The Journey from a Traumatized Reality to Post Traumatic Growth

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health anxiety“I have bad news. I am sorry. You have cancer.” Sitting in the cold clinical doctor’s office on a snowy, cloudy January day in Chicago, I was 6 months postpartum with my daughter, and I felt like I had woken up in a nightmare. My husband had gone to work that day when I was supposed to have my stitches removed after the laparoscopic surgery to remove a large cyst so I was alone with my daughter. When Dr. Foley entered the room, I took one look at his face and knew something was wrong. “Are you sure, I asked? My daughter was munching away on her Sophie Giraffe in her stroller next to me. “Yes, I am sure. I am so sorry” I started to cry. The first thing I said was “I knew I didn’t deserve a good life.” “What did you say?” “Nothing, it doesn’t matter now.” He told me it was stage 1 Ovarian cancer. That I would be okay. He told me I might need chemo and to have my ovaries removed. I may not be able to have any more children and he referred me to a gynecological specialist. I waited to see her for 3 weeks. My mom flew out to help me. My husband accompanied me to my appointment with the Gynecologic oncologist. The office was bleak. The women in the sitting room showed me my future.

When it was my turn for the appointment the nurse came in with the doctor. They were pleasant and made chit chat. I could not tolerate their light-heartedness for very long as they asked me about my daughter and being a new parent. Finally, I said, “Can you tell me about my cancer please?!” They looked at me astonished and said, “You don’t have cancer! Didn’t Doctor Foley tell you? He called us and said, “I have a disaster here!” “ We told him it was not a disaster. What you have is a borderline mucinous cyst which is common for women your age.”

I don’t think I have ever experienced more relief or gratitude than I felt then, not even after my children were born. What could be more profound than feeling like you were handed a death sentence and then be given a “get out of jail free card?” I went home and felt like I had been given a second chance at life. I opened the windows, I cleaned the house, I smiled again. However, that sweetness lasted only a short time before I began to ruminate and worry again.

The relief never lasted because there was always another disaster around the corner. For the years following, I stayed diligent. I saw cancer everywhere. I felt lumps, I felt bumps, I saw weird looking dots on my body, rashes, twitches that would have me flying into a panic. I avoided school outings because I thought a mom had cancer (turns out she has alopecia!) To this day I still get high blood pressure in the doctor’s office even if I am just going in to have a splinter removed. 

I was living a traumatized person’s reality. On the surface, I was functioning but underneath I was filled with pain and weariness. This diagnosis was one more trauma to now pile onto a lifetime of traumatic experiences. Before I got pregnant, I had made two visits to the emergency room because I had thought I was experiencing a heart attack. I routinely felt like I could not swallow and that I was choking even when I had nothing in my mouth. I often felt like I could not breathe or get enough air. I had lots of visits to the doctor’s office, a heart ultrasound, tests for asthma, bloodwork, etc. They told me it was anxiety but I could not believe that my mind would cause such strong symptoms.
Recently, I spent some time doing a form of EMDR on myself, going into the feeling of terror that I feel with health anxiety. It brought up an old memory of me driving with my dad at about 10 years old. He was drunk driving with my sister and me on the highway. I remember yelling at him “Dad if you don’t stop driving this way I am going to drive!” I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I remembered that feeling of complete helplessness and being out of control. “Aha, I thought to myself. That’s the first time I felt that feeling.” Of course, it makes sense I have health anxiety and that I obsess and try to avoid or control it. We all have formulated parts of ourselves that at one time served an important purpose–to keep us safe. My protector identity understands how overwhelmed I was and has worked my whole life to keep that feeling at bay. Health anxiety can be a manifestation of trauma.

Healing took time and intention. It also happened not in a therapy chair but the gym, on a foam roller, and in a salsa class. It was in these spaces where I first slowed down and was able to feel safe in my body. Slowly, with time and consistency, my life and outlook for my future started to change. The change was so profound that people saw me and asked what I was doing differently. I started to fully investigate the power of the body to influence the mind. It was at 36 years old I started to feel joy for the first time that I could remember.
I saw recently on Facebook an acquaintance from high school, his wife, young and beautiful with two small children, died of colon cancer. I felt so much sadness and anger at the unfairness of this. I felt compassion. I see it as growth that I did not start researching statistics or going into a health fear spiral. Five years ago I asked my sister what she felt when she heard the tragic news and she told me she feels compassion. I said to her “Is that what normal people feel?” I saw every tragedy as a warning to get more vigilant, more hardened in my body and my mind, and as a chance to numb out to not feel the range of human emotions.

Some days, I do feel anxiety at the uncertainty of the world, and health anxiety can still pop up for me. Part of the healing process is changing the way we relate to something that we cannot change. I do not know the outcome of much of life. What will happen to me, my children, the people I love, the world? In moments of joy I often feel a twinge of grief. I can now hold both at the same time. I understand sadness and grief in a new way, not something to be afraid of, to numb out or push away, but simply a feeling to let move through me so I can fully experience the range of human life.

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Like most people, I have triggers and wounds that had me living what I called “below the surface” for years. My journey has been what some would call “a messy process.” For most of my life, I lived with unprocessed grief and fear. Intellectually I knew it was there, I understood it, but nothing changed. I thought I would always live with anxiety that made me feel like I was choking, feeling like I could not breath, and with panic attacks. A turning point came when I found salsa dancing. I began to enter my body in a whole new way: slowly, and with curiosity. I combined that with somatic therapy and my life noticeably began to change. My healing journey has helped me become a better parent, partner, friend and human. I am fascinated with all healing modalities and have studied them extensively over the years. I became a certified Sex, Love and Relationship Coach through the Tantric Institute and a trauma informed movement practitioner. Currently, I live in East Providence, Rhode Island with my husband, daughter and son. I run a somatic movement coaching business called Agent Healing and it is my passion to help women move into living their most empowered and authentic life.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Brenna,

    This is Nancy’s (Luke’s Mom) sister, Linda. I wanted to pass on an excellent book you may have already read. It is called, “Healing Trauma, A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of your Body” by Peter A. Levine, Ph. D. in Psychology at U.C. Berkeley who has studied Stress and trauma for 35 years. Most people don’t realize that trauma affects our bodies as well as our minds. I stumbled upon the book, but had some pretty traumatic events in my life including my ex-husband losing a Real Estate Development he solely owned which lost our family home and we had 3 small children at the time. I lived for many, many months wondering WHEN we were going to lose our home. I survived and am now a very happy, retired woman with 5 Grandchildren. I wish you the best and keep studying and get your Clinical Degree so you can counsel others. Maybe you already have it. My sister, Carol is a Clinical Psychologist who has done well. I went back to get a Masters at age 40 and it took me 4 and 1/2 years, but now I have my own Pension. So, I wish you well, and keep studying and you will find a way to make it work if you really want to.

    Best wishes,
    Linda

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