filled with ancient drawings, wondering Who are these others who have been here before me? How can I survive this? 

And I knew I had to find my way through this metaphorical territory, go into the dark caves, experience the fear, learn from the ancient drawings, find guidance from others who had been there for a while. The spirits of these women encircled me as I wept for the loss of my breasts, they chanted with me as I celebrated life's changing seasons and embraced more enduring symbols of womanhood. 

 *   *   *

Seven years later, on April 15, 2017 I faced another loss, the death of my mother. Yes, she lived a long and healthy 104 years, and yes, I was exhausted during the final years of caring for her. But each process of grief has its own territory. As the months passed, I looked at the image above of women in community, and wept as they encircled me once more, reminding me of lifelong love from my Mom, who was also my best girlfriend.