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May 12, 2011

I was initiated into a secret society Wednesday morning. Nothing to do with cancer. Just, as I say, a thing. I’m excited about it. It looks like fun, and I’ve never done anything like it before. But it got me thinking.

Some secrets are good, and some are bad, but most are just secrets.

I’m still fascinated by this week’s NY Times article on the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous; I’ve always wanted to go to an AA meeting to see what it’s like, but of course  I haven’t since that particular demon isn’t part of my own personal legion. I once had the following exchange with a good friend, someone whom I can’t even think of outside the context of his addiction and recovery:

Me: “I’m very lucky that alcoholism was never a problem for me. I think I’m too lazy.”

Friend: “Yeah, I can see that. You’d say, “Naw, I don’t wanna get wasted. Too much effort. I’ll just have a glass of wine, or tea.'”

He’s right. I seldom get trashed, and when I do, it’s by mistake.

Besides, I have much more creative weapons of self-destruction in my arsenal, for example, cancer, which comes with the added bonus of removing the burden of agency from my shoulders. Hey, I can kill myself without even trying! It’s a built-in feature of this mortal coil I wear. And unlike alcoholism or depression, cancer comes without the burden of shame.

It wasn’t always like that, and I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think of Betty Ford and thank her for bringing my disease out of the closet of taboo. I don’t ever wear the hats nor t-shirts that say, “Cancer Survivor,” but plenty of people do, and they find strength and comfort and pride in that declaration.

No one wears shirts that say “Depression Survivor,” or “Addiction Survivor,” or “Incest Survivor.”

Cancer is no different except that it’s okay to talk about it, and that does make it easier for me, for which I am thankful.  I don’t have to feel ashamed.

Sometimes, though, I wish no one knew. I wish when people spoke with me, hung out with me, thought of me, looked at me, they didn’t do it through the lens of compassion for what I’ve been through. It’s easy to imbue people who have been through an experience that falls under the category of “worst case scenario” with a romanticized notion of what it takes to survive. People think I’m brave, or wise, or compassionate. I’m not. I’m just lucky.

I can also see why people used to recluse themselves when they had cancer. Part of it is surely is the disgustingness of it all, but a greater part, for me, is that it just takes sooooo looooong to recover, and it’s hard cope with living in the world, but with diminished capacity, and have people constantly expecting me to do more than I can, not realizing the effort it takes me to just do as much as I’m doing.

Everyone is frustrated with me when I’m not at my best. I’m frustrated with myself when I’m not at my best. People think, “Oh, she should be over it by now,” but I’m not, and I had major surgery six weeks ago and I’m doing the best I can, and over and over and over again in so many arenas it’s just not good enough and maybe if people didn’t know I had had cancer, and they didn’t so desperately want me to be “all better” then the pressure I would be under to be better, and do better, would be less because right now, it’s killing me.

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