My body has been through so much, and I often find myself astonished at how strong it still is. I should be not only content, but very proud of what it can do, yet I find myself at times, feeling like it just isn’t enough. Most days I feel fantastic, and I can accomplish whatever physical task I set out to do. Two years ago I was grateful to just wake up alive, now I take waking up for granted, and feel I must perform some kind of physical feat in the day to be happy in my body.
I left home at 6 am yesterday morning with the intention to get in a hike before the other commitments of the day. It was a beautiful morning with the full moon still shining in the dawn sky as we drove out to Grouse Mountain to do the famous Grouse Grind. “Grinding it” had become a weekly habit before I left for my studies overseas last month. Yesterday was to be my first time going up the mountain in a month and a half; I was excited to get back into the routine. It’s not that the Grouse Grind is a nice hike, it’s actually a congested 3km climb consisting of man-made steps, where Vancouver’s fitness fanatics flock to prove their worth. But, on the positive side, it is a quick and convenient way to get invigorated for the day while surrounded by nature and be rewarded with a view at the top.
I’ve always completed every hike that I’ve set out to do. My body wants to meet challenges when in nature. Nature fuels that sense of aliveness that makes me able to push through tiredness or sore muscles. I’ve never found the same motivation or gotten any sense of achievement from working out in the gym or playing team sports.
Unfortunately, nature’s motivation wasn’t enough yesterday, and for the first time in my life, I had to give up on a hike. I felt queasy, had a headache, and my vision was wonky. Even though I figured that the sensations were probably just unpleasant side effects of the weird detox drink I downed that morning, the possibility that my body was suddenly failing crossed my mind and I became worried. I considered just sitting for a while, to let my stomach settle, then to make another attempt at the mountain to ensure I was ok. But, since time constraints of the morning were an issue, waiting it out wasn’t an option, and neither was trudging on in my current state. I hesitantly made the only reasonable choice, which was to admit that it wasn’t the time to push myself. We were only at the 1/4 mark when I told my companion that I had to turn around. As much as I wanted to keep going, especially since, just minutes earlier, he mentioned that his 60-something-year-old mom does the Grind every other day, I had to admit that I was incapable at that moment.
If I have learned anything over the last few years, it is how to listen to my body. Even though my brain was telling me that I’ve done the hike many times before, that it shouldn’t be a big deal, my body was saying otherwise, and that is all that mattered. Despite this knowing, when the word “disappointment” came out, I shrank. I felt such shame at the moment, and not just shame because I couldn’t do the hike that day, but also my shame around having cancer. Although the incident was unrelated to my illness, I was going to my cancer treatment after the hike, so my mind made a connection between the failure my body had at that moment and the biggest failure it has experienced to date.
When I was diagnosed, many feelings arose, but more dominant than fear or concern was shame. I was disappointed at myself for getting sick, for not being strong enough. I felt that all my efforts to be healthy – eating well, doing yoga, and staying active, were just not enough and that something else must be intrinsically wrong with me. I had a cleaner lifestyle than most people I knew, yet I was the one who got sick, so if my lifestyle was “right” then what about me was “wrong”?
Later that morning, I was reading Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly” I had, very timely, reached the part of the book where she talks about shame. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”. Everyone feels this throughout life, but in my years with cancer, I have been able to “prove” to myself, that it was not just a feeling, but a fact. This seemed especially true in the beginning when many people in my life disconnected from me due to the uncomfortable reality of my situation. Feeling rejected and like I wasn’t worth the effort it may take people to sit through their discomfort, I closed myself off even more; I shut out others who were trying to stay close because I didn’t trust they were sincere.
During a retreat with the Callanish Society last week, another participant mentioned how she was surprised that someone wanted to be in a relationship with her, as cancer isn’t really a “selling point.” I laughed, relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that way. After my long-term boyfriend had left because of the cancer scenario, I didn’t feel like anyone would ever want to be with me again. I thought the illness made me flawed and unworthy. However, this year, after two years of solitude, I decide to start dating again. Putting myself out there again was extremely difficult and especially scary. However, I found that not only are there people who want to get to know me despite my challenges but they also see the challenges I have gone through as strengths.
And, even though I too can see that I am better off because of the opportunities for growth that life has given me, those moments of feeling inadequate and unfit for connection sneak up on me. These moments tend to come when I feel that my body has “failed” me. For some reason, I equate my worthiness of connection with the strength of my physical state. It may be because of the instant disconnections that happened as a result of my diagnosis, and maybe because it wasn’t until I started feeling better physically that I felt able to start connecting with others again. Whatever the case, I have to recognize my reasonings as bullshit. Physical resilience inevitably fades, I like to believe that it is the resilience of the spirit that ultimately matters.
We are all worthy of connection, regardless of our ability to perform in the world. No one is at their best 100% of the time, so I don’t know why we feel shame for being human. I’m sure that living in a society where we are valued for what we do, not who we are, doesn’t help. And that doing isn’t enough, we have to do what we do perfectly. The world is a bit unkind at times, so we need to at least learn to be kind with ourselves. Self-compassion is a long trek, but at least I know if I can’t make it up the Grind, there is always another path I can take.