“Pain is not a sign of weakness, but bearing it alone is a choice to grow weak.” ~Lori Deschene
In February of 2011, I went to see my doctor because I was suffering from severe headaches that I figured were associated with using computers all day at my law job. After having a few tests, the doctor said that I wasn't doing well and he suggested that I take a leave from work to focus on my health.
The next few months, I found myself in and out of doctors’ offices, medical labs, and hospitals on a weekly basis. With a variety of tests already done, my doctor suggested we do an MRI of my brain. I went for my MRI in June of 2011.
Weeks passed by after my MRI, and assuming no news was good news, I made plans for my summer. I decided to have a change of scenery and went to San Francisco for a fun summer job that didn’t involve computer work.
After a great summer there, I was in Toronto in late August for two weeks visiting my parents when I got a call from my neurologist in Vancouver.
She told me I had a brain tumor.
The floor dropped beneath my feet, my heart sank, and my mind raced, contemplating how I would break this news to my parents. I put the phone down, walked into the kitchen, and I told them. We hugged and then we cried.
In that moment, my life flashed before me. I was 28 years old, single, unemployed, and now, more lost than ever. I didn't know if I would finish my law license, return to Vancouver, move back into my apartment, or when I would see my friends again.
But, as it always does, life went on.
I didn't take my return flight to Vancouver, my friends packed up my stuff and rented out my apartment, and I dropped out of the law society licensing process in British Columbia.
I moved into a spare room in my parents’ house and spent most of September of 2011 sitting alone in the living room of the house, reading and writing.
I read personal development books like How To Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie, as well as Buddhist teachings about life and death.
I took up a more rigorous yoga practice, meditated daily, and ate a nutritious diet every day. I wrote journals to clear my mind, reflect on my life, and transcribe what I had learned on my journey.
I also spent a lot of time looking through my old stuff. I looked through old Facebook photos with friends, reminisced about road trips and travel adventures, and read all the notes and cards people had given to me.
I valued this time alone, but I soon realized that I was isolating myself.
Why is it that we so rarely share our vulnerable story, let someone in, or take time to be compassionate and truly empathize with others?
I felt scared to let people in. The few relatives who knew what I was going through told me to think positive, that everything would be okay, and to not worry or be afraid. They told me to take my mind away from it, cheer up, and to stay busy.
Although I appreciated this advice, to a certain extent, I realized that it was simply telling me in some way not to be fully human.
It was telling me that I could control the outcome if I thought positive, that negative emotions and crying were not worthwhile endeavors, especially for a man, and that everything would go as I intended if I had a strong enough intention.
The truth is, I was afraid, I did cry, and wondered why life was doing this to me. I fought with my mind as it toiled over these nagging thoughts and how great things used to be. I went through bouts of anger, denial, depression, and despair.
Although I did eventually reach acceptance, my route wasn’t the one I was told to take.
I decided to reach out to people who I could trust to listen to me without judgment or a long list of what I “should” do in my situation, who love me no matter what and who want to be there for me.
I sent an email to friends to let them know what had happened to update them, knowing that I would expect them to do the same if they went through this. I told them that I loved them, that they have mattered to me, and laid out all the reasons why I care about them and think they're special.
When I stopped isolating myself and finally shared my story, people’s responses were overwhelming.
They also opened up, and told me how they truly feel about me and why they love me, sometimes deeply touching words they have never said before to me. They even sent me virtual hugs and positive mass-shrinking vibrations from afar.
I wonder why we rarely tell people how much we care about them? Why do we wait until moments of strife, illness, or loss to express how we feel about someone?
During the fall of 2011, I went for more MRI's, had lots of tests and needles, frequented numerous waiting rooms, and felt how isolating the medical system could be.
The people in my life during this challenging time were invaluable. They helped me regain my sense of self, honor my emotions and let myself feel them fully, and have the courage to accept where I was at each day, taking it on one moment at a time.
By reaching out, being vulnerable, and letting others in, I felt more connected and confident that I would get through this.
I went for another MRI in January of 2012, and a follow up in May. Finally, in May of 2012, my neurologist gave me the news that, and I quote, “somehow, the mass didn't continue to grow in the past few months.”
He no longer thought it was cancer and downgraded it three levels, to something that is in the benign category (translation: no cancer).
Imagine my relief. Picture my face as I stepped out of the medical building, felt a gust of fresh air, and took in what felt like a breath of freedom. I think I may have even squeezed out a few tears of joy.
Today, I still have an olive-sized mass in the right side of my brain. But it is no longer my foe. Rather, it has become the greatest blessing I could have asked for.
My mass has taught me about how fragile life truly is, and made me want to live life to the fullest. It also reminded me of what can be accomplished through my own inner work and when I open myself up to receive the goodness from those around me.
There are many people around us who are struggling with one of life’s many problems; I’ve been one of them and have met many others during my time in the medical system.
My experience has taught me that supporting one another to fulfill our individual and collective potential is why we are all here. Sometimes, all it takes to connect with someone else is sharing our vulnerable story, lending an ear or a shoulder, and just being present for them.
At the end of it all, I wake up each day even more grateful than the day before. I feel at peace. I feel blessed for my life as it comes at me, one complete and beautiful moment after the other.
What is your vulnerable story, and who could you share it with? Who could you support as they go through their vulnerable story?
Photo by Alex Bellink