Maybe everyone needs to retreat once in a while, or you don’t know who you are or what you’ve become.
Where’ve I been these many months? I’ve been writing and healing from a mastectomy.
Last summer I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my left breast. Because it was a recurrence and the diagnosis included invasive mammary carcinoma—which means that the cancer was beginning to spread out of my milk ducts into my breast tissue—a mastectomy was recommended.
All caps are not loud enough to communicate how much I DID NOT WANT TO HAVE A MASTECTOMY.
I spent the first six weeks after the diagnosis researching and getting second and third and fourth opinions. I even canceled surgery at the eleventh hour after a holistic doctor raised my hopes with claims that I could not later substantiate.
Finally, full of fear and confusion about how to proceed, I sat on my back porch on a scorching August morning and I posed the following question in my journal:
How can I make a decision about the mastectomy out of love instead of fear?
No sooner had I written this question down than my deep wise writing self fired back an image of my son—he’s 21—in a dark suit standing at my funeral. The image rose from my own depths, and because it came from within me rather than from something “out there,” I trusted it.
I rescheduled surgery.
As horrifying as that image of my son in a dark suit was it gave me a sense of peace moving forward because if I know anything I know this: images that spring from the writing well don’t lie.
My guess is that if you’re reading this you’ve experienced the magic of your own writing. How moving the pen across the page can uncork an image or a memory or a nugget of truth that returns you to yourself and to your own unique way of walking in this world, which is to say your intuitive wisdom and knowing.
As Joan Didion said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
That image of my son at the end of my pen, coupled with my own research, enabled me to make a decision about my health and my body that I did not want to make. It helped me to take charge of my health rather than go along willy-nilly with what the doctors told me to do.
It gave me a say.
And having a say in my own healthcare gave me a sense of power even though the say I had was the last thing I wanted.
The mastectomy was hard. No way around it. It cut way deeper than my breast. It cut straight to the heart of my identity as a female and brought me face to face with past traumas recorded in my body.
I’ve done so much healing off the page and yet here I was once again feeling unsafe and powerless in my own body.
My female body.
During these past months I have asked myself, Will I ever feel safe in my body? Which raised the larger question: Is it possible for any woman who lives in a rape culture to feel safe in her own body? What about those of us—1 in 5—who have been raped?
The body never forgets. Or as Brenda Miller so eloquently puts it in the Prologue of her beautiful essay collection Seasons of the Body, “The body knows a language the mind never fully masters.”
Writing taps us into the language the body knows and brings that language to the page for reflection and healing.
In the weeks before surgery and for weeks afterwards, I wrote in my journal compulsively. Again and again, I found myself writing A mastectomy is not a rape.
Of course a mastectomy is not a rape. But on an emotional level—at the level of feeling powerless to change something unwanted that was happening to my body—it sure as hell felt like one.
I have spent these last many months rediscovering the language of my body and healing both the surface wound of the mastectomy and deeper emotional wounds of the past that the mastectomy brought to the surface along with the grief of losing my breast. In order to do this, I had to retreat for a while as I relearned who I am and who I am becoming.
And I can tell you this: I am becoming one powerful motherfucker who will not back down from trusting the wisdom of her body and saying what she knows.
My friend and Writing Women’s Lives™ student Katherine Stevenson sent me the most compassionate note during this time of retreat. She wrote to say that she was thinking about me and that I didn’t need to write back because, she said, “Sometimes we simply have to tuck in and just be and let the world go by for a bit or longer than a bit.”
Well, it’s been a bit longer than a bit. And you know what? I’m doing okay. The cancer did not spread to my lymph nodes, which means it was contained to my breast, and I have an excellent prognosis for a long and healthy life.
A life I intend to live out loud both on the page and off the page as I continue to be my authentic goofy imperfect loveable savvy wise one-breasted self out in the world.
Wanna join me?
I am looking so forward to reconnecting with you and to hearing about your writing and your own unique “becoming.”
For now, I’ll leave you with this. What is something in your life that you would like clarity about? Pose this question in your journal and then write until your pen leads you to what you already know, a wisdom that no doubt lives in your body, eager for you to deliver it to the light of the page.
I’d love to hear what you discover. If you’re up for sharing, leave a comment below.
Much love and gratitude for your presence in my life and in this community,
I am right there with you as emerge with your story, your rebirthed self, your shining strength. Your phoenix rises and your light shines ever brighter than before. Here’s to a long and lovely life.
Giving thanks for your recovery and healing.
Thank you, Mary, especially for your thought of rebirthing a self. I believe that’s what we are here to do, and writing sure is an exquisite way to do it! Much love, M
This is beautiful and touching. I’m inspired by your courage. Wishing you all love and blessings as you continue your healing journey.
Thank you, Erin. Your words are blessings to me. Much love, M
Marilyn! I woke up thinking about you the other day and am so happy to hear that you took the time you needed to retreat AND that you are back at it – living out loud. Thank you for the beautiful work you do and thank you for taking such exquisite care of you. Sending love and healing light as you journey on. xoxoxo love, Anna
Anna! I was thinking of you THIS MORNING! Love how connected we are across time and space. That must be your heart magic at work :). Thank you so much for your note. Much love to you and Kathleen, M
Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your story.
Hi, Kathy. Thank you for your encouragement and for the reminder that vulnerability is the way of the story. xo, M
Marilyn, Your writing certainly has not dimmed after the mastectomy retreat and is brighter and more compelling than ever. And yes, you are one powerful audaciously brave motherfucker!! Thank you for sharing your journey and being your wonderful, insightful writerly self!! Big warm girlfriend hugs! Lisa
Hee! You cussed! Thank you, Lisa! Big warm girlfriend hugs right backatcha!Love love, M
Marilyn, Thank you for for sharing your powerful, inspiring story. I wish you all the best in your healing and recovery! -Keri
Thank you so much, Keri. I really appreciate your taking the time to leave me this comment!
Dear Marilyn, so good to read your words. The Body Keeps Score is a book written by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The science community is now catching up with what we’ve known for ages, that our traumas take up residence in our bodies. Thank you for sending me back again to Brenda Miller! Glad you’re back and writing like a motherfucker. Xoxo Ginny
Thanks so much for the book recommendation, Ginny. The body is so intelligent–and I’ve heard it said that it is our first level of consciousness when we come into the world. Makes perfect sense to me. I also appreciate the way you say, “our traumas take up residence in our bodies,” suggesting the body as the home. The body as home is emerging as a metaphor in my current writings on the mastectomy experience. Much love to you, writer friend, M
So good to read this post from you, Marilyn. Your strength and renewed vitality shine through!
Thank you so much Marsha. Hoping to see you at River Teeth! xo, M
Dear Marilyn, I am thrilled that you are back! To retreat after what you have been through was so essential! We usually don’t process until after the chemo, surgery or radiation is over. Like a soldier returning from war, we need that time to answer the question, “WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST GO THROUGH?!”
Yay you for doing the work!
Hi, Peggy. Ah, your comment goes straight to my heart, the way you KNOW the importance of taking time to process what our bodies go through, and you acknowledgement that it is indeed work. Than you for that! Big love back at you, M