Shame and Vulnerability
An anguished moan filled the air like a swarm of locusts as the elevator door opened. It was a scream I’ll never forget, a cry that will forever be a part of me. The harrowing sobbing was coming from a stranger in the lobby of the hospital my mother was receiving cancer treatment at. A nurse stood on the side, witnessing the avalanche of grief she had unleashed with her words knocking over and consuming its recipient. The woman’s piercing cry hung in the air like heavy clouds waiting to unleash their tears, and it rang in my ears as I walked down the stairs, out the door, and into the hot summer air. As the blaring sounds of Manhattan mixed with my thoughts, a swirling dark monster formed in the pits of my body, threatening to project the contents of my stomach out onto the sidewalk. When I finally shut the apartment door behind me, I splashed my face with water and tried to bury the scene that would haunt me for years to come.
Many nights I lay awake tormented, not only by that memory, but also by the other fears it forced to the surface, ones I had locked deep below my hardened exterior. When my mother’s cancer shook my family, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone about visiting her in the hospital on weekends, being told I needed to comfort a woman I barely recognized, a body built on pill bottles and IV lines. I didn’t tell anyone that it was almost worse when she was home, with the sounds of wretched sobbing and vomiting escaping the cracks under her door like a poisonous gas leak that was slowly suffocating me. I didn’t tell anyone when the cancer came back, again, again, and again. A volatile anger at my family’s situation boiled inside of me, one that I was unable to understand or even acknowledge. The thing with anger, though, is that when you sit with her for long enough, she tells you her real name: pain. On a night where the pain felt almost paralyzing, I stood outside in the humid air, clutching my phone, praying that the courage to talk to a friend about it would miraculously come. It didn’t.
Cancer has been a part of my family since I was seven years old. Then, I only knew that mommy was sick and that I had to be good and not bother her too much. When it came back six years later, I knew more. I saw my mother’s being crumble until it was held up only by the IV pole she clutched. I saw her hair fall out and grow back, only to fall out again. I saw her swallow handfuls of pills every day and night. And for all of it, I shoved emotions to the very back of my head, refusing to process them.
Last spring, through a combination of finding people I trusted and being pushed to a breaking point, I began to slowly unpack the suitcases crammed with trauma and emotions I had hidden in my closet for so many years. As I pulled out each garment hand-stitched with feelings, I was forced to confront emotions I had wished I would never feel again, and it was absolutely terrifying. Seeing the shirt labeled cancer triggered me, stopping me in my tracks. Once you know cancer, it is never just a word again. Putting it on and showing it to others made me feel like a speck of dust: uninvited, unimportant, unwanted. But I was tired. I was tired of crying by myself at night. I was tired of fabricating excuses on why my parents couldn’t be at my soccer games. I was tired of hiding the pain.
Shame coursed through my veins when I thought about seeking support, accusing me of only wanting to seek attention. Shame hit me over the head when I was still able to laugh with my friends, condemning me for not caring enough about my mother. Shame gripped and shook me when I had panic attacks, telling me that if I really wanted to stop, I would. When I eventually did share what I was going through with a friend, it didn’t feel liberating, but heavy and unnatural and wrong. Vulnerability isn’t easy, but it leaves you wounded in the open, allowing for all sorts of beasts to come and tear you from limb to limb. What I learned about being exposed, though, is that sometimes it is only when you are vulnerable can the burdens leave your heart. Though left with scars, I’ve never felt quite so sewn together, stitched up after years of being wrecked by fear and pain. Slowly, a breath of fresh air rejuvenated my lungs. Slowly, the hellish fire cooled. Slowly, healing came.
The word cancer still sends chills down my back. It still makes me want to curl up in a ball and hide. But as my family continues on this journey, I know I have loved ones I can confide in and hurt with, more than I could ever ask for.