I caught a glimpse of the “Old Sam” recently. How I have missed her. Good to know that beneath the raw angry red scars the hope and ability to connect still lives within. I dug deep with somebody and admitted just how much guilt, stress and pressure I live with on a daily basis– and I’m not even talking about the cancer itself. I’m talking about what I put upon myself, as in “Eat this. Don’t do that. Feel this way. Don’t say that.” No wonder why I at times feel lost. Those constraints and judgments of my own doing are actually making me feel separated from my true self.
“Stop,” she said (meaning stop putting this kind of guilt upon myself). We both paused and then laughed, as if it’s that easy. And yet, in a way, for the first time maybe ever, I actually wondered if maybe it is just that simple. She didn’t say it without compassion; in fact, she was right there with me, just the two of us in the room and I felt like I could say anything without judgement.
She had lots more nuggets of wisdom for me, treasures that I will tuck away for when I need them (perhaps every day). Sometimes we need to not just be reminded, but assured that we are OK. We are grounded. Here. That what we carry– that boulder– doesn’t have to be carried anymore. The cancer has to be carried, yes, at least for now. But the guilt? Maybe not.
It is the magical thinking that scares the crap out of me. “If I cut out soda, I can keep my cancer at bay.” “If I limit my desserts, surely my cancer won’t grow.” “If I keep positive, how can my cancer spread?” “If I stay in-the-moment, nothing bad will happen.” In a way, I am learning, magical thinking can be a complete waste of time; it depends upon how you look at it. The way that I’ve been utilizing it is more like a punishment: Don’t feel too sorry for yourself, Sam, or something even worse will happen. If you eat that piece of chocolate just make sure that you feel bad about it, somehow negating any negative consequences. Don’t you dare ask the universe for anything other than to be alive. Here’s how I could be looking at it though: Drinking green juice and meditating brings me peace, and I believe in my heart that I am doing all I can for myself and my health. Whether or not that green juice or meditation will actually keep the cancer managed, while certainly giving me a better shot, is never a guarantee.
It’s about finding that peace within so that we can live the most joyful life possible.
So here’s where I struggle: I don’t truly believe that having dessert on my birthday will cause some kind of Armageddon in my body, but others say that sugar causes cancer to grow (how much exactly would I have to eat to have that happen? I wish that somebody could just tell me the magical number and I would stay way, way (way), below it). So may studies and so many people have differing (but STRONG) opinions on the subject. How can I listen to my own heart and gut when I’m hearing so many other voices in my head of what to do and what not to do? And how can I truly enjoy that cheeseburger when I do decide to have it when all I’m thinking is, “I should not be eating this right now.” Because somehow when I link food to joy and that food is not healthy, I immediately lose the joy. In the most clinical and scientific words that I can find for this loss of happiness and this overload of guilt and stress, all I can say is: It sucks. Big time.
And then, let’s think about this: Have you ever noticed how many people tell you to “Stay positive” when you have cancer, or any serious chronic illness or disease? You know how much I believe the mind and body are connected, but… Doesn’t that scare you into thinking that if you don’t stay positive 24/7, something bad (read: even worse) could happen? I would add a clause to that statement, which is this: “If you have days where you don’t feel positive, that’s OK, too.” As in, a negative day or negative thought isn’t going to literally kill you. Every second of every day of every year, yes that will impact your health, I do believe that; I truly believe in the power of positive thinking. But just like eating an occasional cheeseburger, sometimes you need to allow yourself to have your occasional days where you don’t feel positive and you understand that thought isn’t going to literally eat you up inside. You feel shitty. You feel sorry for yourself. You cry. You’re irritable with your loved ones. It ain’t pretty, but while everybody else gets to run the gamut of human emotions on a day to day basis, we should be able to as well.
All of this only reminds me that we only have one life, and I am making the choice to carry guilt, whether or not that’s been serving me well (and there are actually times when negative emotions can serve a purpose, believe it or not). For me, the guilt carries no positive connotation. It makes me feel bad about myself. It makes me feel like the cancer is my fault. It puts the ball in my court and not in an empowering way; it merely makes me feel deflated and defeated.
It’s about finding peace. I am beginning to understand that carrying around toxic feelings about my choices, my body, and spending time worrying about what other people must think of me when I eat that piece of cake is not peaceful. It is anything but. My best friend can attest to this: She came to visit soon after my diagnosis and we ordered pizza. Do I get cheese? Do hormones from milk cause cancer to grow? Do I get sauce? Doesn’t that have sugar in it? I mean I can’t just eat a pile of dough, that’s not good either. Will it be OK if I pile on the veggies? The decision was pain-staking and probably very difficult to watch. But this can certainty ring true for everybody, cancer or no cancer, yes? Carrying guilt and feeling weighed down and begging to just let it go, somehow, some way. Given how we as human beings are quite hard on ourselves and tend to lean towards quickly judging others, I would think so. But as Buddha said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
I told a friend the other day that we have choices about what we can feel anxious about (let me add an * to that and say I’m not talking about huge life challenges like cancer or illness or grief or loss or trauma, etc. I’m talking about the day-to-day stuff); that we ourselves decide where to put our energy. Judgment-free zone, I said. And then I realized as soon as I said it that maybe I should take my own advice. It’s not that easy.
But then again, maybe it is.