Friday, April 26, 2013


Survivor.  It is a word I have heard a lot of lately.   A psychic telling me I am a survivor.  And not only that, but that I should teach others how to be survivors.  I just received an invitation to a luncheon for breast cancer survivors.  And the reporting of the Boston bombings and other recent horrific events  - how many dead, how many survivors.

Each time I hear it, I think about that word. Survivor.

The dictionary defines to survive as:

1. to remain alive or in existence, live on
2. to continue to function or prosper

I wonder.

I think about those runners and how much dedication and passion it must take to be eligible to run the Boston marathon.   And then, in a split second, they lost their legs.  Yes, they will survive.  Their bodies will live on.  Some will fade into depression but many will probably get prosthetics and work tortuously hard to be able to run again, such is their passion.  Yet something very important has died.   This I know.

National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship pioneered the definition of survivor as being any person diagnosed with cancer, from the time of initial diagnosis until his or her death. Among health professionals, views differ as to when a person with cancer becomes a survivor. Many consider a person to be a survivor from the moment of diagnosis; in recent years, this view has become increasingly prevalent. Some, however, think that a person with a cancer diagnosis cannot be considered a survivor until he or she completes initial treatment. Others believe a person with cancer can be considered a survivor if he or she lives 5 years beyond diagnosis. Still others believe survivorship begins at some other point after diagnosis or treatment.  A considerable number of people with a cancer history maintain that they will have survived cancer if they die from another cause.*

Recent feminist culture has shifted labeling people who have experienced rape from rape victim to rape survivor.  The definition and meaning of survivor seems to carry more empowerment then the word victim.   Yet I don’t personally know one person who has experienced rape who would define themselves as a survivor.   Or empowered.   Too much of the soul has died.

The word survivor seems to emphasize merely being alive after diagnosis/trauma.  Is that enough?  To merely be alive?   What about the quality of life?  There is a big difference between surviving and thriving.  This I know too.

I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000.  After five years I did consider myself a survivor. Physically I felt great and had no limitations.   But then the cancer returned and brought me back to reality.  I am now a year out from my last diagnosis.   Most of me survived, but my breasts did not.   There have also been many physical and emotional issues that I have not overcome.   Survivor?  I guess time will tell.  Thriver?  I’m working on it.

I would agree that my body survived the violence that occurred around my rape.   That was a very painful struggle and I have recuperated from my physical injuries for the most part.   I survived it.  Daphne did not.  Decades later it is still a struggle for me.

I do not consider myself a rape survivor.  Yes, I have moved on.  I have made a very nice life for myself and have been able to enjoy an intimate relationship.  I function relatively well in most situations.    But I know what I have lost.   So much of the person I was did not survive and is gone to me forever.   I mourn that. Even after years of therapy, I sometimes don’t recognize myself in the mirror.  I do not feel safe anywhere other than my own home and often decline other opportunities.  I continue to put too much energy into avoiding things that are triggers thereby allowing my world to be smaller.    I have lost relationships I care about because of my boundary/safety/trust issues.  Each time I experience a new death.   And in each instance I see where I lose and the rapists win.  And it brings a new guilt and shame to me.   Wash, rinse, repeat.

So, I come back to this idea of teaching people how to survive.   I like the idea of it, I really do.  But can I really teach someone how to be a survivor when I don't even consider myself a survivor?   I don’t know. Some basic survival skills maybe.  I could certainly share some strategies I've learned to deal with anxiety and fear.   I have come a long way on that journey, although there will always be more to conquer.

More accurately, I think, can I help someone to live as well as possible, despite the limitations and disability and loss?   Maybe.  A little.  I am still learning myself.  Everyday.  I can certainly share those things that have gotten me through difficult times.  I can talk about those things that connect me with powers greater than myself.   How I try to feed my wounded soul daily.  How I try to keep myself pointed in the direction I want to be going.  How I will always be hopeful that love wins.

Still, learning to live after trauma is a very personal journey, I think.  What connects with me, will not connect with others.   And so I think the best I can do is to share my stories and listen to other folks stories.   Here and in other support groups.   And hopefully, we will all learn to thrive -  from each other, and because of each other - despite our losses.  

*.  SOURCE: President’s Cancer Panel (2004b).


  1. My sister-in-law swears it was because you made her laugh that she was able to face her double mastectomy. You gave her the confidence she needed to face her fears.

    Your stories help others. Your grace in spite of everything you have experienced shines for other people. You are a blessing 8thday. Truly.

  2. People like to call other people survivors because it makes them feel better because then they don't have to see the pain. Evryone will cheer the runner who gets back up but they don't see the daily nightmares and pain and fear. Everybody wants a happy ending.

  3. I think the fact that you get up every day, looking to live another day in the best way you can at the moment, qualifies you as a survivor. You have not given up.

    Thriving is another conversation all together.

    I dont think we can teach others how to survive. I had a dear friend who survived for many years. She was the victim of horrible, multiple kinds of abuse from the time she was an infant till her teen years. She blocked it for many years (a form of survival) and then she coped with the remembering and continued to survive. I do not believe she ever thrived.
    She did not intend to teach others how to survive or thrive. But her example is one that I draw on when I feel most hopeless. Her courage, her grace, her stubborn determination to continue to strive.

    Your courage and grace are the same kind of example. Maybe not intentional, but of a great blessing to those who choose to learn from you.

    Anon - your pain is palpable. Sending you light.

  4. I agree with Sue and Cris. You teach by example with your humor and how you live your life now. Maybe you can't teach me how to survive but you have taught me to have hope and that keeps me going, one day at a time.

    I do not identify as a survivor. I don't identify as a thriver either. Everyday is a struggle and I think it always will be.

  5. I do identify as a survivor. And you do teach people to survive.

    Like Chris's friend, I have an extensive history of bad stuff.

    I have to say, there are times when, if there are piles of bad things going on, I can slip in to PTSD around everything. Especially if I am pushed there by something abusive happening - emotionally abusive will push me in to it sometimes. It's a well worn track and it's where I go. Hello PTSD, my old friend and nemesis.

    But, for the most part, I have had a decent life. And, although (sorry), I've had some really difficult things happening in the last year or so, it doesn't mean that that's it. It isn't.

    There's a place past it. I've lived in that lovely place for most of the last 20 years.(After a long time of being in the middle of my stuff.) So the last few years have been challenging.(And that was primarily relationship challenging. Rather than survivor challenging. Survivor challenging has only been since December and now I'm just dealing with the PTSD. Which will back off once the part of me that worries about safety is convinced I'm safe. Since that's what it's for.)

    I think part of what happens, when you get to a certain point with this stuff, is that you know what's freaking you out is the past. It isn't happening now. It's back there. It sucks and it's wrong and people betrayed trusts and worse. But it happened then.

    Sometimes it's near impossible to remember that, though. And that's when you look to other people who are remembering that, who are in a better place with their shit than you are with yours at the moment. And then, when you're in that good place, someone else can see you. And we help each other keep on in that way.

    So yeah. I'll take survivor. And I think part of that definition is riding the wave. Sometimes things are great and being a survivor doesn't impact me at all, with the exception that I think I'm a gentler person because of it. (Although there are much better ways to get that quality, admittedly.) Sometimes I'm triggered and having to deal with my vast array of shit in the past.

    The good news is the longer I do this, the more I know what's going on. The good news is there are other people out there talking about it too. And I so keep riding the wave. Grateful I'm not alone.

    E (not e)

  6. "Life breaks everyone, and some become strongest at the broken places." --ernest hemingway