Enjoying Life After Trauma Can Be Difficult

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

The other day, for the first time in a long time, I sat on a chair in my driveway and read a few chapters of a juicy novel. I was facing the sun, letting its rays warm my skin. And then when I realized how calm I was, the familiar sense of doom–one of the many difficulties stemming from trauma–crept in.

After three years of a series of intense life events, I don’t know how to be chill. I simply can’t just let go and let God—or something like that. All I’ve known for years is fear, fight, confusion, and panic. And I feel guilty for feeling good. How messed up is that?

It started with waiting to adopt a fourth child. We were matched with expectant parents halfway through the birth mom’s pregnancy. This wasn’t our first rodeo, so I naively assumed we’d be fine. But every day my children were asking me when the baby was coming—and their anticipation intensified my anxiety. I worried constantly knowing that at any minute, the plan could fall apart.

The entire experience was long and unpredictable, amplifying my anxiety. In the end, the baby became our baby—who is now three years old.

Six months after we brought her home, I discovered a tender area on my upper right breast. Every time I unbuckled my driver’s side seatbelt or removed my cross-body purse, the area ached. I discovered what felt like a mass and brought it to the attention of my gynecologist. She agreed that I needed further testing and sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound.

Thankfully, those came back clear. But after a few days of receiving the great results, I had a sense of dread I couldn’t shake. I knew something was wrong. I pursued a second opinion, and the doctor agreed to a biopsy. And that’s when my world came crashing down. I had breast cancer.

In a span of six weeks, I had genetic testing, an MRI, and multiple medical consultations. Then I was faced with the choice. I could have a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation, followed by a breast MRI every six months to check for recurrence, or I could have a bilateral mastectomy. This was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make.

After making an extensive pros and cons list—like any good type-A person does–and angry-desperate praying, I decided to have the mastectomy. I was certain of my choice—but surgery was hardly a walk in the park. It took me a solid year to begin, slowly, to feel like myself again—my new self. During that time, I had appointments with oncology, radiology, plastic surgery, and breast surgery, bursting into tears during every single one of them.

Then, in the midst of my cancer battle, I realized that one of my children had undiagnosed special needs. I initiated the evaluation processes—both in the school system and privately. What I thought would be cut-and-dried turned out to be a two-year, increasingly difficult journey to figure out their diagnoses and convince the school to agree to offer specialized services.

I’m trying so desperately to live my best life and enter into the holiday season with gratitude for how far I’ve come, but struggling with allowing myself to enjoy the people and things that are around me.

It seemed like my season of turmoil would never end. Nothing really helped me climb out of a deep, dark well of trauma except time. I wanted to hit the fast-forward button, but there wasn’t one. Instead, I had to experience the proverbial pain of one-step forward and two-steps back.

I absolutely recognized that I wasn’t myself—while realizing that difficult situations change us. Who was this new me? What was she like? What did she need? Who did she want to become? And most importantly, what did she want to choose to leave behind?

I started seeing a counselor more consistently, began exercising again, and committed to taking charge of my life. I made a lot of mistakes—setting unrealistic goals, over-researching online, and saying yes when I should have said “hell no.” I also decided to go back on anxiety medication—which was the real turning point for me.

I can happily say now that I had cancer—in the past tense. But just because all the cancer cells are out of my body, it doesn’t mean cancer isn’t still part of me. Seemingly every day, I catch a glimpse of a pink ribbon. It might be a sticker on someone’s car widow, a tee shirt, or slapped on a cereal box. I can’t escape cancer reminders no matter how hard I try.

Every night when I shower, I’m reminded of cancer when I looked down at my new breasts—implants covered by my own skin. I have no sensation anymore—so these foobs, as I call them, are attached to me — but they aren’t really mine.

I have a hard time laying on my back, because my mind remembers when I was stuck in a vulnerable, surgical position for hours. When I go to a dental appointment, panic sets in because my body is horizontal with someone’s hands close to my face and a bright light in my eyes. It takes all I have to muster up the courage to attend any medical appointment or meeting—no matter how minor or routine it is—because I’m always anticipating catastrophic news.

It’s been two years since my surgery, three years since the adoption, and only a month since we finally got our child on an appropriate educational plan. But these events, clustered together, broke me. I felt like I could never get ahead. And meanwhile, I had four kids depending on me for their everyday existence.

And now that I am in this better place, where I’m trying so desperately to live my best life and enter into the holiday season with gratitude for how far I’ve come, I’m struggling with allowing myself to enjoy the people and things that are around me. I have serious time anxiety—meaning, if I find myself at peace and enjoying the moment, I will be hit with a wave of guilt that I’m not doing something productive—and it’s stressful.

For three solid years, I researched, I texted, I attended appointments and meetings, I took notes. I was laid up in my bed with drains snaking from my chest for weeks. I spent so much time holding my breath and waiting for the next bad news verdict to come down the pipe. And now when there’s nothing but proverbial crickets—or, gasp—there’s actually good news, I don’t know what to do with it.

It’s easy for those on the outside to tell me I am lucky, and I should be thankful. After all, I have the family I prayed for, I no longer have cancer, and my child has a solid education plan. Trust me, I’m thankful. But my trauma says that if I let my guard down, even just a little, something horrifying will absolutely happen.

Therapy, meds, prayer, sleep, healthy eating, meditation, journaling, and exercising all help me—immensely. I have a supportive family and network of friends. I am slowly and steadily rising back to solid ground, and I’m trying to trust this process.

I don’t know why I got cancer, why our school battle was so difficult, or why our fourth adoption was a hurricane of challenges. But what I do know is that I’m working diligently to give myself grace and permission to enjoy who is right in front of me.

This article was originally published on