I’ve swallowed that lump too many times. You know that feeling you get at the back of your throat, the one ignored for politeness or personal pride. Except I got it wrong, rather than the lump, I should have swallowed my pride!
I’ve come from a strong line of women who’ve managed their difficult emotions, by concealing them. The overly used expressions I’ve grown up with “stop crying”, “don’t be a baby” and ones from the workplace over the years “you’re just too emotional”, “you need to toughen up to work here”, “can’t have you going off with stress”. These all had a significant influence on how I dealt with my emotions and continued to swallow and box them away.
Over the last few years I’ve had Acupuncture, Counselling, CBT, and Psychotherapy and it’s opened up places within me that have been locked tight for many years. I used CBT very successfully and yet the act of using a process also helped me distance myself from my emotional truth with remission. I continue to practice meditation and I’ve explored different techniques. I found myself in silence last August for 10-days wondering why the chaos inside ensued amidst the calm outside. Meditation showed me the truth inside and remains my cornerstone.
Then a day came, one I will remember for the rest of my life for truly practicing kindness to myself, within a coaching conversation. I was asked a powerful question that allowed me to honour the person I was during a terrifying time in my life. I had been sharing how my anxiety had been hustling me recently and how I had experienced panic attacks which had both surprised me and floored me after approx. 12 months without any. We explored why they and anxiety could be happening and we went deep into the discovery, rather than my own ability that kept me safe in the shallows. This is what I love and deeply appreciate about Danielle, my coach, I feel safe to go places within me, knowing that space is held safely.
Danielle had asked me a seemingly simple yet powerful question that I hadn’t even asked myself. Even as I write this now, I can feel the lump rising and the stalling as the words slip onto the keyboard “How did you feel when you were told you had cancer Ria?” I finally felt I acknowledged my whole feelings for the first time ever!
Soon after my diagnosis, I took to blogging as my therapy. The blogs were full of hope and were met with kind and well-intended comments that encouraged my inclination to silence the distressing feelings and share more about the other ones that were also present and positive — hope, mindfulness, and faith, with a more appealing picture to accompany it. At the time I recall a campaign #nomakeupselfie for cancer that also encouraged my desire to share my ‘I can beat this’ mantra I had in my head daily… it’s ultimately what got me through those the terrifying and awakening 3-weeks. The other distressing feelings were swallowed and squashed.
Those distressing feelings were deep deep shame, grief and painful loneliness which have all lingered at phases and stages since. As I sat there sharing those feelings with Danielle I felt my heart ache. It was and is time to honour those feelings and show one of the most important people in my life, my 5-year old daughter, that you can be brave and afraid at the same time. Feel it, not conceal it, as many of us learned during Frozen! It was time to swallow pride, not my own poison.
The day I was told that I had uterine cancer, changed me forever. I felt like I had been transported to another dimension, my own matrix and the loneliness ensued. I had no mother to turn to for the type of unconditional love only your mother can provide. I wanted to cry into her arms and hear her say “you will be okay”, but cancer had taken her many years previously.
I watched my daughter who was two years old at the time sleep that night. She had only just gone into a little cot bed and as I sat in the dark stroking her curly mass of blonde hair I wondered if I would ever share the moments my own mother had missed and more pressingly on my mind, would I still be here next month, next year. I so desperately wanted to cry in her room that night, but I didn’t know if the tears would end and the noise would wake her. I kept quiet and swallowed the tears inside.
When friends called to offer their support and say I would beat it, I really wanted to scream ”but what if I don’t. I’m so fucking petrified”. Instead, I showed my hopeful side. I preferred that part of me — it gave me strength. I swallowed the rest.
When I went for my MRI and CT scans I wanted to really slump by my dad’s knee and beg him not to let them take me. As the nurse walked me to the room, I turned to watch him walk in the other direction and the little girl in me wanted to scream “daddy please help me”. I was choked on my fear. I sat on that MRI machine and visualized those laser beams killing whatever cancer cells I had in me for the longest 30 minutes of my life. Thank goodness for my new practice, meditation and the words of Thich Nhat Hanh.
When I went in for life changing and saving surgery to remove cancer from my body I was wheeled down to the surgery room and all I wanted was a familiar hand to hold mine. I remember sobbing so hard because I knew what they were going to do would prevent any more chances to bring another baby into this world along with my own womanhood. I was deeply grateful for the gift I had with our own daughter and yet full of shame of what surgery meant for us all. I swallowed.
When I came around in recovery I was told I would enter menopause immediately. At that point of waking, I knew part of me had not returned. It was too painful to bear the reality of the situation. Anger took its place and started to grasp at me. I swallowed.
Months went by and I was told on many occasions how lucky I was. Lucky for not needing chemo, or radiotherapy, lucky to be here, lucky to catch it so soon. Told how women have hysterectomies every day and its common surgery. Reminded on many occasions that I cannot have children and my daughter will be an ‘only child’ and how challenging that must be. The guilt and shame piled on. I swallowed.
Those comments although meant well, were crushing. I didn’t feel lucky. I felt like something was out to get me. My scars were minor compared to the mental scars building inside me. I was crushed on the inside and the anger at times become too much to bear. I felt like I was burning inside, whilst wearing a smile on the outside.
For many months I went into hiding as much as possible from friends and family. My hiding came in many guises, from withdrawal, staying home, staying silent and also being a right little madam when that got boring. All of these versions of me was down to the shame, loneliness and grief I carried inside. I went through stages of wanting to physically run away and I found ways to make that happen in truth. When I realised I couldn’t run from it I started to punish my body by training hard, and withdrawing different food groups from my diet… anything that could give me control. That didn’t work either and the slippery slope continued until I started writing a suicide letter in my head on one too many occasions, putting the blame on people and places. I was petrified I would have such thoughts and more shame pilled up.
At that point, I couldn’t do it alone anymore and the Psychotherapy ramped up. I found myself in the woods, sat in my car trembling as I spoke to Jane a Mental Health Clinician. No one would hear me scream in the woods, but the scream was so big it was trapped within me. I will be eternally grateful to Jane and Munya, my Psychotherapists for their huge professional support at that time and to my husband, Gareth who has absolutely seen me at my worse and heard me say such heartbreaking words.
I feel grateful to have found a healthier lifestyle that continues to support me, because, despite all of those challenging emotions, I managed to hold down a job, functioned and at times flourished.
The return to work was a shock, post-surgery, the pace of work was like a constant sprint. The cultural norms of head down, back to back appointments/meetings, lunch on the run was prevalent then and still is now. After taking 7-months out earlier this year, to set up my own business, Well+, I’ve realised just how dangerous some of these ‘ways of working’ are to energy, creativity, flow, performance, relationships, and health.
We (Health and Wellbeing professionals) can all talk about what to do and why to do it… blah, blah, blah. The hard graft is showing up and practicing it. Leading the charge and going stealth with health by getting closer to the truth of what’s happening — sharing the good and challenging the bad, sad or mad practices.
This blog is wholeheartedly shared to acknowledge my own emotional story with a cancer diagnosis and remission, in addition to the change needed more than ever. More and more people are returning to work after illness, disease or loss and more needs to be done to support Leaders, Managers, HR Departments on how to support people back into all types of workplaces. I willingly will lead this charge! There is a mission in my remission after all!
Emotion is honest, raw and truthful — both the warm, fuzzy and dark and damp type. It needs motion, not stockpiling. What I know for sure and now finally accept is this is all ME — the light and dark. Without those lows, I wouldn’t recognize the highs. Without the pain, I wouldn’t recognize the joys. I am a human of wellbeing deep inside. We all are. It’s our natural state of being that we all deserve in work and life.