I see myself as anything but stoic about this diagnosis of gallbladder cancer, and I feel lucky to have learned a lot about feelings and how to feel them and move through them many years before my diagnosis. Not that I have it figured out completely, but I am no longer following my early learned pattern of stuffing feelings and having them come out inappropriately every which way. (At least, I hope that's true!)
My "feelings lessons" came from many years of psychotherapy, and many years of taking and helping to run the Opening the Heart workshop (which I talked about in a post in early December (see Feeling my Anger and other Feelings). We used to give a talk on Saturday morning at the workshop that the staff labeled the "feelings talk." Here are some of the things I learned about feelings that have really helped me get through some of these intensely emotional times in recent months, and especially in the last month. (I can't believe it hasn't yet been one month since the Jan. 22 scan that revealed the cancer had spread, and that a new tumor is threatening my existence.)
These last few weeks have been hard. This past week was hard. I keep forgetting that I had general anesthesia Friday a week ago, although the stent that was placed does regularly remind me it's there. On Wednesday this past week, I felt such intense feelings of sadness and anger about having cancer, having a terminal diagnosis, worrying about whether all of my inner parts are working as they should, or the tumor is threatening their functioning. I went to work and spent most of the day with the door half shut because I would cry, work a little, and then cry some more. I didn't like being in all of those feelings, but they were there, and ignoring them would have felt awful, too. Stoic? Not me.
So what have a learned about feelings? A few things . . .
1. Feelings live in the body. They will be there, part of our human heritage, whether we like them or not.
2. We are not our feelings. When we are mad, sad, or glad, we are having feelings, but we are not the feelings. Given a chance to be expressed, and moved through, feelings will shift.
3. Feelings are neither good nor bad, but in our culture, we have distinct preferences for one set of feelings over another. That's why lots of folks talk about "bad" feelings (as in "I want to avoid bad feelings, like being angry") and "good" feelings ("I want to have happy feelings again.") No, I don't usually like feeling sad or angry. But, if my anger is directed at a behavior that is unacceptable to me, it can be a way of setting a limit. And my sad feelings may hurt my heart, but once I have let them be, they can be released, instead of stuffed into depression or anxiety.
4. When we try to shut down on one set of feelings (like sadness), we dampen our response to the world around us, and limit our range of responsiveness. We used to say at the Opening the Heart workshop that our capacity for joy increases as we allow the depths of our pain to emerge. We limit our range of response by shutting down on the emotions we don't like.
5. When feelings are "stuffed," they will emerge, sometime, somewhere, somehow. They can come out in body symptoms, in depression, in sarcasm and ways of relating that hold others at arm's length because we are afraid of being seen, really being seen. They can come out in other ways, too, but they will definitely come out.
For those of you keeping score on my commitment to grade all four sets of students papers I have home before I teach my next class, I have finished 1 2/3 sets, and have 2 1/3 to go before tomorrow is over. The week ahead is my week without chemo, but I see all of my doctors (oncologist, surgeon, and urologist) this Wednesday, on Valentine's Day. (Will they hand out chocolate hearts?) On Friday, I go in for another infusion of Oxaliplatin, and begin two weeks of the Xeloda pills. But today, no chemo! That feels good.