Childhood’s Psychic Wounds and Cancer: repression, PTSD, and my metastasis

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During my two stints at Commonweal’s Cancer Help Program diving deep into the mysteries of my psyche, I stumbled into a littoral funhouse of morphed emotions. Buried deep, repressed beyond recognition were, of course my parents, old wounds of words and frightening events, memories at the depths of uncharted deep oceanic waters. Running long, those deep eddies carried pain, swirling and kicking up sand and with it the dis-ease of the mind. So, let’s agree to the mind/ body/ spirit connection baseline for the sake of brevity, and assume these are one and the same, each effecting the other in sickness and in health.

Must we look in the mirrors of our mind to see the perceptions of our pasts, looking larger or smaller or not looking at all like reality. But these memories represent reality to us. For me, a deep sharp knife to the gut looks something like me as a seven year old. I remember I stood silently watching my father leave us. Bearded and in a t-shirt and torn jeans in 1972 the 8mm reel in my head plays a film of my dad with a suitcase under each arm pulling my mother on his right ankle, dragging her across the wood floor of the foyer to the heavy three lock door to our high rise apartment in New York. She yelled, crying, “you can’t leave me alone with these two kids!” And with that he kicked her arms loose and slammed the door. I ran to find him – to go with him – but the elevator had whisked him away to his new life with another woman and her infant son.

Years later after my father died in 2013, I found saccharine love letters and poems to this woman. Her son, now who would be reared on and off by my father who, to hurt his own father, liked to date women of color. I will not quote the letters of my grandfather to him asking him to go home to his family and leave the other so and so woman behind him, all would be forgotten. But poppa, for all your work on our behalf, we remained as “those kids” with my mother. Well, sort of.

I unfortunately became the de facto cook, housekeeper, babysitter of my brother three years my junior, after my mother moved us to Florida about a year or so later. She sold off our possessions. She even gave away my dog without so much as a warning to her sister’s housekeeper. She took Peaches a curly blonde small poodle in her soft large brown hands and off went my pet. I never had a dog again. At least not one I got to keep. I’ve always had cats. I suppose it was my way of subverting my mother’s desire to not have a high maintenance pet. Like children were high maintenance to her. Things to jettison when something better finally came along.

My father would later confess he wasn’t planned and my father was content with one child. Me. The planned one. Although I wasn’t born male – I was supposed to do the right thing and come into the world as Isaac not Ilene. However my mother wouldn’t hear his need to rear a single person to adulthood. He had 102 degree fever when my brother was conceived, and he blamed my siblings lack of intellectual prowess on his “sick sperm.” I kid you not.

It did not take her long to find my stepfather who hadn’t enough room for both of us. At 13 my mother moved her things into his house about four long miles from where we lived at the time. I was to tell no one. When my grandmother called, I was to tell her mom would call right back and immediately call her at my stepfather’s house. She will then call whomever called and talk to them as though she was calling from our home. She wasn’t there clearly. This went on for about a year and I watched my brother cooked cleaned and try to go to school as best as I could. But at 14 years old it’s kind of hard to do those things as we are not trained yet. But I was expected to do those things since I was seven years old and so I had about amount of experience by then. Experience no kid should really help.

About a year later, she took my brother with her. She left me there in a house with three bedrooms and a kitchen or living room I don’t have room two bathrooms and very little money. She paid, I recall, about a quarter of the rent and told me to get a roommate and a job. It’s hard to get a job at 14, however, when you’re almost 6 feet tall you can say you’re 18 and everyone will believe you. There was no way to get to school every day and immediately I went from honors student to failure, overnight. No one took notice; I was from a broken home so I failed in those days as was to be expected.

These are the wounds that don’t heal. These are the ones that stay with us for life. These are the events that cause insecurity, worry, stress, give us pause when getting into relationships, grow into those daemons which possess us, the goblins that never, ever die. At least not until we ourselves expire.

Courses of cognitive behavioral therapy over years have improved my mental stability allowing me to succeed in my life. I swore that I would not be a failure. I swear that to myself at 14 or 18 and a 24. I swear that to myself when I said I would be the CEO of a company by the time I was 45. I swear that to myself when I graduated university against everybody’s expectations.

And I swore that to myself when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I would not be an early statistic, I said to myself. I would be an outlier. I’m going on five years now. And I suppose I am an outlier in a lot of ways. No one expected me to be alive now, not even my oncologist. And no one expected me to succeed either. Not even my parents.

I still definitely have issues with insecurity and with loss. I have an exceedingly difficult time with the telephone. I hate making phone calls as a result of those years of calling my father on behalf of my mother, and calling my mother to let her know so and so called and to call them back. Oddly, my brother did not tell me when my mother died, and we’d repaired our broken relationship years ago. Still he worried something would surface of that painful time making him look badly in front of my relatives. If any of you are reading this, that’s why you did not see me at the funeral. My aunt, brother and stepsister had determined it unnecessary for some reason.

No closure. No way to say goodbye for either of us. I’ll go to my death with that pain, too. But burying it deep I’ll argue, helps drive the diseases we suffer from including cancer. Our cellular structure can only handle so much psychological poisoning. Do any of you reading with cancer also suffer such deep wounds?

During the cancer whole program we talked about those things those deep wounds those things that don’t heal and getting rid of them somehow someway or at least making peace with ourselves so that we can heal her body is by healing or minds in her spirits. I believe that I’ve healed to a certain degree but I don’t think we have a really truly do get over these things. They’re too difficult and too hurtful and too sad. I miss my parents though they were not perfect and they did not know what they were doing at 25 when they heard me, nor at 28 when my brother was born.

However they did have time to mature but unfortunately they did not have time to grow up. I believe that I have and why I have survived as long as I have with the cancer that will not leave my body. On treatments that I will continue for the rest of my life. And if there is a heaven and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t, but if there is and they’re around, I hope I get to get some closure with them.

The poem below you’ll see some reflections of this and I hope you enjoy it. It’s slightly sad (but don’t worry the kittens get saved. 😄)

The Litter

Dark blue visions cloak the fight
Pink cheeky girls awakened
yawning at alleyway screams.
Just a caterwauling stray, they whisper,
slipping comfortablyinto their black
silken dreams
between rose petal pink sheets
curled up like kittens
kneading blindly into biscuits
dreaming of jasmine tea.

Another innocent mother who
never knew what to do:
incessantly they mew and cry
feed me groom me love me
choose me.
With her tongue like a steak knife
she cuts fleas and mites
from their new sprouted down.
Soft mews steal the silence,
Feeling their shark tooth claws —
Then the motor and telescoping
headlight beams
shock and scatter her over
around a green, greedy lawn
finally hiding under my bungalow porch.

Victims all, we find relief
in our own reflections.
In ponds and puddles seeing
All the glitter of fool’s gold.
Plates of glass form our images
As ghostly creatures in the dark,
Lights obscure the windows
From a daytime world view into a
Nighttime curtained off.
Framed into a single clean
picture of a solitary face –
Mother’s never return
if they’ve run.
Now I help but fear
like anyone of us
they find a home?

Do the coats we wear
cover our wealth
from the pickpockets and the poor.
All of us victims
Our own voices crying in prayer
for peace, for pacification
for food, for mothers, for the one.
Saving anyone.