Writing the Journey: 'Listen to Me, My Body'
Heather Donohue is a participant of Writing the Journey, LBBC's writing workshop for people affected by breast cancer. The workshop is led by experienced facilitator, author and poetry therapist Alysa Cummings, who has personally experienced breast cancer. Heather wrote the piece below, called "Listen to Me, My Body," for the workshop. She says, "Writing has long been my refuge to deal with emotional turmoil, whether it is from relationships, physical illness, addiction or just too many thoughts rolling around in my head. Poetry, stories and journaling help me ease the pain of uncertainty, no matter what the root cause."
LBBC is publishing Writing the Journey pieces on our blog throughout the fall.
Listen to Me, My Body
The idea that I must love my body in order to heal is a frighteningly powerful one. When I was a child, my body was often a source of embarrassment and confusion. Other girls had slim bodies, long hair, feminine dress. Mine was comfortable, sturdy, muscular, my hair was short, my body covered in comfortable jeans, boots and t-shirts. I felt strong and confident, until I had to be around people who told me that was wrong. Even without the direct words, it was the sideways glances, the hesitation as they tried to figure out if I was a boy or a girl. It was the constant taunts by my classmates, relentless “teasing” by the boys and persistent “fashion tips” by the girls, that taught me to loathe my body.
Adolescence brought more confusion, a hardening of my demeanor as well as my body. Hours of weight lifting, running and sexual escapades shaped me into a firmly built, sinewy form with large, soft breasts that changed how people looked at me. My high school boyfriend told me that if he closed his eyes so he didn’t have to see my face, he could enjoy my body. He also told me that if I truly loved him, I would share my body with whomever he wanted me too, but that’s a different story. People still hesitated, trying to determine if I was male or female, but those damn breasts gave it away. I simultaneously loved and hated them.
The idea that I must love my body in order to heal is a frighteningly powerful one.
As a young adult, out on my own but not in the least bit emotionally mature, I discovered what it meant to be a butch lesbian. My body, with all its contradictions, finally made sense. I could be strong, I became ruggedly handsome, I found the uniform of boots, jeans, t-shirts and button downs that molded perfectly to my shape. There was no fear as I strode through town in my sports bra, shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, only exhilaration as I realized that these women loved me, celebrated me, eyeballed me as I moved. I no longer cared if I was mistaken for male, because the ones who counted most knew that I was a woman.
My body changed again as I aged. I was no longer gym muscle perfect, tempered by alcohol and drugs destroying my youthful good looks. Instead my thirties brought a softer, rounder look as I gained weight. Too many hours devoted to work, school and caring for children led me to drop the vigorous workout routine. I became settled in a relationship, taking the easy way out as I opted to ignore everything I knew. Eventually the pounds, the stress and the lack of exercise caught up with me. My body screamed at me to pay attention. The nagging, near-constant chest pain, excruciating headaches, seemingly endless insomnia were all warning signs from a body I no longer listened to.
There is an underlying truth to the myth of the mid-life crisis. As I turned 40, my life went through a series of whiplash changes. I started running half-marathons, took up boxing and did countless push-ups. Insomnia still haunted me, but now I was a single parent who was relearning how to enjoy my body. I purposely pushed myself to the limits, determined to drench my sorrow in sweat, tears and adrenaline. This body would not fail me. I watched myself shape my future, embracing the notion of being a middle-aged lesbian who defied the stereotypical look of being overweight, slovenly and nonsexual. My arm and leg muscles had definition, my lungs could endure miles of trails in the humid Southern air, my stomach was soft but flat. I went so far as to take off my shirt and run in just my sports bra with a freedom I hadn’t felt in years.
It didn’t last. Two years later, I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. There was no moment of hope, no break while I celebrated “beating cancer,” no time to think that my body might not be destroyed. I had full blown cancer ravaging my bones, invading my lymph nodes, spreading from organ to organ. My beautiful breasts, plump and smooth with large pink nipples adorned by a single silver hoop, were now the enemy. A bruised, swollen mass emerged from the center of my chest, rapidly overtaking my left breast. How could it be on the left? I’m left handed; I had my left nipple pierced, my left breast is larger, fuller and secretly my favorite.
What the hell cancer, how can you attack what I hold sacred?
I did not have a mastectomy. I didn’t even have a lumpectomy. They told me these were unnecessary surgeries, that the cancer has already spread so there was no point in trying to remove the origin. Sometimes I feel like a failure as a breast cancer patient. Everyone has mastectomies, it’s written in the cancer playbook. Try explaining to others why you still have the very thing that is killing you. But I lost all my hair. Even now that it is grown back, I feel as if I’ve still lost it. My hair is no longer so thick and wavy that I have to get a haircut every month or my mop of curls grows into a full bloom disaster. And I lost my ovaries, my uterus, my most female parts. So what that I never used them, I still wanted them, dammit. Those were mine, a core part of me that I cussed every month while fervently wishing I could have them removed, yet when I lost that choice all I could respond with was anger. This is my body, not yours, so fuck you cancer.
“… if I cannot love my body, I cannot heal.” That phrase is deadly accurate. I look at my body in the mirror, finding all my flaws, tracing my scars, sighing softly as I try to remember what it feels like to have another’s hands on me. My body has betrayed me but I will not betray it. We are old, old friends, sworn to a lifetime of protection. I will console it, I will rest it, I will inundate it with pills, but I will not hate it.
My body has betrayed me but I will not betray it. We are old, old friends, sworn to a lifetime of protection. I will console it, I will rest it, I will inundate it with pills, but I will not hate it.
This body has given me strength, given me comfort, given me pleasure, even now. I used to say I didn’t want to get old, but what I meant was that I didn’t want to wither away in a nursing home, neglected by my family and tortured by the incessant medical interventions. Listen to me, my body. I want to get old, I want to see what you are like when I am 80 years old. I promise to take care of you, just get me there.
Heather Donohue is 45 years old, from Memphis, Tennessee. She was diagnosed with de novo metastatic breast cancer in July 2015. Heather volunteers with LBBC's Hear My Voice: Outreach Volunteer Program.