In my last “Situation” post, I said that nature’s elements could be brutal. The Melanoma diagnosis I received in 2012 was, to my way of thinking, one of the elements. It didn’t seem that much different from a lightning strike or the kind of powerful wind just that can do some serious damage.
Damage or not, I like to think that my life has that same ability to rebalance that nature has so beautifully demonstrated after almost every kind of disaster I can come up with.
A few years before this diagnosis, I suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall from a horse. That did some serious damage, too. But at the time I was insistent that the brain injury I suffered from would not derail what was then a new career as a therapist. I was used to overcoming almost any challenge. 12-hour workdays let me see this obstacle as just another something to overcome.
When cancer came along, it was back to the drawing table with my “can do” philosophy.
After diagnosing the Melanoma, the general surgeon told me I needed a second surgery, done by an oncology surgeon, to make sure we removed all the cancerous cells. A lymph node biopsy would be needed in order to assess whether the cancer had spread.
Should I attempt to push back against Melanoma with the force that the medical world deemed appropriate? I wasn’t sure.
For a while, I wavered between a “good guys” and “bad guys” characterization of the elements. After the one-two punch of a brain injury followed by cancer, I settled on “bad guys” for a time. Sinister, gravely voices shoved the sunlit breezy rustling, baby-bird squeak-chirping, and the fluttering wings aside.
Now I wanted to fight back. I scheduled an appointment with the second surgeon.
Then this occurred to me: Attempting to go after every last cancer cell might turn out to be nothing more than a way of avoiding some kind of wise voice built into it. It seemed more likely that I should think of Cancer as a message, and follow its prescriptions, whatever they turned out to be.
Aware that I had been working too hard to compensate for the brain injury, I sensed that what I really needed was rest.
I decide against following the advice of both surgeons. I skipped the surgery and lymph node biopsy and investigated what changes I might need to make in order to heal–an alternate path, and, yes, an uncertain one. But I felt I should get out of my body’s way and let it do its own healing.
Once I set out, I would stay alert for Cancer’s wise voice. And hope to God that it had one.
Beyond the body’s rest, I also needed to look inside, if for no other reason than the possibility that this element had come about to tell me something. Some big life message that I had missed for one reason or another.
Then I learned from alternative cancer studies that many cancer patients exhibit type-C personality traits, something they had learned earlier as a way to cope. People with type-C personalities fail to share their feelings or attend to their own needs, and generally put others first.
I thought I saw this tendency in myself. I had always enjoyed working hard. A day of intensely focused work gave me a sense of accomplishment–fruits of my labors that I could be proud of. A second career as a therapist gave me the added joys of helping others bring positive change to their lives.
I liked the work of attuning to others and teasing out their inner-expert. As an extra bonus–albeit one born of my unconsciousness–this focus on others gave me the ability to push away the things in me that didn’t feel good.
Vulnerability, uncertainty, and lack of clarity weren’t states of mind that I was completely comfortable with. I lacked the awareness to cultivate the same wellness-building and growth-promoting connection with emotion that I routinely prescribed as “good medicine” for my own clients.
With the Melanoma diagnosis, I stepped back from my practice to focus on my own health, knowing that on some level that this would entail coming face to face with disowned feelings. Despite this purposeful dive into a new arena of self-investigation, some unconscious part of me continued to defend against what I didn’t want to face. While I sifted through what I was beginning to know, I referred my clients to other psychotherapists who I felt could better care for them while I focused on myself.
Garage, Sweet Garage
So, what was my response to this new information? Not wanting (or knowing it would be best) to hand over control to the Elements, to get quiet and listen more intently to their message, I did what you do when you’re not only unenlightened, but vaguely contrary. I changed course. I found a way to focus less on myself, my needs, and my pesky feelings with a single phone call to acquire some male kid goats.
I cleared out my garage to make room for new life. I adopted baby goats Leo and Orion, gifted by a friend who had an eighty-goat herd and dairy in Cumberland, Wisconsin. I picked them up from the farm, loaded them into a dog carrier, and drove thirty miles back to my farm on Highway 46.
Dwarfed by the large carrier I thought would barely contain them, they stayed jammed towards the back, peering out warily in my direction. Finally, I was able to snag each by the leg and remove them gingerly from the car. I installed them in their new home, a small metal pole shed with a dirt floor with two south-facing windows and a kitchen door visible from both. The kids’ abrupt change of residence was, no doubt, a shock. As they were transferred from dog carrier to pole shed, they were dubious of their new surroundings. I’m pretty sure a garage and a wire wrap-around fence enclosure were not on their bucket list of places to stay–a barnyard prison, so to speak.
They made mental notes of security weaknesses to leverage as a means of escape. Captivity and confinement could be tossed aside as soon as they had a good plan. Frequent sidelong glances towards my dog, Gobo, and me added to their arsenal of tactical information.
Their plan to spring from the farm seemed to recede from their consciousness around day four. That’s because I was delivering the milk. Lots of it. They were ready every time I came out and they required milk twice a day. Pretty soon, I was the most special person in their world, and they wouldn’t dream of leaving me.
The twin kids would climb over each other to get to the bottles. A three-minute duet of staccato sucking noises followed. Whichever finished first would shove the other out of the way and latch onto his brother’s bottle to get the drizzle of remaining milk.
Weeks passed. Woozy under the influence of rich goat’s milk, the inside of the garage became less prison cell, more childhood home; their “jailer” became someone to love. Leo, who wouldn’t have anything to do with me on adoption day, would now climb onto my lap and gaze dreamily into my eyes, the farmyard version of Stockholm Syndrome. I fell in love–direct access to the heart via livestock ownership.
During my consult with the oncology surgeon, the friend who accompanied me asked what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery. “The cancer will come back,” the surgeon said without hesitation. Not “could,” not even “would.” Will was the word he used. He avoided the “condition” that would typically be built into that particular declaration. That single word will (and its forced certainty) made me strangely curious. There seemed to be an absence of the context that time (or a good rewrite) would provide. A shift, changing the word “will”–to “could”–and “could”–to “won’t.” I wanted to live in the story of “the cancer won’t come back.” A warm glowy home instead of a prison.
Eventually, my story, like the goat’s, received an edit. I added my “inner expert” to the cast of characters. I skipped the surgery and followed my heart. I read all the stories of unexpected and miraculous recoveries I could find, igniting in me what panic had erased. Trust in my ability to heal.
Walls of a garage changed from “prison” to “home” with a slight change in story structure–a slant. Following this wizardry as best I could, I rewrote my own story to give it a better slant, too.
Time moves on and a story changes–a story of a “Type C” at one time missing out on life’s joys, but now living a bit more within their range. The story of goats whose prison becomes a beloved home they wouldn’t dream of leaving. Time broadened the understanding of living beyond cancer just as time broadened the goats’ understanding of “the prison” and the “woman who runs it.” Hardship fades from memory, brains rewire, and trauma gets rewritten.
Jumping to the end, past all the twists and turns, I thought about how goats, garages, and scary cancer news might shift and change over time.
Scrambling the beginning, middle and end, I grabbed onto the “happily ever after.” With a determined spirit, I started living the ending as if it were now; I started living the “ever after.”
As I fed my goats and stared into their dreamy eyes, I imagined myself as someone who doesn’t have cancer.
Orion finished his bottle first, shoved his brother, and looked at me. I jumped into a different story and Leo and Orion jumped alongside me.