When Cancer Meets the Mother Wound

This feels messy in a way that I’m not certain I can describe. It feels like a tangled ball of barbed wire deep inside my chest. To untangle it from within me will be impossible without indescribable pain, but to leave it there means allowing it to grow and further ensnare me.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer last week. Simply typing that sentence halted my thought process and led me to read it over to myself several times.

My mom has cancer.

The complicated relationship I experience with my mom makes this news carry a polluted burden of feelings. I am scared. I’m scared for the battle that my mom faces. I am scared of the uncertain future that this presents for her. I am scared to lose my mom. I feel powerless. I don’t know what this beast of a disease has planned for her. I am desperately trying to figure out how to help while living far away from her in the midst of a pandemic. I feel a pull to be there to help in any way I can – to be a source of physical and emotional support – to simply be there with her and for her. Yet the obstacles before me are making a difficult situation exponentially more complicated.

The rest of the tangled feelings inside of me represent, among other things, a mix of anger, guilt, hurt, and shame – the complex result of a deep mother wound that exists in my heart. I know those feelings are there because I have felt them with each interaction I’ve had with my mom throughout my life. Yet at this moment I cannot access those feelings. The fear, uncertainty, and concern over this diagnosis and the complex surgery that is fast approaching is all that I can feel. And right now it’s all I want to feel. Untangling the barbed wire will have to wait. Right now I need to help my mom.

Uprooted

Imagine yourself purchasing a plant and bringing it home to be added to your garden. You find the perfect spot. You dig an appropriate sized hole. You even purchase nutrient rich soil to assist in the healthy transfer of your plant to your garden. Then you remove the plant from its container, its tangled roots all tightly wound together. You loosen them slightly and then just as you are ready to place your plant into its new freshly prepared home you instead set it down right beside the hole. How long would your plant survive there, uprooted from its container, lacking nutrients and support, and lying with its healthy moisture rich roots exposed to the sunlight?

I moved to a new state last year, and then I moved to a new community within that state just months before this pandemic tore through our world. The amount of time that lapsed between my family’s move and the upheaval of this pandemic was not nearly enough to feel settled and connected here. Yet the growing disconnection from my previous home was set in motion. I have found myself stuck in limbo – removed from the comfort, connection, and stability of my previous home and simultaneously unable to connect in my new environment.

I am an introvert. My introverted response to the initial guidelines of social distancing almost felt like a gift. Stay away from other humans – check. Stay home if possible – check. I felt I was made for quarantine. Yet even at the beginning of this life altering pandemic I still recognized that while I welcomed the ease of retreating inward this was going to be very harmful for me over time.

It takes me quite a while to open up and connect with others. A history of childhood trauma, combined with a family upbringing of emotional unavailability, as well as my shy introverted personality creates a recipe for my tendency to distrust and keep people at a safe distance. I didn’t allow for deep personal connection in my life. It wasn’t until I began addressing my childhood trauma several years ago that I realized how important close honest relationships are and how critical they are in healing. I began to pay close attention to that and focused on cultivating more meaningful connections in my life. I started showing up in relationship like I never had before. I started connecting on a deeper level that I had never experienced before. It was life changing and soul fulfilling.

Then I moved – away from all of those deep interpersonal connections that I had learned to trust and depend on. I was painfully aware that this move felt different from all of the previous moves I have ventured into in my adult life. I knew that the long length of time that I had spent in my previous community, along with the fact that it was the only home my two children had ever known, layered with the knowledge that I built connections there like I had never done before placed a particularly heavy burden on this move. I knew it was really going to hurt. And it did.

For the first several weeks I focused intently on helping my children settle into new schools and new activities. After the initial stress and excitement of assisting my family in the adjustment of a new community began to wear off, I noticed that a space was created for my own grief. My husband was off adjusting to a new job. My kids were off adapting to new schools. And I was alone with my thoughts each day. I tried to busy myself with projects, volunteering, house hunting, and searching for part time work options. Yet nothing could stop the flood that was coming. Depression. I felt myself withdrawing from everything I cared about. I felt myself putting on this strong capable mask for others and then crumbling to pieces each time I was alone. In an attempt to care for myself I started individual therapy, which both created a life line for myself and also highlighted the sadness I felt from missing the incredibly impactful therapist I had moved away from.

One foot in front of the other. One day at a time. I slowly started to experience brief moments of improvement. My kids were beginning to feel settled. I was starting to get involved in my new community and meeting new people. We found a home to purchase after a lengthy stay in our temporary apartment situation. We finally got to fully unpack our lives and begin to settle into our new home.

And then a pandemic changed everything. Suddenly the very slow progress of meeting new people and beginning to build connections was shut down. I hadn’t yet built the kind of friendships that were equipped to handle this forced disconnection. My new surface friendships felt severed.

Now, as the world begins to slowly reopen and navigate what is to become our new normal, I feel vacant. What am I supposed to return to? I don’t have anyone to rush towards. Instead I am reminded of just how alone I feel and just how far away the ones closest to me feel right now. I feel as though I’ve been uprooted from healing connection and placed into an indefinite holding pattern. How long can one tolerate such a disconnect? How long can one sustain without a viable path towards rebuilding relationship? I ask myself these questions while I continue to sit in limbo, experiencing profound disconnection from others both near and far, all while struggling to resist the urge to retreat further and further within myself.