Survivor guilt’s a bitch

While driving to GR to teach, I chatted with a fellow childhood cancer momma.

I went to class and had an absolute blast. Teaching feeds my soul. My job sucks it out and teaching on Monday nights restores it. Tuesday and Wednesday I was an absolute bitch. Moody, passive aggressive, mean. I know why; I’ve been here before.

Survivor guilt.

The momma I spoke with lost her son. She walked a completely different path than mine. Hers is worse. Way worse. Everything that we did for L, she did that and more for her own son, only it didn’t work. Her path is gut-wrenching, catastrophic. Cruel. Unnatural. Wrong. Parents should not bury their children. Ever.

Yet, while we talk she is kind, funny, gracious. We laugh. A LOT. She asks about L. Always. “How old is he now, what is he into, how is he feeling?” In the moment, these comments are lovely. I am awed by her ability to think outside herself and ask about my son, when her own is forever 11. Days later, I feel ashamed. Her kindness is too much. The light is too bright and I have to look away. I feel unworthy, naked, hypocritical.

Survivor guilt is a black hole, a vortex of rage, regret, and shit. It’s shit. My inner monologue is a barrage of anger and hope; grief and light:

I hate my job. But I shouldn’t hate it because my kid survived. My kid survived. I hate my job. I am not allowed to hate it. Yes, you are. You worked for five years to earn a degree that you thought would help you get…somewhere. You’re allowed to be frustrated. You’re allowed to strive for more. Or different. Nuh uh uh. No you’re not. Your kid survived. That was a gift. Suck it up. This is as good as it gets.  

My Facebook feed is people whining about Kim Kardashian and asking for video of her kidnapping. WTH? What in the world is wrong with people? The very next post I see is someone begging for prayers because another child is dying of cancer. I see things happening and sometimes feel as if I am the only one. I look over my shoulder like, “Do you see this? Can you believe this?” Fear, anger, people hurting. Six year olds get shot at school. We’re on the verge of World War 3 in Syria and a deranged bigot is running for President. There are kids at my sons’ school in a wealthy mid-west suburb who come to school hungry. A hurricane destroyed Haiti. Again. I get angry, like shake-my-fists-at-the-sky angry. “Why aren’t people noticing? Why don’t people care?”

I want to call my friend back and shout: “Please stop. Stop being so kind. I don’t deserve it. It’s too much. Too much. Why aren’t you shaking with rage? Everything you went through and…..”

While I was home sick two weeks ago, I tore through Glennon Doyle Melton’s new book, Love Warrior. She refers to herself as a canary in a coal mine. Canaries are brought in because they can sense toxins better than humans. When the canary stops singing, it’s time to go. She stopped singing because she sensed toxins. That doesn’t make her crazy, it makes her smart.

Maybe I am a canary, too. I see and feel things that others don’t. Maybe that makes me…me. I should embrace that person, instead of feeling bad that I feel all the things. I need to pull myself out of the guilt spiral and find a place that wants to hear my song. Because really, it’s not guilt I feel. It’s shame. I am ashamed that eight years post-diagnosis and six years off-treatment, I am still…not where I thought I would be.

I am supposed to be different as a result of L’s cancer. Aren’t I? More aware. More…something. Wouldn’t that have made 2008-2010 “worth it” on some level? Aren’t I supposed to be gracious and kind and loving, like my friend who is a tireless advocate for our kids, while she also grieves? Always grieving. She has been through hell and is a better person than almost everyone I know, when she could be angry for the rest of her life and be completely right in doing so. I quickly give others the benefit of the doubt, but never afford myself that grace. I see my friend as amazing. I see myself as a failure of graciousness. I secretly fear that if the roles were reversed, I would not be nearly as kind as she. My kid survived and I wallow. What would I be like if he hadn’t?

I have no idea what my momma friend thinks. That’s not my place. I am starting to believe that my role is to share good things so she can rejoice in them. Maybe hearing about kids who do make it helps her heal. Maybe that is part of how I can give back and heal, too….Show all the good. It brings me joy when I see others happy and thriving. Why wouldn’t my son’s progress and our happiness do that for others as well? I wonder if I secretly fear my own happiness.

I should pay more attention to my friend’s generosity. And really, that of all grieving mothers. There is not a single one who has ever made me feel bad that Luke survived. Ever. They have rejoiced more than me because they know the other possibility and they don’t want anyone else to endure it. That is the mark of a warrior and a survivor.

Grief and guilt are sneaky. Around the corner is a landmine that blows you back or a memory that makes you smile. It just depends on the moment, the millisecond that it catches me. Some days I am fine. I see pictures of baldy Luke and think, “Wow that was a different life. Thank God that’s behind us.” Other times, an amazing phone call with a friend pushes me underwater.

Glennon (we’re on a first name basis because I’ve read both her books, she signed my second one, I’ve heard her speak in person, and she retweeted me a few times) also says that maybe life is just hard because it’s hard, not because we’re doing it wrong.

Maybe grief and survivor guilt survivorship are like that, too. Maybe it’s just really hard.

Fragile Flower

Sean and I had a disagreement earlier this week. L forgot all of his swimwear for our Labor Day weekend trip to Pentwater. It was mostly my fault. I had a list and didn’t double-check it before we left. It was also a little L’s fault, too because he had reassured me that he could pack his own bag. By the time he realized he had forgotten his stuff, it was too late to turn around. We bought an extra swimshirt and L borrowed C’s extra bathing suit. It was a fantastic farewell to summer.

Sean and I disagreed on how each of us responded to L’s (and mine) packing oversight. I think Sean was too harsh. He thinks I was too lenient. While “discussing” this Sean, blurted out, “He is not a fragile flower!”

And inside I raged and shook and screamed, “Yes HE IS! YES he is. Yes. He. Is.”

Sean sees L as he is. TEN. Kind, funny, loyal, and a hard-worker. He cares about Legos, Star Wars, Pokemon, and starting a Minecraft club with newly found friends. L sees himself that way, too.

For me, L is frozen in time. Bald. Silent. Accepting. Three. He was only three.

People tell me that L is a warrior. He fought to survive. He wanted to get better. He did everything that he was taught to do; just like the Jedi he is named for, he trusted his teachers- us- and followed their instruction. All true. However, he was also too young to know better. He didn’t know to be afraid. He did what all three year olds do- anything possible to get back to playing. Sean and I knew better. We carried the weight of “what-if” and “now what?” We carried it. I carried it. We are the warriors. I am a warrior.

I am L’s memory. Do I remind him of everything he went through? Bring it up so he knows he can do hard things. That he has already done the hardest thing? Or let it go? Let him relish the present and make a cancer a thing that happened a long time ago that has no bearing on today. The constant negotiation is exhausting.

He doesn’t remember. He. Doesn’t. Remember. I am desperate to forget. I envy L’s freedom. I want to erase smells, phrases, hospital scenes from my mind. I claw and scratch at them. And yet, in the oddest moments, the most unassuming times- like standing at the kitchen sink fighting about how to discipline him- my grip on those same memories tightens. The remnants of L’s treatment are visceral. I need them like oxygen.

I am afraid that focusing solely on his survival will make me lazy, or comfortable. I missed his cancer once before. It grew and grew for months. Months before I noticed it. What if that happens again? If loosen my grip, everything could slip away. I could slip away.

L’s journey is always with me. It is the current that pushes the river. Sean is right. L is not three. I need to choose to see the pre-teen boy right in front of me. He is not a fragile flower.

I am the fragile flower. I can let the river nurture it so it blooms into something better. Or I can let the river swallow me.

Fighting impostor syndrome with experience

I had an important meeting last week. I think it well. If it did, it could mean new, better, and different things for me professionally. So, of course, I am replaying every minute of it and thinking of all the things I didn’t say. “Oh man! I should have told them about this!” Or, “I forgot to mention that.” I’ve done this dance with impostor syndrome before. Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda.

It was only one week ago and they told me that it would be weeks before I hear anything. But, that’s not stopping me from jumping every time my phone rings or I get an email alert. I have even considered applying for other jobs that I know I don’t want.

I continue to torture myself. I am spending way too much time on social media. Because when I am feeling low about myself, the best place to turn is the internet!

“What’s your brand? I have no idea.

“Want more followers, more money, and more freedom?” Join this webinar, buy my class, and then in 1,000 easy blogging steps and ten years you’ll be an entrepreneur! 

Is your website on-point? Is it SEO? What does that even mean?

If any one of of my clients was talking about- or to- themselves the way I was talking to myself, I would have coached them out of it. And fast. I would never let one of my clients- or a friend- talk to herself that way. So why do I talk to myself that way? When things don’t go according to plan- which is pretty much always- I tend to spiral. It’s one of the many gifts of my east coast, competitive, type A personality.

I am also learning that spiraling is a symptom of lack of self-love.

I love myself. I do. But, I need to stop acting like it is a secret or something to hide. Women tend to be harder on themselves than necessary and downplay their accomplishments. It’s the 1-2 impostor syndrome sucker-punch. I chose “confidence” as my 2016 #oneword for that very reason. I want to get back to feeling grounded, resilient, confident.

I read or heard somewhere that one way to fight impostor syndrome, or any kind of spiral, is to reflect on your accomplishments. To spend time really thinking moments and experiences you are proud of.

I decided to share some of my list here. It was an act of self-love to write these all down. And, I am proud of myself. I am confident.

  • Carried, delivered, and then breastfed two babies
  • Did the above while enrolled as a full-time PhD student
  • Married 13 years to my best friend
  • Earned PhD in 5 years
  • Shepherded 3 yr-old son through cancer, also while a full-time PhD student
  • PhD loan is paid off (there was only one!)
  • Started Sheldrake Consulting so I can help others write their career stories
  • Made money in only 17 months of business
  • All clients have been through referrals; I have not done any serious PR or marketing of my business
  • Successfully negotiated an MBTI workshop rate that was 30% higher than previous year
  • Purchased summer cottage rental property business
  • Have given a FREE week-long vacation to 5 families with childhood cancer survivors
  • Shave head twice with 46 Mommas
  • Served on leadership team of 2 national head-shaving events
  • Raised almost $10,000 in donations for St. Baldrick’s Foundation
  • Got interviewed on live TV (twice)
  • Randomly contacted a stranger on Twitter and then got invited to do a podcast
  • Started writing memoir
  • Go to work. Every day.
  • Continue to raise two kind, honest, loving, affectionate, smart, generous young men who are constantly being complimented on their hearts, behavior, manners and positive attitude

I’m a little high from my list. What’s on your list? Have you taken the time to write it down? Do it. You’ll feel better.

And, if you’re anything like me, your impostor syndrome will go back in its hole where it belongs.