By Heather Millar
As I’m writing this, I have an icky summer cold. It’s nothing serious, just the usual aches, cough, sneezing, congestion, and lack of energy. My physical state is completely out of sync with the lovely June weather and I’m not happy about it. I don’t have much patience. My brain’s a bit fuzzy. I snapped at my daughter yesterday over something trivial. I snapped at the younger dog.
Then, I said, “Look, I’m feeling really terrible right now, and I’m grumpy.”
Just saying that seemed to lift the cloud that was hovering over me. Admitting that I felt nasty in every way somehow gave me the strength to deal civilly with the dogs, the cat, the classroom gecko visiting for the summer, the exuberant 11-year-old, and the 83-year-old mother slipping ever further into dementia in one of our third-floor bedrooms.
All this reminded me of what the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has called “the tyranny of positive thinking.” Or, as Ehrenreich has put it even more pithily, “Smile, or Die.” Ehrenreich has written at length, most notably in her book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, about the strange cultural phenomenon that tries to make breast cancer “pretty” and “inspirational.”
As any cancer patient knows, cancer is not pretty. Sometimes, the cancer ward yields inspiration. But just as often, it creates pain, scars, and misery in a thousand forms.
Yet cancer patients are constantly exhorted to, “Think Positive!” “Be Brave!” If I counted how many times someone told me that “A positive attitude is healing,” well then, I’d still be counting.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m actually all for being positive. I tried to cultivate that attitude when I was in active treatment. I didn’t do it because I thought being nice would necessarily save me, I did it because being civil and considerate is just a better way to exist. The good things circle back, I believe, as do the bad.
But I never could have achieved that mostly positive outlook if I hadn’t recognized and expressed all the ways in which I was suffering and scared: That mouth sores are excruciating; that my joint pain was almost unbearable; that I had no energy; that radiation turns your skin into a burned, itching mess; that I was desperately frightened that I wouldn’t be around to see my kid grow up. I said all those things and more, mostly to my incredibly patient husband.
After I brought all the negatives out into the open, I could mostly set them aside and try to be polite, and positive.
Before my mother descended into dementia, she was an accomplished divorce lawyer. She used to talk about couples that created a “museum” of grievances. Every time something made them angry, she explained, the couple would put that grievance into the “museum.” And they’d polish and fuss over those grievances as if they were master artworks. Then, one day, the museum would get too full, and all the grievances would burst out at once. That, she said, usually led to an explosion that the courts call divorce.
Cancer patients also build museums. Don’t build a vault of all the worries and suffering and frustrations that cancer visits upon us. Find someone you can trust and let it all hang out: Admit that it’s difficult. Admit that the symptoms are harrowing. Admit that you’re scared. Admit that you’re overwhelmed. Admit that you sometimes feel hopeless and confused.
Once you do, I think, you’ll find the strength to face all those challenges. And perhaps, you may even be able to face them with a positive attitude.