“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
“But I don’t know how to feel sad, really.” My words hung between my therapist and I. He, Sam, wanted me to explore the feelings associated with the losses created by cancer followed by chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). There was lots of sadness to go around: lost career, inability to live independently, living a life hemmed in by pain.
And still, I smiled as I looked at Sam, shrugging my shoulders.
It was a case of “smiling depression,” another coping strategy I’d honed to perfection. I began to smile after The Accident as a way to protect myself and those I loved from the pain of grief. Then, as a young woman, I smiled my way through lost pregnancies that eventually led to dashed hopes for children of my own. Years later, breast cancer created a long chapter of smiling at everyone around me, in an effort to reassure them, and to keep us all calm. And then, I smiled more when the CIPN set in, a reflex response to turmoil and uncertainty.
It wasn’t until I sat down in the Soft Kitty Chair that the grief became harder to contain. Perhaps it was the discipline of following my breath as I tried to meditate. Paying attention to how my body held tension made me see that my body, for all these years, had been doing the work of grieving that my mind wanted to avoid. Smiling allowed me to compartmentalize. It kept me on my feet as I built a life – career, marriage, being a stepmom – and so this skill was necessary. But it also kept me stuck, allowing me to feel things (including happiness and joy) only on a superficial level. Work was a welcome distraction from the unpleasantness of grieving. But that was gone, now, and I had no choice but to allow myself to see and feel the impact of decades of repeated, unresolved trauma.
When I’d first arrived at the yoga studio, I smiled through every painful pose. But as the yoga began to bring unity to my life, by drawing my concentration out of my thought life and onto my body, it became harder to fool myself. It was exactly as Mike Chapman described: “Learning to perform yoga postures with a realistic outlook on how a posture should be practiced (or if a pose should be attempted at all) is a lesson in truthfulness. Through yoga postures one can differentiate between, what is… and not what is perceived to be, in regards to range of motion and postural alignment. Discernment of truth can transcend ego-driven behaviour.” Sitting down in the Soft Kitty chair, day after day, opened the eyes of my heart. And it cracked open the floodgates to the losses I’d buried over the years. Embracing satya – yoga’s second ethical principle, to tell oneself the truth – stripped away the layers of illusion I’d wrapped around myself. Each unraveling was a death knell to my ego. My world, along with my sense of self, was dissolving with each new discovery and limitation.
Can’t hold down a job? That me – the upwardly mobile professional – was set aside and eventually left behind entirely.
Can’t play with my grandkids like I used to? The young, active, hands on grandmother – was forced to sit still and watch rather than play.
Can’t cook, clean or do laundry anymore? The capable wife and mom was replaced by a frustrated, pain ridden and helpless disabled person.
Like Ophelia, I witnessed each version of myself be set aside, only to drift along in an entirely foreign existence.
In this no-mans-land was a profound emptiness. The chattiness and smiling demeanour of the familiar me began to disappear into long stretches of silence. I struggled, as my identity dissolved, to keep connected with my old life. Friends moved on; my colleagues’ careers blossomed; my closest family struggled to interpret my reticence.
Truthfulness, I was finding, was the only pathway through the malaise of my life. But it was costly. I smiled less, withdrew into quietness, and wondered if I, like Ophelia, would be undone by the many losses. Would I just give up, sink into a kind of madness, and float away entirely from the moorings of my previous life?
What I knew, now that I had begun to let myself see inside, was that my life was unrecognizable. I missed being me. But with each breath I drew as I sat in the Soft Kitty Chair, I said goodbye to myself.
And I waited to see what -and who- would emerge in her stead.