Post-Election Angst

I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and get out from under the oppressive cloud of disillusionment, sadness, anger, and grief that has been hanging over me ever since the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I admire those who were able to eloquently write and speak words of wisdom almost immediately, but I haven’t been able to do so myself, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing now is particularly wise. Perhaps it’s more of a cathartic exercise and a personal reminder of what I want my priorities to be.

momandme

Me after voting in honor of my mother, who was born before women were allowed to vote. I wore a white sweater she knit for herself many years and which I inherited.

On Election Day, I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, feeling optimistic that after 240 years, we would finally elect our first female president. That was not by any means my only reason for voting for Hillary, but it was an especially meaningful one. As I said in my pre-election post, it was not a perfect vote (it never is), but I generally felt good about voting for Hillary and very good about voting against a man who I believe is unqualified and unfit for the presidency. He is the antithesis of pretty much everything I stand for, with his vengeful, bellicose, torture-promoting, dishonest, fear-mongering, demeaning, insulting, bullying, sexist, misogynist, racist, and xenophobic behavior and/or speech both before and during the campaign. But today, that man is the president-elect, and how do I respond? Everything in me wants to rant and say I will never be able to support him, but that isn’t either right or productive.

Mental health therapists I have known would say that it’s important to allow oneself to feel what one feels – no matter how negative and unpleasant the feelings. I’ve been surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that so many Americans chose Donald Trump as their president. For the first 24 hours after the results came in, I felt almost physically ill and like I was sinking into another pit of depression and anxiety. I’m better now, but I’m still sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief.

  • I grieve over the racism directed at President Obama from the beginning and perpetuated by the president-elect, crystallized in the absurd and patently untrue conspiracy theory that he was not born in the United States and thus was not really our president. It feels wrong on so many levels that the same person who deliberately and repeatedly delegitimized the first African American president should now be the one to take over from him.
  • I grieve for the many immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other marginalized people who are afraid of what is going to happen to them. I grieve for all the expressions of hatred toward these people already in the wake of the election. I grieve for my granddaughter’s friend who is worried that his Mexican father is going to be taken away.
  • I grieve that someone who openly brags about committing sexual assault can be elected president.
  • I grieve because whether he intended it or not, whether he denounces it or not, Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists like the KKK and given renewed permission to some white people to express their racism openly and proudly. This is so not okay!

I could go on, but I have to get past all this anger. I won’t be participating in any “not my president” protests. Instead, I have to figure out how to channel my disappointment, anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief into positive action. I have to find hope in things like the graciousness with which Hillary conceded defeat and President Obama welcomed the president-elect to the White House to begin a peaceful transition of power, and the more conciliatory tone Trump seems to be striking at the moment. I have to remind myself what I have written over the past year as I’ve been trying to process this most difficult election campaign:

From December 9, 2015, commenting on the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

I realize that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

From February 15, 2016: At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

From April 26, 2016: I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

From July 20, 2016: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend…. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies….

One of favorite Bible verses is “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)…. Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever. I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

From September 20, 2016:  I long for political discourse that is honest, that doesn’t throw truth to the wind and repeat lies upon lies upon lies. I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. I also believe that speaking the truth is important when we believe that great wrong is being done. And that’s where I am frequently confronted with the tension between forthrightly denouncing unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors (speaking the truth) and still affirming the essential worth and dignity of the person. Words matter.

From November 7, 2016: One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

I have a magnet in my kitchen that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do that, I have to help heal the wounds and be a reconciling force in the world; I have to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, generous, civil, understanding, forgiving; I have to listen to those who disagree with me and see things very differently. I want to echo Hillary’s scriptural admonition to her supporters in her concession speech: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I’m not completely there yet, but I want to get there.

 

 

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Blessed Are the Merciful

I’ve been following the case of a young woman who in an episode of severe postpartum depression stabbed her toddler son and then herself in January 2014. (Her son survived.) She has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year. Just this morning she pled guilty but mentally ill to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison plus 20 years of probation and no contact with her son. I know her personally, although not well, and have been writing to her for almost a year. Before this happened, when we were participating together in the same activity, I never would have guessed that she suffered from postpartum depression. She always seemed like a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who spoke lovingly about her young son. Since she has been in prison, her letters to me have confirmed my initial impressions – she writes about books she’s reading, poems and stories she’s writing for her son, Bible studies she attends, classes she’s taking at the prison, and the progress of her case.

Her situation reminds me of a case from 2001 that was even worse, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She too was suffering from postpartum depression. Then there is the local woman who repeatedly attempted to abandon her baby recently, but was finally caught by an observant passerby. Fortunately, the baby was not harmed. This mother also suffered from mental illness.

I am not condoning the actions of these mothers. When innocent children are involved, I understand the instinct to condemn, and I agree that children must be protected. But I don’t condone the attitudes of some who have responded to news articles about these and other mothers. This morning, when a local news station reported on its Facebook page that the young woman I know and have been writing to had pled guilty but mentally ill, there were some who were understanding and compassionate in their comments, but others were hateful and nasty, calling her evil and saying she should rot in a cell by herself for the rest of her life. I almost cried as I read the comments (and I’m grateful she probably doesn’t have access to stuff like this in prison). Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence in a mental hospital, has requested permission to leave the grounds for supervised events with other patients. However, because of pressure from the public, judges have never granted permission, and she remains the only person at the mental hospital who has never been allowed to leave the grounds.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are familiar to most people. The one that comes to my mind in this context is “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” There is a certain quid pro quo going on there – if we want to receive mercy ourselves, we need to show it to others. The prophet Micah named three things that God requires: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” thus critiquing the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above showing mercy to people, even undesirables. Mercy, lest we forget, means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”

Sometimes it is hard to balance the kind of justice required by the criminal justice system (or the kind of justice that requires people to take responsibility and accept consequences) with mercy that understands the possibility of mitigating circumstances and takes them into account. When mental illness is clearly involved, however, it seems like it is even more important for the balance to tilt toward mercy. Recovery from mental illnesses like depression is possible; people do get better, and they can receive treatment and stay well with good medications and talk therapy. Despite this, however, the stigma against mental illness remains, making it difficult for people to ask for help when they need it.

So often these days it seems like there are many who don’t want to show mercy; instead, they want revenge, retaliation, retribution, and ongoing judgment. In our rush to judgment and condemnation, do we forget that sometime we ourselves might need to rely on the mercy of others? Do we forget the simple truth of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (or to paraphrase it a little: treat others the way you would like to be treated).

Ever since I received a letter a few weeks ago from my acquaintance in prison telling me that her hearing was scheduled for today, she would be found “guilty but mentally ill,” and there were those in her family who thought she should be sentenced to life in prison, I’ve been mulling over the meaning and implications of “blessed are the merciful.” I’ve thought about what it means to show mercy in everyday situations as well as larger more difficult circumstances. Never having been the victim of a violent crime myself perhaps makes it easier for me to suggest that mercy is a better response to her and others like her than retribution and revenge. I can’t know for sure how I would actually respond if one of my family members were physically harmed or killed, but I can prepare my mind and heart to be more likely to want to be merciful and kind, to try to understand what happened and why, to be able to forgive, to look for restorative justice possibilities rather than retributive justice that feels like it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer

Lots of thoughts have been swirling around in my head these last few weeks. My head and heart are heavy when I think about current world events, especially the resurgence of the unending violence in Palestine and Israel and the plight of children from Central America coming to the United States hoping for a better life. I have opinions and convictions about both of these issues, formed in large part by a Christian faith that believes violence and retribution are not the answer, justice (making things right) is important, and we’re called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. But both topics are too complex and multi-faceted for me to sort out in a short blog post. (OK, I’ll be honest: after reading the harsh comments on a Facebook post about the Palestine-Israel conflict by someone I highly respect, I don’t have the courage to enter the fray!) SO: on to two other unrelated topics I’ve also been thinking about.

Anxiety rears its ugly head again: During the last two weeks of June, I experienced a level of anxiety I haven’t felt for a while. It was not pleasant. All the prayer, self-talk, deep-breathing, positive thinking, and distracting myself with other tasks that usually help me control my tendency to anxiety and worry didn’t work very well. I felt like I was close to being back in the place I was nine years ago in the aftermath of my colon cancer diagnosis and treatment and some family concerns, when anxiety and depression threatened to overwhelm me.

The cause this time? Another health scare. My routine annual mammogram revealed some calcifications on one side, and I had to have additional pictures taken. The additional pictures weren’t conclusive, so I was scheduled for a stereotactic biopsy to collect some tissue from the calcifications. In the days leading up to the biopsy, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Between the biopsy and the call from the doctor the next day that it was benign and no further action is necessary until my next annual mammogram, I was more anxious than I have been for a long time.

Calcifications in the breast are common and usually don’t mean anything. The coordinator at the radiology facility told me more than once that eighty percent of these biopsies are benign. But they can be a sign of early breast cancer and in twenty percent of these cases a biopsy will discover a malignancy. That’s what I couldn’t put out of my mind. I was having a hard time coming to terms with what felt like the very real possibility that I could be facing another round of cancer with all the associated treatments.

As I worked to control my anxiety, I realized that it was to some extent out of my control. I could mitigate it with the various disciplines I’ve learned over the years, but I couldn’t eliminate it. And as I beat myself up for my inability to control it, I also had to remind myself that anxiety disorders are not caused by personal weakness, a character flaw, or a lack of faith. Rather, they come from a combination of environmental factors (like the threat of breast cancer), genetic predisposition (my mother also suffered from anxiety), and malfunctioning in the brain circuits that regulate fear and emotion. Recognizing the complex and “organic” nature of anxiety doesn’t make dealing with it any easier, but it does help me not blame myself for being unable to control the waves that overwhelmed me last month and empathize with those for whom anxiety is often far more crippling than it is for me.

Trust is a two-way street: In denominational business meetings last weekend where I was a delegate from my congregation, as questions were raised about proposed changes in governance, the issue of trust took center stage. I firmly believe that our denominational leaders want what is best for the church; I also understand and sympathize with those who were questioning past actions and current proposals and displaying what appeared to be a lack of trust in their leaders.

I’ve been on both sides of this matter of organizational trust. I’ve been on boards (and chaired one of them) that made decisions that weren’t always appreciated or supported by the rank-and-file. I’ve been hurt by accusations both direct and indirect that the board didn’t know what it was doing, we had some kind of hidden agenda, we weren’t worthy of trust. The truth is that members of the boards I was on really had the best interests of the organization at heart, tried to be wise and careful in our decision-making, but among many good decisions also made some that in hindsight didn’t work out so well. Being considered untrustworthy feels like a low blow when we were doing our best to do the right thing.

On the other hand, I’ve also been the “victim” of decisions by organizations that didn’t make sense to me, seemed to head the organization in a direction that would result in a loss of things I believe(d) critical to the organization’s mission and identity, and could have unintended consequences (or perhaps intended, I would think, when I was in my most distrustful and cynical frame of mind). I’ve been frustrated by leaders, who when challenged say something like, “you chose us to be your leaders, so you need to trust us; you need to submit to our authority.” It doesn’t sit well with me when those who support organizational decisions and directions seem to want to shut down dissent and conversation and move on.

The issue of organizational trust often comes down to different views of leadership and decision-making, whether we prefer a more top-down style or more diffuse, shared and consensus-building. For some years now, the trend in our denomination has been toward the former, with fewer rather than more people involved in leadership and decision-making. The reasons are varied and include financial considerations and the associated need to be efficient and organizationally lean, but some have lamented the trend. To some extent, whether you support top-down or shared leadership and decision-making depends on where you sit – that is, if you’re one of the few at the top you’re likely to support top-down decisions, but if you’re an ordinary person at the “bottom” of the organizational flowchart you’re more inclined to question and less willing to trust and submit happily. That’s overly simplistic, of course, but it is part of what’s going on.

One bottom line (out of many possible bottom lines on this issue) is that trust goes both ways, as my pastor said at the close of the business meeting. All of us need to trust our leaders, recognizing that they have been chosen to lead and make decisions. At the same time, leaders also need to trust the people to provide wise counsel, gentle correctives and honest opinions about the impact of their decisions and to give space and time for those conversations to take place.

You can read more about trust and “Organizational Decision-Making” within the church context, with some practical perspectives and ideas, from a denominational publication I edit.

Musings During Mental Health Awareness Month

The girl I planned to room with in college for the one year I lived on dorm had to withdraw before school began because she had a mental health crisis. Around the same time I had been reading the book, None of These Diseases, by S. I. McMillen. My memory is that one of the book’s major premises was the connection between the spiritual and the physical. The biggest takeaway for me at the time was that illnesses, especially of the mind, were often caused by spiritual problems. The suggestion seemed to be that if we prayed hard and long enough, were spiritual enough, or willed ourselves strongly enough, we could cure ourselves. I’m pretty sure I wrote a letter to my friend expressing my sympathy about her mental health problems and recommending that she read the book. I don’t know if she did, and in retrospect I really hope she didn’t! I had no clue about the realities of mental illness in those days. (The book has since been revised and republished; I’m speaking of my memory of the original edition.)

Then in the 1980s, when I felt like my own world was crashing down around me, I sought the help of a trained therapist and was able to identify and acknowledge my own tendencies toward anxiety and depression and understand some of the causes. I also came to the strong belief that even though there are psychosomatic components to illness, including mental illness, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Further, it’s not helpful to make judgments or assumptions about the possible causes of someone’s mental illness, especially if those judgments include blaming the person. And even further, any guilt one might have about feeling depressed and anxious is not helpful or productive.

In 1992, I began working in the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health (now the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services), in the children’s bureau. It has been an eye-opening experience over the past 20+ years for me to learn to know the parents of children with serious mental health problems and hear their stories. The family advocacy movement, which came into its own in the 1980s, has done amazing work to 1) shift the blame for children’s mental health problems away from their parents, and 2) focus the service system on understanding the organic and environmental causes of mental illness and partnering with parents in their efforts to get effective treatment for their children. To be sure, there are children who have various psychiatric disorders as a result of abuse or something else their parents did to contribute to their problems, but there are many other children who deal with serious mental health issues every day whose parents didn’t do anything wrong.

So it is distressing to me that some Christians still perpetuate the notion that mental illness is often caused by some spiritual deficiency: if people got their spiritual lives in order, they wouldn’t be depressed or anxious. Some years ago, when I suffered a serious episode of depression in connection with my treatment for and recovery from colon cancer, I came across an article by a Christian therapist who said, “The predominant root of depression has a spiritual first cause, not a physical one.” She went on to make light of what it would be like if we psychoanalyzed and diagnosed various biblical characters. By that time in my life I understood the nature of anxiety and depression well enough, both by personal experience and by what I had learned on the job, not to be thrown too badly by the article. Nonetheless, I remember feeling that familiar twinge of guilt – first the guilt for being depressed at all, and then for not being able to pray it away.

And now, just in the last couple weeks, I came across another article, this time by a pastor trying to explain the root causes of gun violence. Among other things, he said, “We try to blame it [violence] on mental illness or anything that shifts the focus off the true problem. Christian psychologists tell us that 80 percent (or more) of those on psychotic drugs and/or in facilities for mental illness would be cured, or nearly cured, if they straightened out their spiritual lives, asked for forgiveness of their sins and developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can trace the roots of many mental illnesses to spiritual problems.” Again, statements like this strike me as way too simplistic not to mention potentially damaging to people who struggle with mental illness. The causes of mental illness are a complex combination of factors, including not only emotional/psychological/spiritual factors but also genetics, environment and trauma, and sometimes we just don’t know the cause. People with mental health challenges don’t need the further stigma and guilt that come with being labeled spiritually immature or not “Christian” enough.

Generally, we don’t tell people they need to straighten out their spiritual lives to be cured of physical illnesses; rather, the medical system goes to work. Illnesses and injuries are seen to be natural consequences of living. Even when the disease or injury could have been prevented with better diet or driving less aggressively, for example, our first response isn’t to blame the person. We treat the illness or injury, we care for the person with compassion, and we don’t stigmatize him or her for being ill. Why not view mental illness the same way?

Of course, there are things we can do to help prevent illness and injury; we can exercise, eat healthy foods, lose weight, drive safely, improve safety standards, reduce pollution and the use of known carcinogens, and so on. Similarly, there are protective factors that help to promote healthy social and emotional development and therefore prevent mental health problems. A couple examples: the Strengthening Families initiative of the Center for the Study of Social Policy that emphasizes the importance of protective factors in early childhood; the Search Institute’s list of “Developmental Assets” that if present make it more likely that children will grow up to be healthy and productive citizens.

When we hear about people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or some other mental illness, rather than judge them as spiritually or morally deficient in some way, we should think about how we can make the mental health system more effective in treating them and how we can support them and their families. When we hear the horrific stories of individuals whose mental illness contributed to suicide or homicide, especially mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we could work harder to help homes and communities be places where protective factors, including strong spiritual and religious values, can flourish.

As I write this, I feel like a lot of it is self-evident and ought to go without saying. But then I read comments like that pastor’s, and it doesn’t seem so self-evident. Mental illness is way too complex to dismiss with easy answers; doing so is a tremendous disservice to the millions of people who struggle with it every day. I wish I had understood that better all those years ago when my friend had to drop out of school because of a mental health crisis. I know I wanted to be compassionate when I wrote to her, but it was compassion tinged with ignorance that might have done more harm than good. I hope I’m far more understanding now.

Poster Woman: Surviving Cancer

Later this year, I’ll celebrate nine years of being a cancer survivor. Soon after I finished chemotherapy back in 2005, I wrote my story, “Poster Woman: My Journey with Cancer.” What follows is a significantly abbreviated version. I call myself “poster woman” because I am proof that colorectal screening works. If you’re over 50 and haven’t had a colonoscopy yet, please schedule one now. It might save your life!

For two years, during my annual gyn checkup, the nurse practitioner bugged me to have a colonoscopy. Frankly, I was a little irritated by her passion, but to avoid the lecture at my next appointment, I finally had one in July 2004. The surgeon found a polyp in an awkward spot where he couldn’t remove it easily. In August I had another procedure—this time a rigid sigmoidoscopy—and again the surgeon couldn’t remove the polyp. When lab results showed the polyp was “suspicious for malignancy,” he immediately recommended major abdominal surgery with a recovery time of 6-8 weeks. A second opinion by Larry Sollenberger, a colorectal surgeon, confirmed the first surgeon’s recommendation, and all of a sudden I was facing major surgery at the end of September.

About a week after surgery, my daughter Dana who was visiting for a few days drove me to my first post-operative appointment. I went in alone to see Larry, thinking everything was fine. I was definitely not expecting his next words, “Surgically, everything looks great, but you have cancer.” I was stunned. I knew it was possible, of course, but I had convinced myself that the chances of my having cancer were slim. Worse, the cancer was not only confined to my colon but had spread to one of the five lymph nodes he had removed along with the eight inches of colon. Here I was, a healthy woman of 56, rarely sick, joining the ranks of cancer patients. This was NOT what I planned for my life.

Within the next week, Dale and I met with Dr. Leal, the oncologist recommended by Larry, who outlined three choices for treatment based on the latest research: do nothing, hoping that the surgery had removed all the cancer (50-50 chance of that); take the “gold standard” course of chemotherapy; or, go with a newer chemo regimen that added a new drug and five percentage points to the odds of being pronounced cured within five years. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose the third option.

The regimen was 12 chemotherapy treatments over a six-month period, with drugs being administered every two weeks for three days. I went to Dr. Leal’s office on Wednesday mornings where the first drugs were administered by IV into my mediport, and then I was hooked up to a “fanny pack” pump to dispense an additional drug for the next 48 hours. I went to the office again on Thursday mornings for more IV drugs, and then on Friday afternoon the pump was removed. Twice my treatment was interrupted because my white blood cell count was too low, so in mid-January, Dr. Leal prescribed Neulasta, an obscenely expensive drug that helps prevent infection and replenish white blood cells. The drug worked and I never missed another treatment.

By the time I was unhooked from the pump on Friday afternoons, I felt lousy. The days after a treatment were “lost weekends.” I slept 12-hour nights, got up for 2-4 hours, and then went to bed again for another nap. Chemo-induced fatigue was like nothing I experienced before or since; it was qualitatively different from run-of-the-mill being tired. I felt like a fog descended and enveloped me, causing me to move in slow motion; as the fog lifted I began to feel better. While I was in the fog, I was extremely tired, food didn’t taste right, and I was nauseous or queasy without actually ever throwing up; I had no energy or desire to do or care about anything much beyond getting through it; my lips, mouth and tongue were sore; and so on. I went back to work each Monday still feeling lousy, and forced myself to go through the motions of my job. By Wednesday, I began feeling like a human being again, and then I had several days of relative normalcy before the cycle started again.

Some people wondered why I didn’t take a leave of absence from work for the duration of chemo. My reasons, beyond stubbornly refusing to let this disrupt my life too much, were simple. I was trying to safeguard my sick days so I would still have a chunk left at the end, and I had already used up several weeks worth for surgery and recovery. And what would I have done during all that time at home, especially for the time between treatments when I felt relatively well?

The biggest non-cancer-related event during treatment was the final decline and death of my mother in February 2005. She died never knowing I had cancer. I had told her about my colonoscopy and the fact that I needed to have another procedure, but I never told her about the surgery, cancer diagnosis or treatment. I knew that even though she was often confused, she likely would have worried a lot—and I didn’t want that. We scheduled the funeral for the Friday right after a treatment, and I was still hooked to the pump for the visitation, funeral and burial. Afterwards, I promptly went home to bed, exhausted not only from all the emotion surrounding Mom’s death and funeral, but also from the chemo fatigue that had kicked in by then.

After chemotherapy was over in May 2005 and the drugs slowly worked themselves out of my system, I thought my life would easily get back to normal. Physically, I soon felt like myself. Over the summer and into the fall, however, as I anticipated the one-year follow-up colonoscopy, I began to collapse emotionally and went into a full-blown depressive episode. The fear and uncertainty related to the upcoming colonoscopy were enough to deal with, but I was also still grieving my mother’s death and experiencing serious anxiety. I felt like I was always on the verge of tears, and relatively small things would set me off. It was like I had held myself together during surgery, recovery, diagnosis, and treatment, only to collapse at the end when it was all over. Almost immediately after a squeaky clean colonoscopy, I began to feel better. Within weeks, Dale was saying I was a different person. I attribute the change not only to the clean bill of health, but also to good anti-depressant medication and God’s work of grace in my life.

I learned that a cancer diagnosis changes one’s life and perspective forever. I struggled with the tension between needing to be honest about the trauma that a cancer diagnosis brings and feeling the pressure to be positive and upbeat. I felt the tension keenly, even to the point of feeling anxious and guilty when I couldn’t muster up the requisite optimism. Fortunately, I had a therapist who gave me a safe venue for processing my thoughts and feelings. She encouraged me to let myself feel whatever I felt, whether or not it was positive. She gave me permission to cry and grieve the loss of my health, and helped me process having “cancer survivor” as another aspect of my identity. I also received a lot of practical and emotional support from family, friends and co-workers. I had an e-mail list to which I sent updates after each treatment. Friends and family members passed along prayer requests to their small groups and their friends’ small groups, and I heard about people I didn’t know who were praying for me. I had never before been the recipient of such love and care and concern from so many people. It was a humbling experience.

Postscript: At the five-year mark in September 2010, my oncologist declared me “cured.” I’m now on the “three-year plan” for colonoscopies, with the next one due at the 10-year mark in 2014. Right after my diagnosis, I thought I would never again get through a day without thinking about being a cancer survivor, but actually, I don’t think about it as often as I used to. Every time I approach another colonoscopy, however, the old anxiety creeps in again and then quickly subsides when I get those nice clean pictures of my colon. Good health is a wonderful gift I no longer take for granted.