Imperfection

It’s not that anyone attains perfection, but after living with ourselves our entire lives, we learn what to expect. We know our highest levels of performance, our areas of strengths and unique gifts. We pride ourselves in these attributes and strive to be the best we can.

Then debilitating illness strikes. We’re not who we were. A lesser version of ourselves has abducted our bodies and settled in like it owns the place.

We wait to recover. Get back to normal.

But what if we don’t?

What if some parts never heal? What if they just are … who we are now?

Cancer left dents in the package that is me. Even after much healing, the fracture lines of treatment stare back at me. They taunt and heckle. My body flashes daily reminders like annoying pop-ups bearing unwanted messages.

The hardest part of recovering from cancer is accepting those parts that have not recovered. If the brain fog has dissipated over time and the memory improved, it still has not made a full comeback. Same goes for the energy and stamina. I won’t mention the peripheral nerve damage, headaches, lymphedema or the cosmetic stuff, such as thin hair and sparse eyelashes. Me complain? I’m alive, yes?

I’m learning to live with these things, but I will never like them. I don’t know if I can mentally incorporate them into my image of who I am now. They feel like part of something outside myself that, unfortunately, attached itself to my body. Like a parasite. A foreign invader I’d like to extricate from the real me, if only I knew how.

My mother used to joke about the other seniors who’d make statements like, “I used to be 5’11″,” or other similar remarks about the bodies they used to have. One day my mother, all 5’1″ of her, said, “I used to be six feet four inches.” Everyone scoffed and told her she was full of it, but she made her point about how foolish the others sounded to her.

Like those who shrink in height, gain weight or experience a decline in vision, we bemoan the loss of the person we used to be. Our identities are indelibly entwined with our former concepts of self.

Unlike that which affects appearance only, cancer leftovers often interfere with enjoyment of life. Although finished with treatment, the struggle continues, even if not at the same level.

I want to shout, Hey! This is not the real me! See who I used to be? Remember her?

When you’re NED, you tend not to complain, or if you do, you do so quietly. After all, we’re alive. And so grateful, we say. And we are. Still, survivor’s guilt trips us up and keeps us from complaining too much or too loudly, especially when we see our metastatic sisters who suffer so deeply. On the opposite end of the spectrum are family and friends who can’t possibly understand why we still struggle. Surely we’re just fine. Isn’t our regrown hair evidence?

Thank you, that’s very nice that I appear fine but … am I the only one who sees the aliens who’ve invaded my body?  Of course, those who are close can see and often admit that, yes, cancer has taken a toll.

I detest the term “new normal” because I don’t regard these things as normal. Sweet euphemisms fail to comfort when struggling through the present day-to-day.

It’s not that I have illusions of perfection. Perfectionism is an endless quest taken by those who shun mediocrity. While high aspirations are admirable, the quest is misguided. I know because I’m guilty of countless attempts. Perfect doesn’t exist. It’s just that after the loss and diminished function that occurs after a serious illness or injury, we’re slapped in the face rather abruptly with new imperfections.

I recently listened to Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song, “Anthem,” during which I cried deep healing tears. A cathartic moment, it encouraged me to let go of visions of who I was and to embrace all I am. The beauty of imperfection is the awkward, gawky way that light shines through unexpected places, like how a flower manages to grow and push up through the cracks of concrete. So resilient, its beauty stands out, indeed is striking, against its unlikely surroundings. And here’s a euphemism that I do embrace: reinvention. I’m all for it.

Below are some of the beautiful lyrics and a youtube of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

YouTube Preview Image

Comments

15 Responses, Leave a Reply
  1. Rae Johnson
    08 January 2014, 12:41 pm

    I can understand your comment on what the normal is for those of us still here after our cancer journeys. If the light that comes through the crack is sensed, we can accept what we’ve been through, and recognize our new normal. I don’t care for surgeries and the treatments that have happened to my body over the 26 years of primaries and recurrences, but I have acknowledged them so I know what I have learned and I must do. It takes time, I know, and I wish you wellness. Thanks for the lovely essay and song.

  2. Eileen
    08 January 2014, 12:58 pm

    Rae, I love your comment, “If the light that comes through the crack is sensed, we can accept what we’ve been through…” It carries weight coming from you after 26 years of this stuff! I also wish you wellness. Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. Lisa DeFerrari
    09 January 2014, 6:07 am

    Wonderful insights, Eileen. I don’t think it’s really perfectionism to want to be one’s fully functioning self. Yet, people are amazingly resilient and it can be inspiring to see that. Great post.

  4. Eileen
    09 January 2014, 2:43 pm

    Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I agree that it’s a good thing to aspire toward your best. I’m often pleasantly surprised at how resilient people are, including myself. I think perfectionism is a problem only when we can’t accept non-reversible changes or when we try to reach past the glass ceiling. Appreciate your comments.

  5. karen sutherland
    09 January 2014, 7:35 pm

    dear Eileen,

    what an insightful post about subjects that so many of us grapple with. I love that you embrace “re-invention”; in fact that concept was what Hugh and I lived, one that provided the hope of unending possibilities, a way to put our own stamp of what it meant to live life well and fully. I think “new normal” is a term that smacks of cold and clinical, that infers that there always needs to be a reference to our old lives, the ones that are gone and never coming back. reinvention takes us forward. I decided I need to re-incorporate that back into my life, both as a widow and a 2 cancer patient, because I will never let either of those things define me. my other words to be my guide posts are resilience and grace. I think re-invention will be the hardest – but I also think it’s the most important. life – it ain’t easy.

    thank you so much for posting the hauntingly beautiful, “anthem” by Leonard Cohen. your words, ” the beauty of imperfection is the awkward, gawky way that light shines through unexpected places…” is perfection itself! you are such a gifted wordsmith – and I am thrilled for you to have your writing mojo back again.

    much love and light,

    Karen XOXOX

  6. Eileen
    09 January 2014, 8:51 pm

    Karen, thank you for such kind and encouraging words. You’re a gem and an example of one who flowers through the cracks of life. Keep shining! xoxo

  7. Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC)
    09 January 2014, 10:50 pm

    I once looked up the definition of perfect and found it meant
    - Lacking nothing essential to the whole: complete of its nature or kind.
    - Being in a state of undiminished or highest excellence: FLAWLESS
    Pretty high expectations to put on ourselves! Perfectionism is merely an illusion because if it were a reality then it actually wouldn’t be perfect; this is what makes it such an insane desire to achieve something that is not real. It is basically a never-ending quest that is often media-driven and extremely unhealthy.
    Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that we can only feel whole after we’ve done everything to ours or society’s unrealistic level of perfection. So we strive to have the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect job. Cancer can give us a break from having to be perfect in this way (although sometimes we feel a need to transfer these expectations to being the perfect cancer patient) but then what happens when all treatment is over? Do we go back to being the perfect wife, mother and employee again? Sometimes we put such realistic expectations on ourselves (and others) to be a certain way and end up damaging ourselves (and loved ones) in the process. The pursuit of perfectionism can become an obsession that sometimes leads to depression and psychological distress.

  8. Eileen
    09 January 2014, 11:53 pm

    Marie, great points. I love your comment, “Cancer can give us a break from having to be perfect in this way (although sometimes we feel a need to transfer these expectations to being the perfect cancer patient).” Isn’t that the truth! We tell ourselves to be positive and strong, that we’re invincible to the rigors of treatment. No wonder we get depressed with that kind of pressure. A little compassion toward our own selves would be a healthier focus.

  9. Pinkunderbelly
    12 January 2014, 7:14 am

    Lovely! I too have many dents thanks to cancer, and would love to begin embracing them rather than fighting them. The idea of the light coming through the cracks may just help me do so.

  10. Elizabeth MacKenzie
    12 January 2014, 11:32 am

    This is lovely, Eileen.

  11. Facing Cancer Together
    13 January 2014, 6:54 am

    Funny how so much of our identity is tied into our physical experiences…but learning to keep ringing despite the cracks, that’s certainly a powerful realization. ~Catherine

  12. Beth Gainer
    13 January 2014, 9:49 am

    Eileen, this is an outstanding post that I can so relate to. As a former perfectionist, who thought I had the perfectly healthy body, I can see those cracks. I regret that I didn’t appreciate my good health then. I loved your post. Thank you. And I agree, there is no “new normal.” What we are experiencing is not normal.

  13. Eileen
    14 January 2014, 10:43 pm

    Nancy, Elizabeth, Catherine and Beth, always appreciate your comments. Thank you!

  14. Nancy's Point
    16 January 2014, 4:04 pm

    Hi Eileen,
    Oh my gosh, this is a timely one for me. I am struggling right now with this very thing. Sometimes I so long for the person I was before cancer. Of course, I’m the same person, but I think you know what I mean. And do you want to know something else? In some ways my health has taken a nose-dive even more after finishing cancer treatment. The AIs have done a real number on me. My weight keeps creeping up. My ability to exercise has been hampered and the neuropathy and the hair… the list goes on and on doesn’t it? Of course, I’m grateful to be alive too, very grateful, but… Anyway, the good things is – in this we are not alone either. I totally hear you! Big hugs! Thanks for writing about this.

  15. Eileen
    16 January 2014, 8:35 pm

    Nancy, yes, it does help to know we’re not alone. Unfortunately, it makes sense that your health would nosedive because 1) you had several doses of poison intravenously dripped into your bloodstream; and 2) in case that wasn’t enough, you were put on drugs that artificially suppress your hormones. I don’t know if any of that saves lives or not, but I’ve a hunch it may shorten them, and certainly takes a stab at the quality of life. It’s no wonder we continue to struggle.

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