This is not a post about breast cancer survivor guilt. It’s about good old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill guilt. I seem to be exceptionally good at it and if you are too, maybe I can serve as a teachable moment.
I had a bit of a health scare last month. I got called back for a mammogram and ultrasound because the radiologist thought she saw something on my regular mammogram. She didn’t, although I have to go back in six months as a precaution.
This is where the guilt comes in. I was trying to brace myself for what would happen if I had to start the cancer treatment cycle all over again (I opted for a single mastectomy for DCIS five years ago). One of the first things that popped into my head was, “Well, if I’m going through treatment again I certainly won’t have time for school.” That’s when I finally bought a clue and realized that I didn’t want to go back to school. Once again, the specter of cancer became a kind of tipping point.
I should pause to explain. Last year I decided I wanted to get serious about getting better at writing poetry, and was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Nebraska. It’s a low-residency program, meaning you attend residency, an intense “boot camp” of lectures and workshops, for 10 days and then study independently with a mentor for the rest of the semester. I loved residency last summer but cramming a 12-hour course load on top of a fairly demanding full-time job last fall was grueling. I decided to skip the spring semester but had every intention of going back next month for this year’s fall semester.
Yet I kept ignoring clues like the stressful dreams I was starting to have again, and other ways my tamped-down feelings started bubbling up. I went to a poetry reading in January, hosted by one of our program mentors. He said he hoped he’d see me in July and I said I would be there. After the reading as the hosts said goodbye at the door, I practically snapped at him, saying again, “I will be there in July!” A little defensive, are we? Who was I trying to convince?
It reminded me of when I was first diagnosed and trying to figure out my treatment options. I was planning a trip back to North Dakota to attend my dad’s graveside service in May. (I had attended his funeral in February, and as you might imagine, North Dakota is not big on graveside services at that time of year.) I kept thinking I would just work my trip back home into my suddenly filled appointment book. I was wrong. One oncologist had just recommended a mastectomy, which seemed pretty drastic, and I was trying to get into see a second oncologist. My emotions were churning so much that putting this consult on hold wasn’t the best idea. But because I felt like I had no choice, I kept saying “I’m fine, I’m fine, we have to go.” I was following the iron law of self-induced obligation and guilt.
The tipping point finally came when my husband Bruce and I were having lunch at a restaurant and I burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere. He just looked at me and said, “You’re not ready for prime time.” And I wasn’t. I cancelled the trip. My brother and the rest of my family understood.
Now it’s deja vu all over again. I went from zero to obligation in 60 seconds, as if once I signed up for my MFA I was on deadline. I finally bought a clue and realized I have a choice. I choose to complete my MFA after I retire, instead of trying to do it in “my spare time” and turning something that is a source of great joy into a source of guilt and stress.
I felt guilty when I wasn’t putting enough time into my work, and I felt equally guilty when I decided to postpone getting my MFA. I dithered before telling my mentor, the program director and the friends I made last summer. But like my family five years ago, they supported and respected my decision.
So this basically proves I have all the self-awareness of a turnip and have learned nothing in five years. Well, I guess I have learned to read the clues a little better. The moral of this story, if there is one, is that if you’re like me and have an overdeveloped sense of guilt, stop for a minute when those guilt feelings start piling up. Read the clues in your own behavior like you would for anyone else. You might find there’s something you’re not admitting to yourself. Admit it, and trust your gut.