A Tale of Two Sisters: Coping With a Family Health Crisis

09/22/2012 10:54 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2012

I was incensed.

I was going to make them listen to me. I was going to take on the insurance company, whose exclusions were pushing my sister Tammi and her family close to bankruptcy just when her main priority needed to be staying healthy and keeping her spirits up. She shouldn't be stressing about how to pay the rent and she definitely shouldn't be considering postponing the transplant process because she "has to work" so her family of six can stay afloat. I called advocacy groups and the attorney general. I hounded congresspeople and town councils. I spewed and ranted, threatened and blamed. I was furious and stayed that way for the better part of this year.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I was driving home when it hit me like a ton of bricks: My oldest sister has liver cancer and four children.

My beloved sister Tammi, who taught me to love old-school R&B, how to shave my legs, and which boyfriends were jerks, might die soon. Though she's at the top of the transplant list, it's a delicate matching and waiting game. I pulled off the side of the road and sobbed until there was nothing left. The pain in my chest and throat had become excruciating.

I had been using anger to mask my fear and sadness for the past nine months, ever since she was diagnosed. This was the first time I cried.

I am a two-time cancer survivor. When I was diagnosed, I was petrified -- not only for myself, but more for how my family would handle my situation. Tammi, much like me, worries about everyone else and is a caretaker at heart. Her first thought is, How will they handle the news? Also like me, when something happens to a family member, she is the first to go full-throttle to "fix" it.

Now the shoe was on the other foot. Tammi was sick, doing whatever needed to be done to single-handedly fix the situation, while I was single-handedly going to fix the country's broken health care system and her situation in the process.

Reflecting on my reaction of the past nine months, I recognize that I was employing the psychological defense mechanism known as displacement. Displacement involves dealing with stress by transferring strong feelings about one situation onto another (usually less-threatening) situation. In my case, I was transferring my fear, sadness, and (at the time) hopelessness regarding my sister's cancer diagnosis onto trying to fix the nation's health care crisis. I think we can all agree that the health care system needs some work (okay, maybe more than "some"), but the depth of my rage was extreme for the situation -- which is usually the telltale sign that something else is going on unconsciously.

Displacement is a mid-level ego defense that inhibits your awareness of what you are really feeling. Just like other defense mechanisms, displacement keeps potentially-threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears out of your conscious awareness. This diminished awareness can affect your ability to relate to others. For me, my angry obsessing definitely negatively affected my ability to relate to others, most notably my amazingly-patient husband, Victor.

This anger makes us feel empowered rather than afraid. However, as I learned in school, humans are like chimney flues: No matter how much paper you stuff down the flue to try to stop the smoke, that smoke will find a way out. Our feelings are like smoke. I was stuffing the flue as fast as I could, and it worked for a while (hence my angry response and mission to personally overhaul the health care system in America), but its effectiveness is temporary.

These types of defense mechanisms yield optimal adaptation to stress because the false sense of empowerment they lend maximizes feelings of well-being and does not interfere with your conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and consequences.

There is, however, a cost for keeping your authentic feelings under wraps. Not honestly assessing a situation and handling it appropriately leads to constant low-grade anxiety, which, as we know from all the research on the effects of stress, can result in sleeping problems, being short-tempered, and feeling overwhelmed by once "easy" situations. A lot of energy is required to keep the charade going, so it's no wonder I felt inexplicably exhausted.

Only when I honored my fear and sadness was I able to openly and honestly discuss the cancer with my sister and her family and truly support them. Once I acknowledged the truth, fear no longer had a hold of me. Now, instead of harassing the White House receptionist, I am spending my time researching and creating a medical expenses website to raise funds to alleviate some of the financial burden my sister's family is experiencing. Creating the website and giving my sister the gift of relief is productive and adaptive!

Sometimes it's complicated being a therapist and a human.

I can theoretically understand what is happening to me, but putting that knowledge into practice can still be challenging. One thing I love about this amazing journey called life is that we never stop growing. Life school is endless, which means that every day provides opportunities to do it better, learn from mistakes, and continue to evolve. All experiences increase our ability to feel gratitude. Each moment is a gift and a privilege -- even the painful ones.

How can you allow your fear to inform rather than dominate you? Do you find yourself reacting similarly in tough-to-handle situations? Have you figured out how to check in with your feelings and be honest rather than put up defenses? What do you do to ensure that? Please share your experiences.

For more by Terri Cole, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.