“I have to have a hysterectomy!?”
“Susie, you have an autoimmune disorder that is chronic.”
“It’s cancer and it’s inoperable.”
Have you ever been in a place of shock and disbelief over the state of your physical health? Have you ever known something was wrong but could not find an answer as to what it was that was plaguing you? This can come at any age and stage of life. Sometimes you have been told you will be ill for the rest of your life and that there is, at best, maintenance drugs or other therapies to help you cope.
Other times, you may be faced with the loss of body parts due to disease, which can sometimes mean the loss of hope to ever bear your own children or breastfeed. Perhaps you are in the throes of a terminal illness at this exact moment in time and you wonder how you will be able to navigate the feelings and realities of your diagnosis.
I think before we can talk about treating the emotional scars of women’s health issues, we have to start with the recognition that there is often a flood of emotions that accompany physical health issues and that it is normal and healthy to have any number of reactions. Your life, as you’ve lived it, is now forever changed.
A new normal must be cultivated, but how? While your head is still spinning, it might be the toughest time to show yourself the kindness and respect you deserve and feel any sense of being grounded. You’re asking questions, perhaps, such as, “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this cruel diagnosis?”
It may be that you agreed to surgery or another form of treatment knowing the daily quality of life would go up exponentially because the pain, medications, and cause of the illness would be gone, finally. If you are in this category, you may think that nothing has really affected you on an emotional level and you go on without missing a beat, or so it seems. The latter may be a fact for you. However, I invite you to continue reading. You might be surprised by what will resonate.
Having personally suffered chronic illness and many surgeries, one of the things that I think we do a very sub-par job of in our mainstream American culture is really examining and supporting the emotional scars that are born of women’s health issues.
When a body part is removed, don’t be shocked if you feel sad, depressed, like something or someone is missing. There is a distinctive sense of grief and loss that many people experience but have never named for themselves. Conversely, sometimes they do recognize it as grief and loss, but since our doctors, friends or others never bring such a topic up, they may not bring it up either.
A woman is on an island of emotion by herself and not surrounded by her tribe, those who have trod the very ground she is now on – such a lonely place. Grieving for your lost member is important. It must have been in great pain as the disease was attacking its well-being.
When my original colon was literally in the process of a total breakdown, it would make these high-pitched noises that I can only describe as sounding like a wounded animal caught in a trap. While I was in global distress because of the disease in that member, it didn’t take away from the suffering and malfunction that member was experiencing.
What have you walked through? Did you grieve over your body image after you had a double mastectomy? Did you find your sense of self-suffering and wonder if your husband would still look at and desire you the same way? Now you know that you will live; but what does that life look like? What am I in for now?
Healing is a very personal matter and yet one that can be done better, at times, in community. You may be an introvert and need much time alone and away to process your emotions and recognize scarring has occurred.
You may be the type to get a group of even uninformed or inexperienced women in your life together and tell them how you are experiencing your journey and exactly what you need and expect from them. There isn’t only one way or a right way. There is your way.
The important thing is to do the heavy-lifting of grieving and developing a new normal. You can do this. You’ve got this, my friend and fellow tribeswoman!
Step 1: Know what you believe. Where does your sense of identity come from? Are you a Christian, an Atheist, a Muslim? Start here. As a born-again Christian myself, I find hope in Jesus Christ. If you don’t know what you believe, it’s like not having a base of operation or trying to build a house without a foundation.
Step 2: Know yourself. Are you an introvert who regains energy and perspective by spending quality time alone or the extrovert that needs others to fuel your healing process? What do you value in yourself? If you had to list the top five things you know firmly about yourself, what would they be?
Step 3: Try journaling your journey. Who has been that person that made all the difference and why? For me, over twenty years later, there are two stand-out, stand-up nurses, one male and one female that made all the difference in addition to my family supports.
They took time and treated me like a person, one of them (the male nurse) ensuring I knew how to be certain the ostomy appliance bag was sealed, as I would be living with that for about 2½ months while the internal pouch healed. The other rubbed my aching back and sang with me the song, Amazing Grace. They saw me. Who has seen you?
Step 4: Make a plan and implement it. It is okay and actually highly advised to seek out a competent therapist or join a support group. Set up a self-care routine to include things that mean something to you. These might be date nights, spa treatments, church attendance, prayer, coffee with a friend. Put yourself on your calendar!
Step 5: Don’t apologize for your feelings. Feel them and work through them (see steps 1-4) so that you don’t get stuck. You have a right to your feelings. They are not wrong. They just are.
Step 6: Find the purpose. What? Can there be a purpose in all of this? Yes, there can; and I believe there is one. The further some of the health issues get in my rearview mirror and having walked through multiple diagnoses, I can personally say that I am thankful for the refinements and revisions that have happened in my life.
Unhealthy patterns and people have left. Identity and other things in life that are critically important have come into clearer focus. And, now, I am able to work with clients who have walked or are walking similar roads, seeing that the empathy I developed was for a greater purpose. The same can be true for you.
So, I encourage you to be discontented – yes, discontented in sitting on the sidelines. Get in it to win it! This is not the end, even if you’ve been told your diagnosis is terminal. You are still here. That means you have a role to play, work to do. First of all, don’t believe everything you hear. It may not be terminal.
Second of all, however long you, I or any woman have on this planet, we need to be about legacy. Let’s pour our energies into other women. They need your perspective and you need theirs to finish well. They may need to call upon your words of wisdom and thoughts of your well-lived life one day when they are faced with their own emotional scars from illness.
You are powerful and matter, to God and to your tribe. Be bold. Be brave. Be vulnerable. Be the best you, you can be!
“Portrait of a Girl”, Courtesy of Tsukiko-Kiyomidzu, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Shattered”, Courtesy of Dyversions, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “The Athlete”, Courtesy of Martin Kwame, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Pregnant”, Courtesy of Brenkee, Pixabay.com, CC0 License