A year ago, a nurse wheeled me down a long hallway toward Jamie after my total thyroidectomy. He sat with me for a bit before my parents came down to check on me. They stood at my bedside smiling and doing most of the talking. I was a bit groggy as I looked at them and whispered, “How big is it?” I knew I shouldn’t really care about my incision, but there was a part of me that did.
My dad moved his pointer finger up to his neck and traced an invisible line as he explained, “It goes from one side of you neck all the way over to the other side.”
What? Across my entire neck? I had thought the damage would be so much smaller.
My mom nudged my dad and gave him the marital death stare. I knew the words she was speaking with her glance. “Pete, come on! Can’t you tone it down a little bit? You don’t have to be completely honest right now.”
Today, one year later, this cut that went from one side of my neck all the way to the other side is barely noticeable. It is a thin white line that has faded over the passing of 365 days.
This scar I carry with me often reminds me of fear and bravery, uncertainty and grace, hardship and love.
It is a physical symbol of the struggle I went through last year. But not all scars are so visible. Quite often, they remain unseen, hidden away far below the surface. I’ve decided these are the hardest scars to carry.
Long before my cancer scare, I was sick and I didn’t even know it. I suspect that sometime after Parker was born, I started a long slow fall into depression. The signs were all there, but I missed every single one of them. I was exhausted. I wasn’t running. I was perpetually irritable and overwhelmed. Mostly, I was numb. I tried to explain things away. Motherhood is just hard, I told myself. This will all get easier. I just need to try harder. I just need to keep looking the part. Keep mothering. Keep pushing on. Keep making dinner. Keep smiling. I became an actress by day as I went through the motions of all I thought I should be doing.
Days and weeks and months and years got harder and harder. I was completely overwhelmed with the demands of my life. I wondered how on earth people got it all done. I napped with the kids nearly every day because exhaustion was a constant companion. I withdrew from the people I love. I was wrought with the guilt of falling short over and over again and began to harness a growing resentment toward the people I love most.
I was working so incredibly hard to survive, to make it through each passing day. It felt like I had to give twice the effort to accomplish merely half of a task. I could sense that I was a shell of my old self, but I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling. Where was the person I used to be? I wrote her off as having disappeared after the kids were born. Apparently, she had the good sense to get out of town and escape the mayhem that surrounded me.
It turns out, the old “me” was in there all along. She was waiting patiently for the numbness to fall away, for me to walk back into the light.
This summer, I got lucky and stumbled my way out of the darkness.
It was an ordinary Saturday morning. We had plans to meet an old family friend at Barnes and Noble, and so Jamie and I worked through the process of getting clean clothes on everyone so we could look mostly civilized when we arrived.
As my feet trod down the stairs, I glanced at the clock and realized we were all ready to go and it was quite early in the day. The sun was shining and blue skies shown through our finger smudged windows. Parker sat in front of the storm door with his right leg bent before him as he worked to fit his small foot into the correct shoe. I felt something odd stir within me. It rose up in my chest. It was light. It was something I had not felt in a very very long time. It was the faintest seed of joy.
“Maybe I’m getting better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe everything is going to be OK.”
I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and walked back into the kitchen. I opened the cabinet and pulled out the medication I’d been prescribed four weeks earlier as I sat before a doctor sharing details I’d hoped to spare everyone.
My palm pushed down on the white top and twisted the cap off. One small pill fell down into my palm. I grabbed a small water glass and took an antidepressant. It was the first time I didn’t second guess my decision to do so.
I carried a small hope around with me for an entire day. Maybe I’m getting better. Maybe joy would find me again.
It was the beginning of my return to life.
At first I felt intense relief that I would not have to live that way any longer. I was free from the cage that had held me. Thankfulness washed over me as I reclaimed myself. But then the shame and regret set in. I had missed years of my kids’ lives. Everything I should have felt when Parker was a baby, I had missed. Even though I’d been there physically, I was numb through it all. The memories felt tainted by my depression, by my irritation, by my anxiety. A wave of guilt swelled around me as I thought about how this has affected my boys and my husband. It was enough to make me cry for a long time.
There is a saying that happiness is a choice. I used to believe these words. Now I know it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes the wall is too high, the hole is too dark. Sometimes we just can’t find our way out.
I am learning to make peace with what happened. I can beat myself up over the past, over something I cannot change, or I can start living today.
But making peace is some hard, heavy work. As I started that process, it occurred to me that while I’ve never once been ashamed of my thyroid cancer diagnosis, there is a sense of shame I feel at having had depression. It taunts me at times, whispering, “Your life is beautiful. What reason could you possibly have to be depressed?”
I’m a girl who likes answers, and it unnerves me that I have no reasonable explanation. My mind walks through postpartum, through a move, through motherhood, through thyroid cancer and knows one or all of these reasons are enough. But that doesn’t satisfy shame’s torment.
So I find myself back in familiar territory, typing steadily away at my keyboard. It’s a place that helps me make sense of the senseless, a place I find hope in my heartache. My fingers dance together, bringing a story I have tucked deep within me out into the crisp fall air. I remember the heaviness I carried for so long, the way I struggled to get through the day, the relief I felt when plans fell through because I wouldn’t have to put energy into pretending to be OK. Depression stole a few years of my life, but it didn’t steal them all. I am fortunate to have found joy again, to have found myself.
I am alive once again.
For me, this past December was about finding and sharing joy. Our little family watched the twinkling lights scattered though trees and outlining homes as we drove through town on dark, blustery nights. We roamed the fields at Joe’s Tree Farm with red cheeks and runny noses. We inhaled the scent of fresh pine that filled our living room while the boys played game after game of foosball. We drank hot cocoa and built a blazing fire below festive stockings. We savored the joy of gathering together with the people we love. We rejoiced. And this year, I was able to bask in the fullness of the season. Joy wasn’t just around me; it was once again within me.
Our scars, whether visible or not, tell a story. They are little miracles that show our ability to heal after trauma. They are proof of our resilience, proof we have stood in the fires of life and walked onward.
May we remember the perspective we have gained, the lessons we have learned along the way. May we be brave enough to carry each of our scars with unwavering grace.
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Thinkstock photo by Medioimages/Photodisc