Monday, October 21, 2013

My Shell Story

I have never put this story in writing though I have shared it verbally many times as the "look how crazy I was"  funny antidote.  It took me years of self-realization to actually appreciate the awesome significance of it.  

Preparing to share brings back some very unsettling feelings about that time in my life.  I take a few deep breaths as I begin to write.  First, allow me to paint a picture for you of what my situation looked like back 2005. 

By 2005, I had moved twice in the same town, renting always, maintaining 3-4 bedrooms in order to give my children some sense of stability.   Not to mention a place for all their stuff!   My children were 23, 21,19 years old at the time..  College, college, college.  One living home and going to college and working.  I was divorced - out 5 years by that time.  Since I was self-employed and my ex-husband was.....( you can fill in the blank) I received no alimony and no child support after my children turned 18.   Just so you know, all three of my children worked and supported themselves while in school.  They knew I couldn't afford extras and never asked me for money even though if I had any extra it went to them.

I had my same business, the lactation center which I was struggling to keep open.  I was working an additional job
 (30 hrs/wk) in an emergency center in order to get health benefits for me & my kids.  So my typical week would look like this: work  at my lactation center 9-5 M-Sat.  After close at 5pm, go directly to my second job the ER and work until 11 or 12.  Then I worked all day in ER on Sunday.  Yes, I was exhausted!
I was involved in a 3 yr. relationship with someone who was separated, not yet divorced, he had 2 children, one of whom lived with him.  When I first started dating him, my sister said, "He's basically interviewing for a wife and a mother for his kids." At the time this seemed OK since I was looking for someone to take care of me and my kids as well.

He took me to Paris & Germany the prior fall because he had a business trip.  During our stay in Paris, he surprised me with an engagement ring.  (mind you he wasn't divorced yet)  Very romantically done, we were on a boat ride at night on the Seine. The boat stopped to drop us off right at the Eiffel Tower, everyone gets off and he asked me to marry him  alone on the boat.  I shoved it on my finger ( it was too small) while I was thinking I didn't like the setting much and would never have picked out this ring.  So when I got home from the trip, people said, "What that on your finger?'  I would say, " Oh yeah, I guess I'm engaged."  - Ha!

I know I sound like a bitch but this guy was constantly buying stuff (big dollar store guy)) and planning things and doing stuff without my input at all. Being a saleman and CEO, he was tenacious to say the least. He was a non-stop, busy person, hyperactive, constantly wanting to eat and do things.  He always wanting of my time which of course I had little time to spare.  It was like having another teenager!  But his very needy, very smothering and controlling ways looked like wonderful love to everyone else.  His son who was a freshman in high school at the time, never saw his mother so I was his "replacement" mother (just what i needed another child) His son was with us all the time.  Again, I know that sounds harsh but frankly I feel no emotion now as I write just the truth.

So the picture: a stressed out, broke, exhausted mother of three, engaged to the wrong person.  And then what happens?  I get breast cancer.  That's right, at 46 years old, I was staring at a pathology report that read, ductal carcinoma.  This time the diagnosis was about me ,not a family member, not a friend, not a patient..

My first thought was for my children.  At least, they were grown and not dependent on me for their day-to-day care anymore- they would be OK without me.  My poor parents. Surely, was lucky to be in a dedicated relationship - some people are alone.  I know it sounds morbid but for me My fiance (wow, that's is scary) jumped into this new situation like he was tackling a quarterback.  Me, being the quarterback.  He was all over it and all his anxiety came with it.  His father had just died the year before and he was still reeling from that.  Lots of baggage from his marriage and family dysfunction all around.  

I got through the surgery just fine, physically.  Emotionally, I plowed through my life of responsibility and dedication like nothing happened.  I checked off the breast cancer like it was a chore on the list of things to do.  Never looking back, not once. 

As the months go by, my fiance slowly starts to fall apart and our relationship begins disintegrating.  On the outside, he appeared like a concerned lover, the best fiance ever.  He came to all my doctor appointments and was around me constantly.  Which I know took the slack off my children and parents.  But why did I feel like I couldn't breath, like i was being smothered.  I wanted to feel lucky, here I escaped a serious illness in time and people who loved me surrounded me but I was smothering.  I felt like he wouldn't let me "own" my cancer - like it was almost his and not mine.  I was the one with the surgical scars but did I really take the time to process, to feel the impact of those sutures on my life - was I allowed to? or did I not allow myself to.

Well, looking back I can't blame anyone but myself.....I told myself for many years that "he wouldn't let me own it - that's not fair"  when in fact it was me who wouldn't let me own it.  This is where we get to the shell story....

So that summer, 5 months after my bi-lateral mastectomy, my fiance and I rented a house on the beach in Florida for both our families.  This was my first vacation and I looked so forward to it.  

The beach was loaded with the most beautiful shells so I started picking them up.  And I kept picking them up and picking them up.  Before you know it, the entire beach house was full of shells.  The kitchen counter and tables, chairs and such.  I proceeded to sort the hundreds of shells by shape, size and color.  No one was allowed to move or touch the shells.  Then I decide I will make shell crafts for everyone I know.  So I went to Michael's and bought frames, boxes, crosses- anything I can fix a shell onto with a glue gun.

In the moment, I perceived this as being perfectly normal behavior for someone on vacation.  After all, one should be able to do anything they desire and making crafts is creative and healthy.  Maybe I admired them because they were so beautiful and perfect and I felt far from beautiful and perfect at the time.   Maybe it was because they had traveled a rough and tumble journey just like I had.  Maybe it was because I could save them from getting crushed and damaged because I felt crushed and damaged.  Who knows but they attracted me like precious jewels from the Nile.

Everyone there was quite tolerant simply because they loved me.  Several attempts were made to change my mind or curtail my efforts but they were just met with indignation and total resistance.  This was my thing so just let me do it and be grateful for you homemade shell gift!  

I made a ridiculous amount of crafts which I boxed and shipped home to give away.  I was quite proud and excited about my crafty accomplishment.  Then, like with most things I never thought about it again.

It wasn't until years later that I realized how "over-the-top" my behavior really was.  That  if I had done my emotional work, it wouldn't have been necessary to collect practically every shell on the beach, obsessively sort them and make enough crafts to put Michael's out of business!  If I had faced the fear and embraced the vulnerability instead of run from it, I could have enjoyed my vacation like a "normal' person and feeling more at peace with myself others 

 Clear as a bell to me now, I  inconvenience everyone on vacation, neglected them all because I desperately needed to control something.  Why? Because I felt so out of control.  Six months prior to that vacation, things were said to me, written to me, done to me that were very scary and that I had no control over.  My body was sick and damaged as well as my soul.  I had not processed any of it emotionally and so I took it out on the shells.  Those magnificent little shells had no idea they washed up just for me to use as an outlet for my trapped feelings.   These shells were where my grief, fear, anxiety and sadness were glued to.  Like a mosaic, some of my  hopes and dreams as well.

Nope, I never married, we broke up within months of that vacation and thankfully I am cancer free.  I share my story to show off my authenticity and imperfection.  Something I would have hid before and been ashamed of - not anymore I wear those like a badge of courage.  And now when I see shells at the beach I don't pick them up - I just admire their beauty and secretly thank them for the lesson they taught me.   

I have to admit though whenever I see a craft made out of shells I can't help but think- 'I could make that!"