How do I stop making my mother's cancer scare about me?

Nothing has happened *to* me.  I want to stop falling apart when everyone else seems able to keep calm and carry on.

Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly yell at people to either stop dating someone or ask their crush out or to go through their grief. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency. 


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How do I stop making my mother's cancer scare about me?

Last winter, two of uncles on my mother's side of the family died suddenly, within three months of each other. They were both in their early 60s and I wasn't close to either but it sent me into a spiral of anxiety about my own parents. Crying my self to sleep at the thought of drafting their eulogies, that kind of thing. It got to the point where it was affecting my work, so I started therapy and it went great for eight weeks. And then March happened and I lost my job anyway and moved home.

I never told my parents I was in therapy so I didn't feel comfortable doing remote sessions at home. So I stopped going. 

My mother responded to the deaths by getting lots of check ups which helped my anxiety somewhat. And then they revealed pre-cancerous cells. She's having a biopsy next week and a mastectomy in January. She's very pragmatic about it and doesn't like to talk about it because we both start crying and she doesn't see the point in crying because it has to be done.

I feel like I'm falling apart. I haven't seen any of my friends irl since March and I don't want to drop this on them over text. I feel so lonely and scared and guilty and like my worst nightmare is coming true. I feel so selfish because I just want everything to stop. I feel like I kind of disappeared inside myself over the summer and after starting a new job recently I was excited to start Feeling Like A Real Person Again and now this.

I want to see my friends again, I want to be distracted and have fun. I want to stop being afraid of my body and genetics. I want someone to hug me and tell me it will be OK, I want to not need that because there's a global pandemic for Christ's sake and the worst thing that's happened to me is my mother receiving subsidized healthcare in a timely manner. Nothing has happened *to* me.  I want to stop falling apart when everyone else seems able to keep calm and carry on.

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SOPHIA:

Hello you sweet, sweet gem! First of all, I’m so sorry you’re going through this right now. Obviously, there’s no good time to go through family medical hell, but this is a particularly bad year with a dearth of in person love and support. I’m so sorry.

I empathize with you greatly; today—literally as I’m writing this letter—I’m going through a covid scare for my sister who is a school teacher and a major health scare with my stepbrother. It’s awful; it’s shit. I have no words, but I empathize entirely with the amount of fear and anxiety you’re feeling. You are not wrong to feel those things, because often they are (weird, occasionally unhelpful) manifestations of deep, deep love.

That said—and I mean this with all the kindness in the world—your letter made a whole lot of incorrect assumptions. I’m going to list some major ones and then we can talk them through.

  1. I feel so selfish because I just want everything to stop. In literally no way is it selfish of you to want your mother to be healthy. That’s like it being selfish for me to not want a wildfire to burn down my home. It’s normal for you to want this all to go well and be over with. Of course you do. You love your mom! The issue isn’t about being selfish AT ALL. The issue is that you’re dealing with anxiety, which sucks for you.

  2. I want to not need that because there's a global pandemic for Christ's sake and the worst thing that's happened to me is my mother receiving subsidized healthcare in a timely manner. My freshman roommate in college, Shelby, whom I love, always used to say “your biggest problem is your biggest problem.” Right now, your anxiety and your mother’s health is your biggest problem. (Both of which are complicated by the pandemic). That doesn’t mean that you think that your mom’s pre-cancerous cells or your anxiety are worse than a pandemic. No one thinks that is what you’re saying. Your issue doesn’t have to be the worst thing on earth for it to feel horrible and scary; this is not a competition. Feeling bad about feeling bad is not helpful (not that you only need to have helpful thoughts or anything).

  3. Nothing has happened *to* me. Yes it has!!! You lost uncles. You have a mother who is dealing with a health issue. You are having bad anxiety. You had to move home during a pandemic. You haven’t been able to see friends in person. You lost a job. These are all real things that happened to you.

  4.  I want to stop falling apart when everyone else seems able to keep calm and carry on. Let me be soooooo clear with you right now: no one else is keeping calm and carrying on right now. Anyone who seems like they’re doing so is either mega-rich with perfect health and no worries or they’re suppressing a lot or you’re not seeing the full picture. We’re all doing our best with a lot of grief and a lot of pain collectively. That looks different for everyone. Some weeks have been easier for some people; for others the whole fucking ten months has been hell. No one is doing great, ok? We’re all fucking sick and sad and tired and bored and lonely and worried and panicked and grieving and over this. It is reasonable for you to want your anxiety (“falling apart” as you’ve dubbed it) to end. But it is not reasonable to assume that everyone else isn’t going through the same shit. You are not alone.

I am a massive worrier. If I had to describe myself in one word it would be “worried.” So please please believe me when I say I know it’s not a matter of “Just stop worrying! Everything will be fine!!!!!!” There is not a switch for anxiety, the same way if your basement floods there is not a switch to remove the water. There are, however, a lot of tactics you can use to turn your anxiety down a bit/get the water out of your basement. And I think you’re at the point where you need to start using every tactic you have access to. I’m not saying you’re in crisis, but—as you are clearly and intimately aware of—you do not want to wait to address a health issue until it’s an emergency. And anxiety is a health issue. Just like any other.

Firstly, I most ardently encourage you to (a) tell your parents about therapy and why you went and (b) return to therapy if at all possible*. It does not have to be some big dramatic thing. You can be matter of fact about it; you have an enormous amount of control over how the conversation goes based on what tone you choose to set. You can start with something like, “Mom, Dad, I was going to therapy earlier this year because after Uncle Bob and Uncle Ben died, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety which was affecting me in lots of parts of my life, including work. I’m feeling that again with mom’s diagnosis and I’m going to be starting up again. I just wanted to give you the heads up.” You are NOT asking for their permission. This is not their choice and frankly, it’s not their business. Much like going to get routine health check ups or a mastectomy because it “must be done,” this too must be done. That’s the attitude you lead with. This is routine medical care for anxiety—WHICH IS TRUE, BY THE WAY!!! I’m not making this up as a talking point to win over your parents. It’s just true.

Once you do that, or if therapy is not immediately available for any reason, then it’s time to start finding new tactics to help in the immediate moment that you are experiencing anxiety. I don’t know what these will be for you—you may already! Additionally, what works one time might not work always. But start trying things out. Things people with anxiety frequently cite as helping them include walks or exercising, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, painting or drawing, taking a bath or shower, throwing a ball up and catching it (yes I’m being serious, this makes your brain focus on throwing/catching instead of I’M GOING TO DIE AND EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE). The goal in the moment of anxiety is to distract your brain enough to wind down a bit. It is not, however, for you to put the problem aside forever and never think about it. High anxiety moments are not good for analyzing fear or worry. That’s like asking your brain to make a grocery list when you’ve just broken a leg. Once you’ve gotten your brain from a level 8 or level 10 down to say a level 5 or 6 or so, then comes the real work. (WHAT? THE WORK ISN’T DONE??? No. Sorry, it’s not.)

The real work, at least as I see it, is you unwinding some of this grief and fear that you have in your life in ways that actually help you get through it. Imagine you need to cross a river. A big ass Oregon-Trail-in-a-wagon style river. What you’re doing right now is arriving at the bank of the river, seeing the river, freaking out about the river and then turning around and heading home. That’s a fair response (rivers are hard to cross!!!) but it will NEVER get you across the fucking river. Right now you’ve walked up to your grief and pain and sadness and fear, seen that you have so much grief and pain and sadness and fear and then freaked out about the grief and pain and sadness and fear. And then……….. nothing. You’ve done nothing that might actually help you get through it.

Please let me be clear that you are not meant to get OVER it. There is no bridge option. You are going to have to go through the fucking river. That’s the shit-ass part about all the grief and fear you’re feeling. There’s no shortcut to not feel it. And the longer you feel scared ABOUT it instead of feeling it, the worse it’s going to be when you do finally go through it. (In our river metaphor, this would be the part where every day that you don’t cross the river it rains more and the river gets wider and deeper).

You need to talk to friends about this. You need to talk to your parents about this. I strongly suggest but cannot force you to talk to a therapist about this. This is heavy shit. It is about you. Your mom’s pre-cancerous cells are not about you; you’re right. But the anxiety you’re feeling and the fear you’re feeling are. That doesn’t mean that you need to unload on your mom. But you DO have to unload on someone. You must. You have to let your pain out. You have to experience it. You have to say to yourself honestly, “I’m feeling very scared and worried right now and I need to tell a friend about it.” Or “I’m feeling nervous about the test results and I need a distraction because I know if I think too much about it, I will get stuck in my anxiety.” Or “I’m going to give myself 15 minutes later today to worry about this and think about this, but not until 4pm. Before then, I’m going to keep going on with this project.” You’re allowed to take the reins a bit in your own brain; that’s not cheating.

Label your thoughts and feelings as they come in. Don’t judge yourself for thinking or feeling any of them!!!!!! VERY IMPORTANT!!! Just acknowledge, “Ok, I’m feeling jealous of my friend Natalie because her mom isn’t going through this. I know that that’s not fair or big of me, but it’s true. Ok. I know what that feeling is.” Just because you have a thought or feeling doesn’t mean you need to invite it in your house (brain) and let it live there. A thought or feeling can knock on the door and you can say, “Oh, yes, I see you. No thank you. Thanks for stopping by.” Let’s say your brain would like to give you a worse case scenario (brains love to do this shit!!!!!! Brains are assholes). You can stop yourself and say to yourself, “Ok, I get that you’re worried and trying to prepare me for the worst, but that is not happening yet. I’m going to go make a hot chocolate and spend some time with my mom enjoying her company instead because she is here and she is alive.”

Now, you have to get over the idea that you can’t talk about this with people. You’ve very conveniently (for your anxiety) decided that there is no person you can possibly talk about anything with. This is bullshit and it’s bullshit that is hurting you, so the time is up on that lie. You can—and must—talk to people about this. You can text friends about this, but you can also call them. You can talk with your dad about this, potentially. Or other family members.

Your mom may not be the right person yet to bring up your worries; you don’t want to dump on her and add to any anxiety she may be feeling. (I may be wrong, but I would bet that she’s a person who has taught you to keep feelings inside). I don’t know the circumstances perfectly—you know more than I do about what will help whom—but you also can cry about this with your mom. That’s ok. This is very much worth crying over. It’s ok to grieve and to grieve together. In fact, it’s often necessary. Emotions are not bad things to be conquered, but you also don’t have to let them conquer you.

Take things slowly. Be gentle with yourself. You cannot undo all this anxiety in a day. Talk to people. Explain how you’re feeling. Be open and honest; it will make it easier for people to be open and honest with you. Get therapy if you can. Be gentle with yourself. This is hard.

*Because of the pandemic tons of therapists are doing virtual/remote appointments, perhaps including your previous therapist if you liked them. There are also apps like Talkspace and BetterHelp that provide therapists/counselors. Obviously there are still hurdles like affordability/insurance issues/etc. I’m not implying this is easy; I’m just trying to encourage you to do it.

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