But, can you catch it?

A little over two years ago, on March 1, 2015, I was diagnosed with stage III cervical cancer. It had spread from my cervix, to my vagina and vulva, and even into the lymph node in my groin. It’s funny, because I felt none of this. It wasn’t painful or visible, and it baffled me that it was silently killing me. I felt like I didn’t know how my body worked, that my assumptions about my body were wrong.

I had been seeing someone at the time, a difficult relationship. He was still married, trying to file for divorce from his wife of many years. We worked at the same company, and my employee was in love with him. It was fraught with scandal and unethical decisions. I was intrigued by him, but I always knew he was a bad decision. When I told him my diagnosis, I never heard from him again. He went AWOL. 

Then, I started treatment, feeling deflated, exhausted, overwhelmed, and I didn’t pursue dating. What would I tell someone on a first date? How would I break the news about my treatment? About not being able to be intimate? It was too much to think about. My friends already looked at me with pitying eyes, I couldn’t date someone looking at me like that too.

Somewhere nearing the end of treatment, I reunited with a high school classmate, who surprised me with his romantic feelings for me. I had never thought of him in that way. At that time, I was sickly and pale, 40 pounds lighter, and my groin was being attacked by toxins. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. But he scooped me up and cared for me, telling me I’m beautiful. I was about to have surgery that would make me unable to be intimate for months. But he had a way about him, helping me feel like none of that mattered. After we’d already undressed, after steamy kisses, he paused, putting some space between our bodies. 

Looking down at me, he whispered, “I want to do this but, because your cancer is down there, I have to ask: can you catch it?”

“Catch what?”

“Your cancer. I know, I should know the answer to this question.”

I hated that my cancer seemed to others like I had the plague, like they should back away. Like I was somehow contagious. Kind of like when my husband and I got divorced and I stopped being invited to weddings. I hated how people told me I was strong and that I would kick cancer’s ass, like I’d win. All I felt, week by week, as my dermatitis started and my hair fell out, as I couldn’t get off the couch anymore because my legs would go numb, was that I was being stomped. Between the cancer and the drugs and radiation waging war on one another, the battlefield that was my body became fallow, trampled to death. Some days I’ve wondered if living was worth it.

They call you a fighter, a warrior. They call you a survivor. But more often, I find myself being a tired partner following a dance with death. I find myself all too often still that fallow field, struggling to come back to life. Someday I know there will be stronger, more beautiful flowers, fertilized because of the experience. Carrying the hearts of those who will always remain fallow fields.

Sunny days

It all started with
The cave by the beach,

Just south of home,

Carved into the cliff,

Where I used to bring my secrets,

Where I grieved in secret,

Loved in secret.

The safest, most painful place.

I wish you could have been my secret there.

These places have accumulated over time.

The grass below the rose garden 

Where we’d lay on our backs and watch the summer clouds.

The meditation garden in the grotto,

Where I witnessed God within my heart.

And then there’s your home.

My safest place I never knew.

The strength of the red rim, nestling the town below in its expansive arms.

Sitting in the water of the stream, kissing your face, while the dragonflies buzz about.

Soaking up the hot summer sun on our bare chests and backs and legs.

The beading drops of cool water refreshing us under the heat of a sunny day, running off us.

Light glinting from our blue-green eyes, consuming one another’s souls.

The silence of the gravesite, where my best friend lies.

Where just the memory of your presence there soothes me, just knowing you met him in your home towns, including me.

Surrounded by succulents and lizards.

Surrounded by birds and dragonflies.

The family cat and its rodent prey.

Surrounded by your loving family, sitting in your family home, watching the sunset.

Smiling. Home. Safe. Loved. 

Summer gods on sunny days.

Reality Hurts… Sometimes

A few months ago, I wrote an email into a podcast I listen to quite regularly. It was a desperate plea to know if I should wait for the man I thought was once the love of my life. I have exhaustive, expansive love for said man–so much that I’m still finding new poems to write, recalling more memories I loved, reflecting on the ways he improved my character. It has been several years, more years than we were together, and I’m still unpacking the bursting adoration and exhilaration (and adjectives!) coarsing through my veins. 

I received the answer today in their most recent podcast. If I’m honest with myself, I knew the answer while I was writing the email in the first place. He didn’t want to be with me or he would have stayed. It was about me. And no matter how long he goes on searching for what’s missing, it’s unlikely he’ll turn around and once again grab my hand. He’s moved on, with or without a new partner, and somewhere along the way, I just stopped to wait for something that isn’t going to come. 

To add insult to injury, or just an additional dose of reality, I turned on the television this afternoon to see He’s Just Not That Into You, one of my favorite movies because it’s so blunt. Girlfriends always seem to say the exception to a rule–that there was that one time a couple broke up and then got back together years later. But that rarely happens. People change, people sometimes don’t have a good reason for breaking up except that it just doesn’t feel right anymore. Sometimes people change and don’t realize it until later. 

It hurts, it does. It hurts because I still have this deep chasm of love overflowing for the person who put me onto the path I am today. For the person who was able to show me what I’m truly capable of. For the person I want to share it all with now that I’m here.

I want to flow all of that love into a container, opening that deep chasm wide for a new person with current possibilities. For someone who chooses me every day. Good, bad, happy, sad. Someone who wants to figure out their life in parallel to mine and doesn’t run from the possibility. 

Too often we talk about flowing out negative feelings, channeling grief or anger or sorrow into music and poetry. Journaling difficult emotions. Exercising out our anger. Scream therapy. Facing our fears. But what happens when the feelings we have appear positive but still get in the way? Loving someone to exhaustion can also block the heart to new options. Remembering the good times too often can hurt our necks as we crane to keep the past in our sights. 

Reality can hurt sometimes, but it can also open us to new and soul-stretching possibilities. So, what’s in it for you?

Recovery.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved…The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart


End of February 2015 I shot a commercial for Vonage telephone service, a service I used and loved for many years because it gave me precious time with my brother who lived in London. The photo on the left is a shot of me after the day wrapped. Little did I know that my life would fall apart only a week later and that I’d cancel my Vonage service and delete my relationship with my brother only months later, the day the photo on the right was taken (September 2015). 

Things fell apart. A week after my fun on set, at the top of my career, in love with my life as it was, I was diagnosed with cancer. This distanced me from my family, my friends, myself, my job, everything. I lost 40 pounds (photo on left: 143 pounds, right: 103) and my hair. I lost my job, my boyfriend, some friends, and my sense of stability. 

And during that time, people complimented my appearance. It devastated me, and I broke. I hurt everywhere, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That photo on the right was an unhealthy version of me. I remember being cold all the time, walking through a cognitive fog, suffering from spontaneous incontinence, and really exploiting that small amount of hair that stayed attached to my scalp (the rest I had to shave because of the bald patches). I cried every single day. From pain, from loneliness, and mostly from fear. 


Photo on the left: 6/5/15. Two years ago. I’d completed a complete cycle of chemotherapy (7 doses over 7 weeks), 8.5 weeks of radiation, so many scans and biopsies and blood tests, 1 surgery, and all the misery I could have imagined. I had just been discharged from the hospital after my first surgery, the surgery that would remove the rest of my cancer. I couldn’t move from the pain, I had a catheter in still, and I was vomiting everywhere. My hair had just started to fall out, in chunks. I had an open wound where my labia used to be. And this was the day I wanted to die, when I couldn’t take anything any longer. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that moment. 

But that wasn’t rock bottom. Over the next 6-8 months, the bottom fell out from under me and I experienced the depths. My body changed and healed, but I completely lost my footing emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially. I was broken. Literally everything in my life changed. I experienced so many endings that it shook my cobwebs loose. 

And that’s when the healing started. I met my therapist in the city where I moved, and she gave me the room, the capacity, to experience everything in a messy, ugly, angry, irrational, emotional way. I began to learn what self-love feels like–being ok with all the emotions I’d been bottling up for so long. 

Those cobwebs that shook loose allowed room for things I could not previously accept: joy, self-respect, humor, silliness, childlike behavior, spontaneity, forgiveness, and love. I discovered what God means to me, and where I can find, accept, and celebrate spirituality. I am continuing to discover these depths inside of me, knowing now what Pema has tried to teach me for years: the things that shake you to your core remind you what inside of us is indestructible. 

“To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Today is my cancer survival day. Happy birthday, new body. Thank you for bringing me to my knees so that I could learn how to pray.

The Alchemist

To the one

Who loved this body

Broken, wounded

Ravaged by where others had been

Taking on the darkness

That lived, burrowed deep inside

Drinking from this vessel

Always knowing its poison.
To the one

Who, with eyes like lasers

Gazing deep into this heart

Boring into this soul,

Coated the myelin sheath

Around faulty synapses

Corroded from trauma

From those who’d come before

Strengthening all chakras

Always knowing its depletion.
To the one

Whose uttered words

Like a sacred language

Became the guiding voice

A radiant light in the darkness

Comforting the small child inside

Desperately pleading for reassurance

Coursing through these ears

Into these veins

Filling empty spaces with compassion.
To the one

Who, now with this body nearly restored,

Has drifted away

In need of wholeness

Of detoxification of spirit

Of compassion and comfort

Of deep, healing restoration

Your essence is enough

Surrounding us both at once.
To the one

Who, with vulnerability and kindness

Taught this broken heart to mend

These broken wings to fly

These blind eyes to see

Who, with gentle wisdom

Taught a body, mind, spirit

To heal, to harness its power.

Who, with divine alchemy

And pscionic power

Revealed the magic inside.
To the one,

Whose healing touch

Still felt on this body,

Whose stare,

Still slowing this nervous breath,

Whose voice lingers in these ears,

Whose mage hand, holding mine

Still guides this soul through the dark river

Whose alchemy,

My constant companion.

Never to be alone again.

Engine Failure & Progress

Check-ins are important. When I was in 8th grade, I was part of a dynamic, legendary song and dance group called the ShowStoppers. We wore red dresses covered in sequins, heavy nylons, dancing heels, a ton of makeup, and curls. It was epic. I was the worst dancer in our troupe, and I had gotten in on my singing voice. I had never taken dance lessons, unlike the other girls. However, I learned something about dancing in my year there–when you are performing turns, it’s important to have a focal point to reference. That way, you don’t become disoriented, you stay grounded.

Focal points have helped me stay grounded and also have allowed me to assess progress in my life. It’s been 3 months of continuous meditation, 30 minutes twice a day, 3 months of intensive trauma therapy (EMDR + resourcing has sometimes taken several hours a week), 3 months of pilates and yoga, 3 months of exploring my spirituality. And, strangely, the more present I have become, the harder it was to realize that 3 months went by so quickly. I just felt present, putting one foot in front of the other, making my pirouettes without thinking. These things in life have become habitual. Self-care has become habitual.

This past week, two incidents came into my life that were able to serve as focal points, as places where I could assess progress. I have recently started a new role in Washington DC while still living in the San Francisco bay area. This has increased my travel schedule significantly and has also put me in contact with new people. My first day of work was Wednesday, where I spent the day meeting policymakers and staffers. Thursday, I was to be in an all-day meeting with 15 people who would work together to develop policy recommendations for the new presidential administration. This is the most prestigious table I would ever be around, and I was looking forward to just being at the table to listen. I knew, however, that the woman who forced me out of my last role would also be at the table. She has been a significant trigger point for me in the last 2 years, and the last time I knew I would have to see her I actually suffered a considerable panic attack at my partner’s home in front of his group of friends just anticipating having to see her. He and I nearly broke up because I overwhelmed him with my anxiety. I was unstable. When I finally did see her, I vomited, hid in a bathroom stall, and, eventually, experienced a seizure in the middle of a Chicago street…at night. This woman really overtook my senses and shut down all my responses. Naturally, I was concerned about having to be in a meeting with her, so I discussed this with my therapist, who worked with me to process my feelings toward her. While I am still working on processing her representation in my life, that session where I could process through what was left over from this woman’s abuse allowed me to make different decisions. I arrived at the meeting place 20 minutes early, got a feel for the space, and allowed myself to feel present. When she walked into the room, I noticed that I didn’t tense up at all. When she engaged me, I allowed some small talk but also put up clear boundaries, allowing myself to feel safe and present while in her presence. When she tried to undermine things I said, I felt no need to defend myself, and I allowed myself to feel comfortable with a difference in opinion. In the moment, I didn’t notice I was doing something different…but looking back, this is the first time that I could notice a completely vanished trigger. What affected me so deeply in March had no power over me at all. I could breathe into the present moment with no anxiety about the past or fear of the future. And it was so much easier than expected.

The evening after my all-day meeting, I was to take a late night flight back to San Francisco, with a short layover in Atlanta. I had to be somewhere else in California for meetings the next morning, so I was anticipating sleeping on the plane. I love sitting over the wing, at the window, especially during sunset. Getting up to cruising altitude, our cabin heard a loud “POP”, followed by a pillar of black smoke coming from behind the right wing. This wasn’t normal. As the cabin crew prepared to make an emergency landing in North Carolina due to sudden engine failure, I could hear the terror, panic, and fear in my fellow travelers. I found myself breathing deeply, feeling personally comforted that things were under control, which allowed me, in turn, to help comfort a woman for whom this was her first flight. As I landed in North Carolina and looked on my phone to see how I may be able to get another flight back before my meetings started in the morning, I reflected on the last time this event occurred. In 2011, I was part of an emergency landing outside of Palmer, Alaska, coming home from Fairbanks. It wasn’t the emergency landing that got me panicked, but the feeling that I was going to miss one too many graduate classes, not allowing me to graduate. While trying to get a new flight, I had a horrible panic attack, yelled at just about everyone, burst into tears, and called my (sleeping) boyfriend every minute on the minute, leaving him messages. I was a mess. I made it back for my class just in time, but I had a seizure the second I was finished with that class from all the drama I had created. This time, I was able to remain calm, even encourage others while they freaked out about missing their connections. I noticed I wasn’t alone–this hadn’t just happened to me. We were a stranded collective, which allowed me to stay grounded, calm, and humble. When we got shuttled back to the airport, I calmly stood in line, calling my administrative assistant to let her know I may not be at the meeting in the morning, making contingency plans. I waited at the desk and firmly asked to be put on the only flight out that evening, stating that waiting until the morning was not my preference. I got re-planed, and was able to sleep soundly on the plane, making it to my meeting in the morning a few hours away.

Engine failure doesn’t happen every day. Neither does having to sit in a room on the other side of the country with the person who harassed you for 2 years. But little moments do repeat every day. Little moments are able to be your focal point–they can keep you grounded, they can act as a measuring stick. Awareness comes from allowing yourself to put space between those moments, put space where there was once noise. This is the gift the last 3 months have taught me that I haven’t really noticed: the gift of stillness. You see, crazy things happen to everyone. It’s really up to us to make it dramatic and traumatic. It’s up to us to carry around those moments as weights on our shoulders. Once you realize that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it, you’re free.

“Spiritual progress is like detoxification. Things have to come up in order to be released. Once we have asked to be healed, then our unhealed places are forced to the surface.” –Marianne Williamson

Healing is an amazing feeling.

Love,

Blonde

xox