It was Jeannie’s first appointment in over two years. I commented on how well she looked, that I was happy to see her and asked, “Why are you here?” Her chin quivered and she burst into tears. “It’s the worst year of my life. This isn’t my hair. It’s a wig. I’ve been battling breast cancer and the possibility it was also in my ovaries. Only this week, they said the tumors are all benign.
I wanted to tell you about it but I couldn’t. I did call to say things were going well between Frank and me and that was true. My big, tough guy who said therapy was BS, now walks around singing your praise. And, would you believe, he’s been a tremendous support. Initially, he didn’t address it and I felt terribly alone. But I confronted him and he said that he didn’t know how to tell me how scared he was and still be strong for me. I told him that sharing his fear was real strength and knowing he cared was all I needed. He didn’t have to be superman to help me, he just had to be with me, emotionally. Sadly, I deal better with him than with me.
You’d think that what you learn in therapy would stick, but it doesn’t. There’s such a difference between the victimized little girl who first came to see you and the sixty-year-old woman I am now. Still, I frequently find myself repeating old behaviors. And now, I have to deal with this lousy cancer. I just needed a safe place to cry and let my hair down.” And with that, she whisked the wig off her head to reveal a short scrub of growth. It wasn’t unattractive. The same person with the same sensitive eyes was there. I suspect she was testing to see if I was repulsed or not. I wasn’t. I knew how difficult it was for Jeannie to show herself and how important it was for her to do so. Everyone needs somebody in their lives that they can truly let their hair down with, share what they feel and fear and trust they won’t be condemned for it.
Despite the fact that Jeannie’s illness was ending positively, every traumatic situation leaves scars. Sometimes those scars are invisible, other times, they’re obvious. In Jeannie’s case, it was both. In her own words, “I didn’t believe I had cancer until they started drawing on me up with a marks-a-lot. After the chemo and radiation treatments were over, I felt I went in with a whole body and got it back all battered and scarred. I’ve tried to be brave, but now I’m even more scared . Before, I just wanted to live. Today, I’m worried about the quality of life I’m going to have.
Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I should be so thankful for everything, but, when they said I was going to live, I realized something I’ve kept inside. Frank hasn’t touched me, or shown any passion toward me. since the mastectomy. I feel like a scarred woman, or maybe not a woman at all. But, after I made this appointment, I knew what you’d say. I had to share my feelings with Frank. So, last night, I finally approached him. Not for sex. My whole body’s too tender for that right now. But for closeness. I told him I needed to know if he could live with me the way I am. Well, if I look good to you today, it’s because of what happened after that. He started crying and said, initially he was uncomfortable with the way I looked and he felt sorry for me and him. But the real problem was something I never even considered. Right before I was diagnosed, he had severe gum problems and wound up getting a full set of dentures. He said that he was constantly frightened they’d fall out if he kissed me, and hadn’t I noticed that he never let me see him without them. I started crying from relief. Actually, we cried together and then laughed in an almost hysterical way. It wound up with me saying ‘I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.’ It doesn’t sound as funny telling it to you as it did last night, but it made us both feel safe. Then I began to wonder why I had waited almost a year before talking to him about this. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Don’t hide feelings and emotions behind a stiff upper lip and be honest with the people you live with and love.”
That’s also a lesson I’d like every one of you to learn. Don’t hide what you feel. I’m not talking about your reactions to what you’re feeling, such as anger or depression. Sometimes you’d best not show them. But real feelings are always worth sharing. It’s only when your feelings are open and transparent that you give others a chance to love and accept you for who you really are. That’s the best gift life has to offer.