Something happened when I was twelve years old. It had an dire impact on me, changing my life forever, and how things affected my life. Combined with future events in my life, this “defense mechanism” that appeared, was then complicated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and what is commonly referred to in the cancer community, “survivor guilt.” For those that know me, have seen the late effects of this issue, and for those that have only seen the effect of those events, are often left to shake their heads in wonder.
I have no emotions. Well, not exactly none. But when it comes to crisis and tragedy, I show nothing. I cannot explain why. And I know it is not healthy. While from an emotional standpoint, it is clearly not healthy, situations that I have been involved with, not dealing with emotions allow me to process things more clearly, logical if you will.
That winter, I had just turned 12 years old. And just days later, in between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I would lose three close relatives. It is hard enough for a child to deal with the death of one relative. But three in less than five days, with subsequent funerals, were definitely overwhelming for me. And no one could see it. From that point on, “death” was just something that happened. We move on. I do recall crying at the first funeral, confusion during the second. But by the third funeral, I felt nothing anymore. This defense mechanism was firmly in place.
I will say that this defense mechanism has been pivotal however in certain situations of my life. But by the same token, the price my health has paid, both emotional and physical, has been high. Relationships. Stress. Guilt. Physiology. I am riddled with scars.
When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, that very defense mechanism left me no room to believe nothing less, than I would be cured. Any negative possibility. The barbaric testing and treatments would not deter me. I was not scared. I was not sad. Sure, I dealt with some initial anger at first, until the mechanism kicked in, reminding me that I needed to be focused, to get through this.
Years later, one of the most influencial people in my life passed away, following her diagnosis with a second cancer to have dealt with. With no emotion, I concentrated on getting my grandmother all of the help she could get, because I believed just as the first cancer she dealt with, we needed to stay focused on what needed to be done. Unfortunately, she knew something I did not, and that was by design. Her cancer was terminal.
The thing about my grandmother, she taught me, “take care of others before yourself. Do not be selfish. Be selfless.” The day before she died, I actually visited with her. Something was not right. She did not have her focus as I had seen other days before. She did not talk about what was on her mind, other than she was to start chemo in two days. She had even gotten her hair cut short to prepare for the eventual hair loss. The next day, I got a phone call that she had been taken to the hospital, for fluid in her lungs. I knew this was not a good thing, and I urged her that I would be on my way. However, she knew that I was working with a group of children in our church youth group. She knew what I was doing was important to the children, and important to me. And this made her feel good. She told me, my place was there, and she would be fine.
And so, I went through the day, figuring I would just go straight to the hospital after the event. Instead, a phone call came to the church, answered by one of my assistants. She was in tears as she handed me the phone. I do not even remember the conversation. I know that my grandmother had died.
That mechanism was now working very hard to squash the grief of the greatest loss I had experienced in my life. I hung up the phone. Walked passed my assistant, who I remember telling me, that she would handle everything. Yet, I ended up back with the children, and at the conclusion of the event, went to the hospital.
This issue that I have, would become an even stronger force, as friends and relatives came to the funeral. Sure, I heard all kinds of wonderful stories about how wonderful she was, and what myself and her other grandchildren meant to her. Not one emotion. Instead I was focused on how I was going to get on in my life without the person I considered my “moral compass.”
Several years later, this issue would be recognized again, but this time for the good. My first wife had been in a head on car collision. Of course I was attending another youth event that I was running. But this time, my advisors insisted I leave. I arrived at the hospital to hear everything that was going to be done to save my wife. After talking to the doctors, my attention turned to “what’s next?” I had to contact my employer, her employer. I had to get to what was left of the car and see if I could get her belongings. But when I saw the car, my focus was even stronger. I pulled out my camera and not only took pictures of the car, but then travelled to the accident scene and took more pictures. It was good I did. The driver that hit my wife, was uninsured. And those photos would be used in court. Of course there was nothing but focus on my wife’s recovery. My mother made the comment to me, “I don’t know how you are holding yourself together.” Because I had to. I did not reach out to anyone for help. There was no time to be upset.
Unfortunately, these types of scenes would pop up again and again, complicating my PTSD and survivor guilt. But by the same token, it is what got me through my most difficult times.
And with that, my biggest fault. I do not show my emotions. I do not release my emotions. I do not grieve. For over thirty five years I have been this way. I am not proud of this “coldness” I present. But when this defense mechanism continually assists me to get through every crisis and tragedy I face, I cannot fault this mechanism. Many, if not most would strongly feel that the way that I deal with things is not only wrong, but unhealthy. And therefore, jump to their own conclusions and alternative theories as to why certain things play out with me the way that they do.
At this time of year, I am reminded of one of my most painful moments, facing yet another tragedy.
2013 was a horrible year for me, but 2014 would prove even worse. And in late May, my father’s health would turn rapidly, as he struggled against lung cancer. At the same time, I was dealing with health issues of my own. And I was dealing with issues surrounding my divorce to my second wife. As my father’s health began to fail, as my closest confidante, my dad knew everything that I was dealing with. But once he was declared terminal, I stopped burdening him with most of everything I was dealing with. But there was one issue that cruelly, was going to be my most difficult matter yet. Much too lengthy to explain in full detail in this already lengthy post, due to one of the legal issues concerning my divorce, I was not only faced with the possibility, that I would not be there when my father would eventually pass away. And that is exactly what happened. I was only able to stay with my father until the last possible minute, by his death bed, where if I chose to ignore what needed to be done, I stood the extreme possibility of facing legal sanctions. I said “goodbye” to him, knowing full well, I would not return in time before he passed. No emotions involved. I did what I believed I had no choice to do, and my father previously had discussed the likelihood of this situation with me. The phone call came several hours later. He had passed away.
These are just some of the situations that I have dealt with over the decades. Some, have been within my control, and many have not. But this defense mechanism that remains strongly entrenched in who I am, is what gets me through every day, staying focused on what I need to do, to make sure that things are done, and done correctly.
Perhaps someday, that day will come, that I can mourn.