Unless you’ve been living in a commune in Timbuktu, you’ve heard of inner child work. The theory is that to be fully self-actualized adults, we need to go back and acknowledge and validate the inner child in us and seek to heal all of the attachment wounds by remembering them, examining them, and loving our inner child through processing it all. Some therapists suggest journaling as our childhood self. There are those who seek healing in all kinds of ways – rebirthing, primal scream therapy, and so on. We are supposed to be, to our inner child, the parent we wish we had had. It’s not a bad idea, but I think it leaves out some important work for our inner adult/present self.
Last night I was anxious. I have some new health things going on. This is the third time since November that I’ve had a scare. I’m hoping that this one also turns out to be something benign. With my type of cancer, one never knows. It’s going to be like this, at least for some time yet. When I’m anxious, I have a tendency to think about things from the past, and look at all the ways (real or imagined) that I screwed up. It brought me around to thinking about that little girl I am in my kindergarten picture (one of the only early childhood pictures I have – long story).
Suddenly, I could see my innocent face with a slight smile, ignoring what had happened to me a couple of years before, trying to be the pretty girl my dad thought I was. I can look back at pictures of myself at different ages and see that I was a pretty girl who went through a terribly awkward phase until age 15 or so, and then turned into a pretty young woman. But when I was at those ages, I could not appreciate or acknowledge that I was pretty. Part of it was due to conditioning (not to brag or be proud), and part of it was due to how I was treated. (I recognize that I’m talking about my work now, and you might be bored but I do have a point.)
From the first grade on, I carried a little more weight than the other kids around me. I’ve seen a couple of pictures from that period. Yes, I was heavier, but I wasn’t as heavy as many kids you see today. But not only did my classmates pick on me, but also my siblings. Mom and my older sister were always trying to put me on a diet (which they also did to themselves), and Mom even bought me an “exercise belt” to wear. It was rubber and was supposed to help you sweat off the pounds (“like magic!”). I was a fairly active child. I rode my bike or roller-skated with friends almost every day, though it all had to happen on our one block. (I wasn’t permitted to leave the block. Maybe my parents were ahead of their time when it came to understanding the dangers that lurk for girls.) If I wasn’t riding or roller-skating, I was in the backyard kicking a ball around or playing on the swings. The result of that rubber belt? No pounds magically disappeared, but I did have a lot of sweat above and below that belt, meaning that I had two stripes of moisture seeping through my clothes when I wore that blasted thing.
But I was still bigger than the others my age. I had a compulsive eating habit that was fueled by my mother’s delicious cooking. I especially had trouble with my sweet tooth.
From the time I was in about third grade, I was being edged out of activities by teachers because I was fat. One year, our grade was supposed to put on a performance of the tarantella dance. Mothers were told which Butterick pattern to choose and the color cloth to buy for our dresses. But I was told that they had enough dancers from our grade. I was so disappointed when, at recess, the teachers spent time teaching the others the dance. Some of the girls went to dance classes and were very good. I just wanted to be part of it. I don’t know what happened, but words must have been exchanged with my parents. Suddenly, I was added to the program at the eleventh hour. When we practiced the dance, I giggled. I couldn’t help myself, because I was dancing! Those giggles were the joy spilling out of me. It was scary but I was dancing!
The thing is, my baby fat jiggled when we did the hopping steps. The other kids gave me funny looks and laughed behind my back. So my mother, ever resourceful, bought me a panty girdle. We went to the store (Wiener’s in Houston), and Mom made me try one a girdle. I was absolutely humiliated. To this day, I imagine some store security guard watching through the mirror as Mom stuffed my muffin top into that contraption. I got through the performance, and I was determined to perform more and to lose weight.
The weight got worse before it got better, so when we had singing performances, I was stuck on the back row to hide my fat self. Between the mocking, teasing, and bullying at school and the teasing, criticizing, and humiliation at home, I developed an eating disorder. By the time I passed the summer between seventh and eighth grade, it was full-blown. I was only eating one meal per day. I told Mom that I wasn’t hungry for breakfast, and I saved my lunch money – eating only a small meal in the evening. I drank lots of water, and I exercised like a fiend. Sit-ups, walking, skating, supplemented by gym class, resulted in a sudden drop in weight right about the time I grew 5 inches to reach my full adult height.
The reinforcement was immediate. Suddenly I had friends. People weren’t afraid to be seen with me, including my siblings. My sister, who was married now, took me shopping and out to lunch (where we ordered salads and I picked at mine). Boys began to notice me.
The bottom line is that everyone in my life showed me that I was only okay as a human being if I conformed to some ideal appearance. I have never healed that part of me, but I have come to grips with the fact that the genetics from my mother’s side of the family – where many of the women (even the farm women) were big and strong, but had many health problems as they aged – mean that I don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being thin unless I starve myself. My great aunt Mae supposedly picked up a cow one time (showing how strong she was), but the Aunt Mae I remember wore wraps and support stockings on her legs because of bad veins. So did Aunt Laura (Mae’s sister). All of my grandfather’s siblings were very tall and very solidly built, but again, they had health problems and died fairly young.
So last night, as I was thinking about my inner child and all of the awful things she was told about herself, I wrapped that young girl up in an embrace. I visualized letting her cry it out on my shoulder so she could heal.
And then a strange thing happened. Suddenly, I was holding the me who had cancer, my adult self. I saw myself sitting on the edge of the bed, all alone in the room (because I hid the worst parts of my illness even from my son). The dream version of me walked up to the ailing me and wrapped her up in a long, tight hug. I let the ailing me cry it out, for all the times I held in the tears and put on a positive face for other people. To a certain extent, you have to think positively in order to get through the horrors of treatment. Sure, go ahead and inject me with poison. I’ll just sit here and read a book or tell you that I’m envisioning the good chemo attacking those bad cancer cells. I let my inner adult feel all those feelings, and I acknowledged her grief over all the things cancer took from her – and is still taking. I let her cry and rage at cancer and her dumb luck to have gotten it. I let her be pissed off because she had to go through it alone because of a pandemic. Screw all those chick flicks where all of the patient’s friends and family drop everything and go with her to chemo to play cards, or knit, or hold a basin for her! I made friends with the nurses, because they were there for me as much as they could be, given how many patients they were taking care of.
Cancer is scary, no matter what stage it is. I could see the fear and resignation in the eyes of the patients around me. I remember one young woman who wore a mermaid wig, long and blue, to chemo. She looked so sad when she was talking to the nurse, though. I hope that woman healed and is kicking butt today. I hope all the lovely people I met have healed. For myself, I’m amazed that the treatments drove back the cancer. It was advanced, so they threw everything at it. Chemo, radiation, targeted treatments for the HER2+ variant I had, and surgery. I hope they got it all. I never want to go through it again.
So yes, when something goes awry in my body, my mind goes there, to cancer, because my body went there once. But I’m hopeful. Imagining myself hugging the me that had cancer was good. It’s all part of the healing process.
Be well, my friends. Take good care of yourselves. Love your inner child, but love your inner/present self, too. We all need that for love to grow and spread to the world. As the Buddha said, “Peace starts within; do not seek it without.”