I spent half of yesterday dealing with delayed chemo-induced nausea and vomiting (note to self: just because you got away with failing to take your steroids the first day after chemo, doesn’t mean you should push it the second day) and all of today recuperating (read: lying in bed watching Bored to Death). Not the ideal way to spend a weekend, but honestly, not the worst weekend I’ve ever had.
In between television episodes, I’ve been thinking about a meeting I went to on Wednesday night. It was a gathering of women who have or have had ovarian cancer, and who were meeting to discuss various issues surrounding treatment, community, and support. It was strange for me — I was the second youngest person in the room, but I was also the second longest “survivor” (I hate that word with a burning passion, but it’s the shorthand I’m using here for lack of a better term). But I’m kind of used to being an anomaly, so whatever. It is what it is.
We were separated into groups to discuss three questions that I can in no way remember now. I don’t think my group even hit all the questions, and the interesting (and frustrating) part happened after we reconvened and each group discussed with the entire group what had been covered in the smaller groups. The whole process was kind of messy and frustrating. In support-group-type settings, there is usually a very vocal contingent who espouse the belief in the power of positive thinking and who speak of all the blessings and good brought to them by their cancer diagnosis. And it’s just ridiculous. No amount of “good” makes up for all the negative stuff that’s part and parcel of serious illness. And it’s frustrating that people think they have to find the positive or focus on the blessings to make sense of illness. What’s wrong with something simply being senseless? I guess I just feel like if I’m supposed to learn something about the value of life or the beauty of the moment through illness, then the universe must think that I’m a complete moron who will only appreciate what I have once it’s compromised. All of this is to say that I often have to bite my tongue in support situations because as much as I hate the positive-spin crap, I do respect people enough to let them have that if it gets them through the day.
So I was kind of surprised when I wanted to slap a woman who said something incredibly negative (and thus probably the truest thing uttered by anyone that entire night). She said — and the context is completely lost on me, I don’t remember why this came up — I’m single and I don’t see myself ever having a relationship again. Look at me, I’m damaged goods. Where do I start unpacking this statement or my reaction to it?
It’s important to know that I sympathize with her. I get it, I do. She’s recently out of treatment, she has permanent side effects, scars, and psychological damage. It’s hard to imagine being attractive to anyone when you’re in that place. Hell, I stayed in a ridiculously shitty relationship for an embarrassingly long time the first time I went through treatment because I couldn’t really fathom a better situation. But time moved on and I realized this idea of being “damaged goods” was sulky, self-centered, and childish. And it’s OK to feel that way for a while, but you have to grow up eventually. Everyone is damaged. It just happens, it’s part of that whole process of waking up in the morning, moving through the world, and interacting with your environment. Eventually, you’re going to get dinged up. So thinking your damage somehow sets you apart and makes you unworthy is specious. No one is that special.
I think I wanted to slap the woman who called herself damaged goods because she said it to a room full of women of which many were in her exact situation. And I know that this woman would never look at me and say, You are damaged goods and no one will ever love you. But by saying that about herself, in essence she was saying it about all of us. And I have enough trouble keeping myself from going down that path without having someone else drag me down it by my (metaphorical) hair.
Anyway, I didn’t slap that woman or even tell her that I wanted to. I have more self-control than that. But I wish I could have told her that she was wrong. That she’ll date again, and that if anything, her “damage” will act as a barometer when it comes to picking prospective partners. The one thing I was able to tell everyone in that room was that everything gets easier with time. With the exception of me and one older woman who has been in treatment for the better part of nine years, no one else was more than two years out from their initial diagnosis. They couldn’t believe there would ever be a time when cancer and the threat [I originally typed treat instead of threat, whoops] of its return wouldn’t be their most consuming thought. Look, I said, speaking as someone who had a long period of time before recurrence, you stop thinking about it. Either you’ll recur and deal with it, or you won’t and you’ll stop worrying about it so much. The panic subsides. It might not feel like it now, but it does. I wish I’d had a chance to tell them that most of their scary thoughts — even those thoughts about being damaged goods — would fade off. Next time.