The underside of the iceberg
I don’t know if my blog would be characterized as “oversharing.” Maybe and maybe not, although I share a lot of stuff. However, there is so much more that I don’t say. Frankly, what I do talk about feels like the tip of the iceberg, and if you have ever seen a visual representation of a full iceberg showing what rises above the water and what lies below, you will know that the rest of the iceberg is many, many times the size of what you see above water.
When people are in crisis, they often conceal much more than they reveal. Sometimes it’s out of embarrassment, as when the side effects of chemo are really, and I mean really, unmentionable. Sometimes it’s out of shame, as when a marriage is falling apart or finances are in dire straits. Sometimes it’s out of wanting to avoid pity and sad faces from others. Sometimes it’s from a desire to shake it off and have some perspective, knowing the extraordinary suffering that happens every day around the world. Sometimes it’s because the only way to function at all is to keep certain things out of your range of vision.
No matter the cause – and there might be different causes at different times – many things are kept under wraps. To build awareness that much more is happening with people in crisis than meets the eye, I’m offering an overview of what makes up the unseen part of my iceberg.
Long-term health fallout from cancer, chemo, and radiation. Yes, I’m functioning pretty well physically. But other than the fatigue (which I do discuss), other health issues have resulted, and my body will never be the same. Given that I chose to undergo chemo, I had to accept the likelihood of side effects and long-term issues. There are a bunch of them, some worse than others, some more frequent than others, some more unsharable than others. I just have to handle them.
Petty frustrations. Cancer treatment and grief, in my experience, had a couple of things in common. The only one that I welcomed? Weight loss. The “chemo diet” and its close cousin the “grief diet” got me back into all of the clothing I had shoved to the back of my closet and the corners of my drawers. It feels silly and embarassing to care about, but it gave me the only “well at least” that I enjoyed in either situation, as in, “Well at least I look good in those pants that I haven’t been able to wear for several years.” The long and challenging winter, unfortunately, took this one little perk away.
How I feel about the man who killed my brother. I don’t even know where to start with this topic, so I don’t talk about it. I can recite facts about him: He had a police record with more than one DUI. He was driving impaired that morning, and traveled on the wrong side of the road for more than half a mile. He died instantly. He left a wife, a sister, and a mother. Beyond the facts lies a swamp of anger and confusion and sadness that is impossible for me to articulate. So I don’t try, not right now.
How often I fake it in the attempt to make it. A great deal of the time my energy feels dimmed, like I’m a gas burner normally on medium high and someone turned me down to extra-low. But I can’t function if I’m on low all the time. I have workshops to lead, talks to give, elementary school career days to present at, activities to help my children with, writing to do, and payment deadlines to make. So I try to fake it ‘til I make it, hoping that the energy kicks in. Usually it does after a while. But the cost is high, and the burner goes back to barely-on for much longer afterwards.
The things I wish I had a chance to talk to my brother about. I had no idea how many things I wanted to ask Frank someday, but as it happens, there are tons. It’s like a little filing cabinet to the side of my brain had been slowly filling up with questions and wonderings all waiting for the right future moment to address, either the couple of times a year we had down time in person or perhaps later, in our dotage (when I thought we would share a dotage). Questions about what he remembered about an event in the past I have tried to piece together. Questions about how he experienced things that I saw from my own perspective. Questions about what he thought of an old friend, a choice I made, a family trait, a future course of action. Questions about wines or cars or publishing houses or, really, anything at all. I don’t say much about all of these questions, because it makes me so sad that I will never be able to ask them of him.
The fear of cancer recurrence. I hear and read how damaging it is to live in fear, and that I need to set fear aside and not let it rule my life. No, it doesn’t rule – but it rears its head from time to time. For me, and for many people I know who’ve been treated for cancer, one twinge of pain attracts attention – especially, in my case, any twinge similar to what I felt intermittently in the tumor area over the months from the first suspicious mammogram to the day of my surgery. If I have an unexplained pain that persists over a day or more, I get pretty wound up with worry, and have to talk myself down until it lets up. A sort of mumbling “shake it off” soundtrack will play in my head the whole time, along with the dueling mumbling soundtrack about how I’m going to handle the PET scan, the recurrence, the next chemo….
The struggle with the myth of natural justice. Intellectually, I know that being kind, caring, and decent cannot prevent random painful events in a person’s life. But I find it challenging to give up that lovely notion that if you try to be the best person you possibly can, you will be rewarded with health and happiness and good fortune. I bought in to that idea for a long time, reinforced by the confirmation bias that came from the many fortunate events of my earlier years. I don’t talk about it because it just frustrates me to try to make sense of how so many wonderful people I know – and many more I don’t know – have encountered devastating life events.
Anything about people other than me. My experience in cancer treatment and in grief is inextricably wrapped around that of others, family and friends. But I can only speak for myself here. I can’t presume to know or to share their experiences unless they give me permission (which they occasionally do). So I mostly stick to me, which is only part of the story.
And lastly...probably other stuff. I couldn’t have detailed the whole submerged iceberg area just in this blog post. There is more, no doubt. Probably a lot I haven’t even explored yet.
The ice above water does keep me busy. I have a feeling, though, that as time goes on I'll be spending more and more time in a wetsuit and scuba gear, figuring things out on the underside of the iceberg.