I’m a social science researcher interested in identity development and self-determination, especially as these pertain to young adults with disabilities. I love the idea of a person knowing who they are, becoming their authentic self, and making their own decisions. For the most part, I believe, independence as an adult is hella important. Like, maybe the most important thing.
For me as a woman, for as long as I can remember I have felt I needed to prove my independence and prove I can stand on my own in all aspects of life. (My therapist has told me this hyper-independence is a coping mechanism. I’m sifting through it). But regardless, American society as a whole is very focused on this idea of independence and self-sufficiency.
I identify as fiercely independent and decidedly introverted, yet selectively social as hell. My husband of nearly 15 years would be the first to tell you that I do not like to be told what to do or how to do it, I believe I can do anything I set my mind to, and I am really bad at admitting weakness. I am a staunch feminist in many ways. I believe in making my own money, bucking the societal expectations put on women, not centering my whole life around marriage and having babies (though I chose to do both) while also maintaining a career.
But…(you knew there was a but coming, right?). On November 1st of 2022 I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. The day after Halloween, which we hosted at my house. In my second-to-last semester as a doctoral student. I was teaching three courses that semester. When my kids were nine and eleven and I was forty-three. Three weeks before our 14th wedding anniversary. And all of a sudden everything in my life to that point would be remembered as stuff that happened before my cancer.
Before my cancer diagnosis I had begun talking with a colleague about co-authoring a conceptual paper we were going to call “people need people,” named for a tote bag that I saw while sitting in a nail salon last summer. And aimed at convincing researchers and practitioners in our field (special education) to de-emphasize their obsession with preparing students with disabilities to be “as independent as possible” and to re-focus our efforts and the verbiage to accompany them to the concept of “interdependence.”
Don’t you just love when work imitates life? Or life imitates art? Or art imitates work and life? You know what I mean…
Basically, I knew in theory, at least as it related to the students that I have worked with for over 20 years, that that overtly Western, boot-strappy concept of “independence” is overrated. And quite possibly anti-humanistic in its very demands. But it took cancer for me to really believe it for myself. And a winsome little tote bag.
Humans are not wired to be solitary beings. None of us are entirely self-sufficient. Especially when in crisis. People need people.
No man is an island, as John Donne, the famous 17th century metaphysical poet is quoted as stating in a sermon: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Never before have I felt those words as viscerally as I have since I was diagnosed with cancer. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Shit.
To kick off my cancer treatment I had 16 chemo treatments over the course of 5 months. Four doxorubicin treatments, a chemo medicine colloquially called the “red devil,” and 12 taxol treatments. Each one of them was traumatic in its own way. There is something uniquely disturbing about willingly putting poison into your body in the hopes that it will kill the bad stuff and spare the good stuff, while likely making your body so weak you may not be able to get out of bed for days in the process. And you’ll lose your hair (eyebrows and eyelashes included- you don’t realize how attached you are to those guys until they’re gone). And maybe your fingernails will turn brittle, and you’ll definitely have some brand of intestinal issue. And possibly mouth sores. And your brain will likely not feel fully-functioning for a while. And the exhaustion and body aches are debilitating.
It is a lot. And that was just the chemo. There were surgeries and radiation and endless lab work and doctors appointments; I’m still in the throes of it. But enough about the cancer treatment- my point about the shittiness of it all is that it may not have been bearable or feasible at all without my people. At the very center of my circle of people, I had my husband and family and friends to drive me to chemo and sit with me and take care of my children. I had friends to bring meals for my family and send cards and texts to say they were thinking of me and to take my kids to do fun things so they didn’t have to spend yet another weekend at home knowing their mom was literally in bed for the third day in a row.
One layer outside of my inner circle of family and friends are the nurses and doctors and others working in the chemo center and oncologist’s office. I have a whole epic poem I am writing about my chemo nurses, but in this space let me just say that those people are friggin’ angels on earth, for real. The aura of sickness and sometimes death that the people receiving treatment in chemo wards inhabit is palpable and the nurses there are as patient and kind and no-nonsense and efficient and wonderful as I have ever encountered. I stopped in to see my nurses a few weeks post-chemo and as I approached their area I teared up. As I spoke to them, the words “I miss you all” tumbled out of my mouth and I felt weird and dumb having said this to a group of people who I technically barely knew and who had pumped poison into my body for 5 months on order of a doctor because there was literally not another way to eradicate my body of tumors trying to kill me, not because they had elected to be my friends. But somehow, they had kind of become that. I laughed it off, but I did (and do) truly miss them. I had created a trauma bond with my chemo nurses.
Nothing bonds people like grief and trauma. That’s why grief groups and survivor’s groups and all kinds of groups aimed at supporting people who have been through terrible things exist–we need support from other people. And what better people to support you than others who truly understand because they’ve been through it too?
Trauma is a tricky bitch. No one wishes for it. But it teaches lessons. It creates bonds. And reminds you for whom the bell tolls. And it’s all of us, all at once.