I, like many women, am tempted to “play nice.” You know what I mean. We’ve been trained by the patriarchy to think about the comfort of others above ourselves, to be polite, selfless, and considerate of the other person’s feelings no matter the cost to us. This means that when someone asks how we’re doing, we are expected to respond with a “fine,” “good,” or the ever-so-corny, “blessed.” Meanwhile, our life is on fire. We might be dealing with a storm of issues, like divorce, a mental or physical health problem, raising a teen with special needs, caring for an ailing parent, losing our job, and so much more.
Now that I’m in my second breast cancer battle, I’m realizing how liberating it is to just tell the damn truth. Hiding behind how tormented I am, especially going through chemo, only harms me. There’s a lot of power in owning our experience and sharing it with others, without avoidance or sugarcoating, even when the situation is less-than-ideal.
Having an arduous experience while then lying about it is absolutely taxing, only adding to my difficulty. Living inauthentically in order to “save face” and protect others from my pain does me no favors. In fact, it just drains me even more, as if chemo isn’t awful enough by itself. Chemo is stealing most of my energy while teaching me to manage boundaries carefully, including saying no to toxic positivity, even when it’s self-inflicted.
After all, I’m a cancer “warrior.” I’m supposed to be a pillar of strength and fortitude. I’m supposed to “stay positive” and “fight like a girl.” I know people mean well by telling me I will certainly win the battle and overcome cancer, but these messages are easily internalized, creating a serious hurricane of internalized ableism. I have to fight against this every day.
I’m not down with “keeping up appearances.” Whom am I trying to impress? Most of my hair has fallen out, I have horrible chemo acne, and I’m suffering from about ten other chemo side effects. I am absolutely not fine. I’m not ok. My world has been turned inside out and upside down. I joke to my husband that I look like a swamp monster — but I’m supposed to slap a smile on my face and tell people I’m cool? No. Just no.
Some days I feel decent and can (mostly) function. However, other days I’m dizzy, nauseous, and exhausted, dealing with epic chemo brain (that’s like mommy brain times ten). Even forming a decent sentence takes tremendous effort. If you ask me how I’m doing, I’m going to tell you exactly how I’m doing. Be prepared. The likely response is a bit lengthy and hardly paints a picture of a cancer hero. The reality is that I’m many things, including determined, fatigued, and have zero energy for putting warm and fuzzy vibes into the universe. I desperately yearn to be done with this season of my life.
I know women aren’t supposed to air our dirty laundry, but I’m doing it anyway. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I tell them the straight-up truth. I’ve stopped second guessing myself or thinking that I’m too much. I mean, the person asked, right? If you don’t want to know, don’t ask.
I used to think that being straight-up honest with others about how I’m doing — like really doing — was rude and shameful. Women are supposed to be strong, considerate, wise, yet know our place in the system. We are also supposed to be beautiful, submissive, and gentle — whatever that means. If we are too much (ahem, too powerful and confident), we are labeled as bitchy and controlling. Of course, all of this is incredibly archaic, yet it is still what we’re taught, subtly, because someone has to rule the roost, right?
Owning my experience and my feelings about my situation has been invigorating. I don’t buy into the narrative that I should just take whatever life hands me, accept it, and then lie about how I’m doing. No thanks. The reality is that cancer is a beast and a liar that is the center of my life right now. I am not “fine.”
I am not going to tell some prettier version of the truth for another person’s comfort, either. We are all adults. We need to be able to speak the truth to one another and sit with another person’s pain, without judgement, without a single utterance about “God’s will” or “God gives the toughest battles to the strongest people,” or without a sales pitch for essential oils. We need to be able to tell others how we are in order to set ourselves free, but also to set the other person free to do the same when they are struggling.
When I tell you I’m not doing well, I don’t need to be fixed. I also don’t need you to feel sorry for me. I also don’t need you tell me to “look on the bright side.” Let me be sad, confused, hopeful, frustrated, sarcastic, or whatever else I want to be. Don’t push me back into the patriarchal box when we were told not to talk about certain things. I’m uninterested in dealing with cancer like it’s a dirty little secret.
No matter what another is going through, let’s embrace the wholeness of their situation and their feelings — no matter what they are. Let’s be that friend that is completely accepting of someone not being OK. And, if we dare, let’s also own our situation enough to share our truth when we’re asked how we are. Trust me when I say that bottling up our authentic feelings about life’s tough situations and lying to those who care enough to ask, does far more harm than good for all.
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