It's almost a year since my double mastectomy last June for invasive lobular breast cancer. The fancier words mean it was bad and dangerous and it/I needed five months of chemo before the surgery, which also meant it was pretty bad. One of the worst things about the experience, and you must know there were many, was the apparent lack of understanding, on the parts of medical professionals and lay people, regarding the degree of depression that came along with it, and how toxic that in itself could be.
"The Secret Sadness," an article in The New York Times Magazine (5/31/15) by Andrew Solomon, is a searing exploration of depression in pregnancy, and before and after. It is painful to bear witness to the emotional pain, desperation, even suicide by women who are pregnant for one. Yet it is made clear that these problems need attention and sometimes even the medications that may or may not do harm. The ambivalence involved in pregnancy and having children, which involves pushing children into maturation and holding tight to them in rapturous attachment is discussed, as well as the societal ambivalence about ambivalence.
For a long time I have marveled at the lack of attention to emotional factors in much of our lives. Some nutritionally oriented people, for one, often seem to me consumed by the latest information of the day (or shall we say the minute) about gluten and its lack, about which supplements cure or avoid a given malady and would seem at times to avoid death all together. All the while there is little attention to emotional conflicts for example, except in those who pay homage to emotional wellbeing to the exclusion of nutritional and other disciplines. I am reminded of the book "Bright Sided" by Barbara Ehrenreich, who as a breast cancer patient felt bombarded by the attention to "staying positive. Her subtitle "How Positive Thinking is Undermining America", says a lot about her perspective. Not surprisingly she also experienced the neat wrapping of advice and cheer in pink (figuratively at least) as both pressure and a burden.
For me, one of the things that helped was my writing right here, including one blog I called "Cancer Comedy." In it I expressed the anger leaking from under the weight of the positivity I too found grating. I needed to speak my truth, which was irreverent and let's say pissed off, both about both the cancer and the good cheer. People around me said I was brave and tough but really I wasn't. I was scared and in an almost constant stead of dread and terror-- terror at dying, about when I might die. It felt imminent, danger in general. That's when I picked up Andrew Solomon's book on depression, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression." Reading of the author's depression was riveting and his descriptions echoed my own experience of depression including a pervasive sense of dread, of something imminently dangerous. It made me feel less alone, but I felt like I was trembling even more for the reading. One day my husband calmly suggested the obvious: perhaps I'd consider putting the book to the side until I felt less overwhelmed. It made sense so I let it go for then, not really knowing if there would in fact be a day when I would feel lighter. That is part of depression, not seeing the end of it, and feeling increasingly trapped by accelerated alienation, especially when people outside seem to echo in a resounding Nike commercial.
None of this is to diminish the importance of emotional states before, during and after pregnancy. Nor is it to say that cancer has any monopoly on emotions weighing in, in big ways. It is to say that too often, we prescribe instead of listen. Listening is only that, when the listener is ready for whatever comes forth, and granted we also need help in getting readier to hear the pain we don't yet recognize.
In general our emotions, when skipped over, can easily get the better of us. They trump information, they direct us to finding out more or to shutting our ears and our minds and even our mouths. With all the wordiness of our times, we live with the chronic double message, with the verbiage that dictates for us to stop the bullying in our lives, with the accompanying slogan, "When you see something say something." This becomes a singularly absurd message, when we feel judged or shunned if we bring an unpopular position to the forefront.
"Courage" comes from the Latin for "heart." We can afford to speak from the heart only if there are people who will allow us to say the too often unspeakable. With pregnancy, yes not every mother is in unabated joy or finding easy equilibrium. Ambivalence is part of many pregnancies, and for sure part of being a parent always. Children are ambivalent, wanting to stay home forever and yet escape control and suffocation. Here too it becomes a problem when we don't advocate listening to children with respect and instead assume that a child who doesn't show the most polite behavior by two years old will be a monster.
Emotions can be scary; they are not always tame things. Although, they can become tamer when they are integrated, when we can express them to a person who provides us a modicum of safety in the sense that we are not alone. Here I offer the faith that emotions can shift; even trauma can be at least alleviated and humanized in the center of honest witnessing and real empathy.
It's the depression about being depressed -- the sense of being inferior and unworthy, of being doomed to feel hopeless forever -- that really is the worst. My hope is that we start to wake up to the power of emotions that can either help free us to become more humanly connected, or throw us into an isolated despair.