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 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).