On Writing and Healing
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,