“Fake it till you make it.”
I thought of this adage when I took a friend who had never been backpacking into the wilderness years ago. We encountered a stream crossing that involved balancing on a log high above the roiling waters below. I was terrified, but I never let on. My confidence was key in helping my friend safely across. It also helped me become as light-hearted as I had pretended to be.
Three years ago a cancer diagnosis thrust me again into the territory of needing to go on despite my fear. I wanted to lead everyone who cared about and depended on me, especially my children, through the treacherous waters without raising undue alarm that I’d go under, taking them with me. My darkest feelings were confined to my journal, my therapist, my husband, and a couple of trusted friends. For public consumption, I presented a sunnier side, writing breezy blog posts about wigs and Chinese medicine, stressing my gratitude and good fortune. It wasn’t a stretch: I was tolerating chemotherapy well, and felt truly lucky about early detection, great health insurance, an excellent prognosis, and lots of support.
The plaudits poured in.
“You’re so strong!” I was told all the time. “You’ll be fine because of your positive attitude.”
The implication that it would be my fault if things didn’t turn out fine always brought me up short. But being strong for others helped me be strong. Inspiring others kept their and my own spirits from flagging. I loved and needed the admiration.
I also hated it. For what if my spirits sagged? If I expressed too much doubt and fear, would I be letting down my fan base?
More important, would people desert me?
No one means to withdraw, but it happens: the involuntary recoil, the averted gaze, not knowing what to say, so saying nothing. I couldn’t bear the burden of people’s fear and helplessness. I couldn’t bear my own. So I tried not to add to it. Besides, who doesn’t want to flee the quicksand of negativity? Emphasizing the positive truth, even if it wasn’t the whole truth, was an act of self-preservation.
Only much later, long after treatment had ended and I knew I was fine, could I fully let in the darker side. It reminded me of the time years ago when I tripped and fell carrying my newborn daughter, asleep in her car seat. The seat, with Ally in it, landed hard on the concrete walkway. Fortunately, it remained upright, my baby safe and unperturbed.
“Oh, thank God,” I’d silently gasped, brushing myself off, scooping up Ally in her car seat, and continuing on, barely registering the close call.
It was only later that I could allow in the terror, all the What ifs? Ally is 24 now, and I am still overcome with dread whenever I think back to that moment.
Cancer is never over in a moment. Even when it’s gone, the possibility of its return menaces. Of course I celebrated leaving treatment behind. Yet the more chemotherapy’s protective shield of poison withdrew from my body and faded into the past, the more vulnerable I felt.
As previously disavowed feelings of fear and sadness bubbled up to the surface recently, I happened to tune into a TED Radio Hour about fighting cancer. A hospital chaplain who herself had gone through the ordeal stressed that only well after treatment has ended can survivors even begin to process their cancer experience.
Finally! Someone willing to challenge the platitudes about looking forward, not backward, the claptrap about cancer’s gifts. I listened eagerly as the chaplain described meeting with a woman a year after the latter had been declared cancer-free.
Revealing the suffering and fear she’d repressed during treatment, the woman remarks, “I felt like I was crucified on the cross.”
I waited expectantly for the chaplain to enlighten the TED audience about the isolation of cancer; the need to express what it’s really like; how crucial it is to listen to what’s hard to hear. Instead, the chaplain recounts what she said to the woman:
“Get down off your cross.”
My worst fears were confirmed: Fake it till you make it, or you may find yourself having to make your way alone.
What’s your experience with the pull to be positive? Upsides and downsides? What’s your best (or worst) “Fake it till you make it” story?