We had an interesting discussion with a friend at dinner the other night that sparked some interesting thoughts and feelings for me. Emily’s friend Annie is a total sweetheart. She’s a kind and very good-hearted person who has had more than her fair share of tough breaks. Her partner of many years, with whom she has a child, left their relationship a few years ago. And then in that same year Annie was diagnosed with breast cancer. In that time she also lost a job. Like I said, it hasn’t been easy for Annie. She seems to be coming out the other side, but the going is still rough for her. Anyway, she and her daughter (Nina’s age) came for dinner.
Now, as an aside and just to give you some background here, I would classify Emily as a *non-dealer*. This is, of course, just my own classification system and there is no judgement, good or bad or right or wrong intended. In my system, being a *non-dealer* means that if something is difficult or painful, Emily (in complete harmony with her family of origin) tends to act as if it simply isn’t happening, going about her daily business as if nothing is amiss, until it either goes away or becomes a crisis. I saw this most clearly when Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago. She was positively dispassionate. She showed little connection to her cancer or the treatment. I mean, the woman could have slept in once or twice or even whined a tiny bit! She missed work exactly 2 days in two years of pretty grueling intense treatment. But that’s just who Emily is. This example is definitely the pro side of *non-dealers*. *Over-dealers*, on the other hand (at the opposite end in my system), tend toward owning, living and sometimes wallowing in whatever difficulty they are encountering. Annie tends more toward *over-dealer*. She clung to her diagnosis and her cancer like a badge of honor. She joined cancer groups and then survivor groups, going to cancer conferences and retreats. Pink ribbons and “survivor” t-shirts abound and cancer defines Annie as much as her career, religion or personality. It’s interesting, to say the least, to see Annie and Emily together.
At any rate, after dinner when the girls had gone off to play, Annie was telling us about the most recent conference for cancer survivors she’d attended with a relatively new girlfriend. She told us about the workshops, the camaraderie, the spirit and the work of the conference and the many attendees. She also told us about a new-ish category dubbed “co-survivor”. Annie’s girlfriend adopted and eagerly owned this role of co-survivor even though she didn’t know Annie when Annie was diagnosed or treated for her cancer. Annie shared with us her discomfort in a sort of “do I have a right to be irritated” kind of way at what felt like her girlfriend’s appropriation, annexation or perhaps hijacking of the survivor role.
Annie was saying how hard it was for her to listen to (never mind offering support or comfort to) her girlfriend’s sharing the burdens and pain of co-survivorship with her. Her girlfriend, who we’ll just call Kate from now on (because it is the first name that came to my mind just now), was wanting (or needing) to share throughout the conference week how difficult and painful it was to be a co-survivor. And she shared her hard feelings with Annie. Kate kept talking about her fears and her sadness etc with Annie (to the exclusion of Annie’s feelings as an actual survivor). And Annie was like, “What the fuck?! I’m the one who had cancer?!” She didn’t begrudge Kate the feelings she was having. She just didn’t feel that SHE (Annie) could be the person Kate came to for that support. Was she wrong for that?!
As Annie talked I found myself not only understanding what she was saying, but also feeling a similar thread beginning to take shape in my own life. Yes, it was hard to be the partner of someone going through cancer and cancer treatment. For so many reasons. It was hard and painful and terrifying and exhausting for me. Emily got all the cards and good wishes, the best of everyone around us. And forbye, she gave the best of herself to everyone else. It was only with me she could let herself fall apart. With everyone else she was a strong superhero able to leap tall buildings and all that. Watching her be so upbeat and imperturbable with others while saving the pain and heartbreak for me was hard. Watching someone I desperately loved go through chemo and radiation and operations was agonizing, especially knowing I could do nothing to make it any better or easier. Fearing that I would lose my soul’s love to this awful disease was excruciating and terrifying. But I shared not one whit of any of those feelings with Emily either during her treatment or after. Don’t get me wrong, I got plenty of support from dear friends during that time. And I unloaded my burdens on Joyce and Sheila plenty and often during those years. They listened to me cry and rage and whine and complain. They laughed with me, cried with me and validated my reality as well as cheering me up and on and never faltering by my side.
But even if I didn’t have friends like them, it was never an option (in my mind) to share any of my difficult feelings about Emily’s cancer with Emily herself. With Emily I was strong and calm, encouraging and supportive. I wasn’t wonderful or perfect. But I do have to admit those were some of my finer hours as a partner. No matter how scared or depleted I was, I put on a brave face for Emily. I guess I just figured she had enough on her plate, what with having to deal with actually having cancer.
As Annie was sharing how hard it was to hear and navigate Kate’s pain and difficult feelings about her cancer, I was sure and clear that I had done the right thing by not burdening Emily with mine. And then something else clicked in me. I realized that I have been having similar feelings being trans with a partner who is struggling with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am NOT comparing being transgender with having cancer. What I’m saying is that the emotions and their ramifications have some similarities. It isn’t like I realized I’m transgender and skipped to my lou like a dog with two tails living the damn dream. This revelation has been painful, shame-filled and earth-shattering for me for several years now (please note the more than 100 whining, cringing, frightened and pain-filled posts on this blog alone!). I have been wrecked and elated and everything in between. This epiphany has bordered on apocalypse and rocked me to my very core. And as I navigate all these minefield emotions myself, I can’t listen to or be supportive or understanding or comforting of the hard feelings Emily is having as a result of my proclamation. I cannot shoulder the burden of someone else’s hard feelings because of me in addition to navigating my own emotions. Does that make sense?
I’m not at all saying Emily isn’t entitled to her painful and difficult responses, reactions, pain and suffering in response to my disclosure. I can imagine it would be staggering to be a lesbian in a lesbian relationship and then to find out who you thought was your female spouse actually identifies as male. What a mind fuck!? Her feelings are completely reasonable. I get that. And Emily has every right to her hard feelings (even if those feelings were not reasonable). What I’m saying, similar to what Annie was saying about Kate, is that while Emily is entitled to her feelings, I am not the person she can or should go to in order to share her feelings and get support and or comfort for them.
I’m sure there are other arenas in life in which this dynamic happens. Divorce for example? In the meantime, it felt very ataractic to come to this understanding and to set a mental boundary. There was something liberating, absolving me of my guilt and shame at not being able (or willing?) to be responsible for sorting out and taking care of such multifarious and complex emotions that complicate my own. In the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others? Grist for the mill for sure.