“Each of us is entitled to intimacy and pleasure in our life, regardless of how our body looks or at what stage of life we are at. The fact that we might be sick, elder, or dying need not cut us off from these precious life-enhancing things. However, we will most likely have to take the lead in defining what it is that we need and want, and then communicate that to those who are in a position to answer our need. We ought to have confidence that this will be as enriching for partner as it will be for us.”
Clare, 73, and her husband, Charley, have been married for fifty-three years. They have four children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Clare’s leukemia, which was in remission for over ten years, has recurred. This time it is considered untreatable. She has decided to forego any of the heroic, life-sustaining measures for which modern medicine is so famous. She and her doctors agree that hospice is her best option. “I’ve done my homework. I’ve shopped around. I interviewed all the hospices in town and have chosen the one I feel will honor my wishes for the kind of end-of-life care I want.”
Clare has lived a rich and full life. “I was a career woman long before there was such a thing as a career woman. I’ve always been a take-charge kind of gal. This leukemia may very well kill me, but it will never get the best of me.” Her illness has made her very frail. Her skin is almost translucent. She has an otherworldly look about her, but there is no mistaking her remarkably robust spirit.
Her youngest son Stan, her one and only ally in the family, brought her to our meeting. Stan says, “Oh yeah, she’s feisty all right. There’s no flies on her, and the ones that are there are paying rent.”
Clare’s biggest concern is her family. They are pressuring her to fight against death even though she doesn’t want to. She wishes that they would join her in preparing for her death rather than denying the inevitable.
I try to tell myself that my Charley will be just fine after I’m gone. After all he does have our four grown kids and their families to look after him. But deep down, I know how lost he’ll be without me. Even after all these years, he still needs me to help him find a missing sock!
Whenever I try talking to him about how he’ll manage when I’m gone, he gets this awful flush across his face and starts shaking like a scared little boy. It makes me feel so terrible. I feel so bad for upsetting him like that.
I’m so confused! I want to talk to Charley about all of this. He’s my husband and has been my best friend for well over fifty years, but I honestly don’t know how to reach him on this one.”
Clare straightens herself up in her chair and continues.
“Stan, here, is the only one I can talk to. Everyone else, including my husband, won’t hear a word when I start talking about planning my funeral or who will get my antique Tiffany lamp. They just say, ‘Oh, mother, stop talking like that, you’ll outlive us all.’
I know they mean well. They’re just scared and upset. But boy oh boy, it’s really getting under my skin. I know I only have a short time left to live, so I want it to be real. I’m sick of always having to smile and pretend when I’m with them. It’s about time for them to start considering my feelings for a change.”
Clare’s immediate concern and the reason for our get together is her husband Charley. She is afraid that they are drifting apart right when they need each other the most. I ask her for a little background on their intimate life together.
“I was well into my thirty’s when the woman’s movement began. It was a time of great awakenings for me. Charley was threatened, of course, but I was able to win him over in time. It was only then that our sex life started in earnest. I finally realized that sex could be about pleasure and not simply about duty. What a liberating experience that was!
Even now Charley and I are intimate, or were until the last couple of months or so. After we both turned 60 our sex wasn’t like when we were youngsters, all heated and hormonally driven, but it’s just as special. Oh, I’m so glad I am able to talk about this with you.
My main concern is the medications I’m taking for the pain. I’m woozy when I take them, but irritable without them. I want to be more available to Charley for the closeness that’s so important to each of us, but I’m often too out of it. This is a problem for Charley too, because he doesn’t know how touch me anymore. And so, I’m afraid, he keeps his distance. This only makes matters worse for the both of us.
How do I change this? Or maybe there’s no changing it. Maybe it’s just over. What a terribly sad thought that is.”
I reach out for Clair’s hand. “I am touched by the loving depiction of the intimate life you’ve had with your husband over the years. It can’t be easy for either of you to see this wind down. However, the closeness and tenderness you’ve had throughout your marriage need not stop now.
May I ask; do you still sleep together in the same bed? Would you be comfortable initiating a little cuddling with Charley? Good! Then I’m going to suggest a regiment of spoon breathing and guided-hand touch that I’m sure will work for you both. You will, of course, need to take the lead role in this since, as you say, Charley no longer knows how to touch you, but once he gets the hang of it and he has your permission to do so, he can continue even when you’re not able to reciprocate or even respond.
Allow me to quickly explain spoon breathing. Here’s what you do; lay on your side with Charley on his side close behind you like two spoons. Then see if you can match one another’s breathing pattern. You will be amazed at how calming and comforting this will be for you both. It will also be a very effective way to reestablish a threshold for what is possible between the two of you now, in this final stage of your life.
Now the guided-hand touch; take his open hand in yours and guide it to where you like to be touched. Show him how you like to be touched where he is touching you. Long strokes, slow strokes, short strokes, soft strokes, or just having his hand rest on you, whatever. Show him the kind of pressure you are comfortable with where he is touching you. Once you’ve established a simple routine of breathing and touching, give Charley permission to carry on even if you happen to fall asleep. Because this breathing and touching technique is so gentle and loving, it should be able to serve you even as you are actively dying. But you’ll have to let Charley know that this is what you want and need. You could tell him that you want to die in his arms. What an ideal way to bring your life together to a close. Do you think Charley will accept your invitation?”
“I can’t say for sure, but I think if I suggested it to him in a way that lets him know that he would be doing it for me, it might work. But I’m not sure about what I should say.”
“When words fail to communicate what is in your heart, you can always rely on touch. Maybe you will find that nothing needs to be said at all, Clare. Draw him close and keep him near you with touch. Something tells me Charley will find this irresistible. It could be the fondest of farewells. Something he’ll never forget.
This is my philosophy. Each of us is entitled to intimacy and pleasure in our life, regardless of how our body looks or at what stage of life we are at. The fact that we might be sick, elder, or dying need not cut us off from these precious life-enhancing things. However, we will most likely have to take the lead in defining what it is that we need and want, and then communicate that to those who are in a position to answer our need. We ought to have confidence that this will be as enriching for partner as it will be for us.”
“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson
I’m a sucker for all wacky traditions associated with ringing out an old year and ringing in a new. For example, I can get a veritable whiplash with all the looking back and then looking forward. I particularly like the countless end of the year reviews, I don’t care if they are silly or poignant; I revel in them. I love shopping for new calendars each December. I always buy an appointment calendar and a wall calendar even though one would be sufficient. The wall calendar must have pictures. I generally choose one that features nature scenes. I like seeing the seasons unfold with each passing month. I try not to peek at the pictures for the months ahead because I like being pleasantly surprised.
I make a little ritual of fanning the pages of the new appointment calendar close to my face so that I can feel the breeze as the pages fly by. I try to guess what the pages will look like at the end of the year. I try to imagine the marking and notes that will fill these pages and what stories these notes and marking will tell of another year in my life. I try to picture the things that will happen, over the course of the New Year, even though I have no way of knowing or even anticipating what they might be. What I do know is they will reveal themselves in due course. I also know for certain that the New Year will hold lots of difficulties and much sadness. It always does; no use in pretending it won’t. But I also know there will be a fair share of joy and what passes for success in my life in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I always hope that the New Year will be better than the year I just completed. It almost never pans out that way, but that sense of hope, even if it is short-lived, is very intoxicating.
I’m always giddy with anticipation as I count down the seconds to midnight on New Year’s Eve. When I was a kid, I used to hold my breath for the last minute of the year. I don’t know why I did this, but it was fun. Curiously enough, I rarely take notice of the relentless march of time ticking away the other 525,959 minutes of the year. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I could endure that dizzying state of exhilaration and expectation that I reserve for the last night of the year for every other day of the year. Besides, at my seriously advanced age, what is there to look forward to anyhow? Dear readers, I do believe I am becoming a curmudgeon.
I also love to binge on New Year resolutions. Every year I’m supremely confident that my life will change for the better, just as soon as I rid myself of all my bad habits. But, by mid-January, inertia generally has taken over and I settle into the humdrum that is bleakest month of the year.
This past New Year’s Eve I discovered an extraordinary article on the National Public Radio website titled: Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death. You can probably guess why this caught my eye. Death is a pretty taboo subject most every day, yet here was NPR using the “D” word, in a headline mind you, on the most celebratory day of the year. Sheesh, what a buzz-kill!
Perversely, I clicked on the link and was treated to a delightful story about a 37-year-old Swede named Fredrik Colting and his marvelous invention—Tikker. It’s a wristwatch that counts down your life, so you can watch, no pun intended, as each second of your life ticks away. The article goes on to say; “Your estimated time of death is, of course, just that—an estimate. Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by the federal government to figure a person’s life expectancy. But the effect is chilling, a sort of incessant grim reaper reminding you that time is running out.” I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and guess that this isn’t the kind of gift one would get for someone plagued with performance anxiety.
I though, oh my god, this Fredrik person is a man after my own heart. I immediately followed the link in the NPR article to the Tikker website. There I read that Fredrik is heading up a team of designers, freethinkers, lovers, and life-aficionados, who have been working on Tikker for over 2 years now, although they’ve been thinking about the concepts of time and happiness for well over 10 years.
The Tikker team believes that having a watch that counts down one’s life will make the world a better place. Wait a minute, WHAT?
I read on. “Imagine if someone told you that you only had 1 year left to live. How would that change your life?” Good question! For one thing, I encounter this very situation pretty frequently. My 30+ years of death and dying work have exposed me to hundreds of people who have faced the prospect of their own immanent death. After the initial freak-out, folks tend to fall into three distinct categories:
- Some people, with a little coaching and some encouragement embrace their mortality. They decide to use the natural intensity and emotion of this final season of life to make it the culminating stage of their personal growth.
- Others can’t bear the idea that the end is neigh and deny that it is actually happening to them. They’re gonna beat the odds and cheat death, they tell me. And so they do everything in their power to ward off the inevitable. Like grasping at straws, this futile attempt to turn back the clock, as it were, never ends well.
- Then there are those who vacillate between these two poles. Most everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing at the end of his or her life fell into this category. They have good days and bad days. They have their moments of despair as well as flashes of enlightenment. And most make it to their death with the majority of their dignity intact. No mean feat that!
Despite the individual differences, each dying person I’ve ever worked with has had a similar complaint. They claim that they rarely gave the end of their life a thought till it came crashing in on them. This is a societal failure. The un-golden silence that our culture imposes on any consideration of what our life will be like as it ebbs away provides us few if any opportunities to rehearse our mortality. No wonder dying people feel like they’ve been ordered to belt out their swan song without ever learning the tune.
So maybe Fredrik and his cohort are on to something. Maybe if every casual glance at our wrist to check the time would also remind us that this particular moment will never pass again and that there is a finite number of these precious moments allotted to us. Maybe such an instrument would help us realign our life priorities. As the Tikker website states: “All we have to do is learn how to cherish the time and the life that we have been given, to honor it, suck the marrow from it, seize the day, and follow our hearts.”
That’s a mighty tall order for us mere mortals, wouldn’t you say, Fredrik? Well I guess, that where New Year’s resolution come in, huh?
“I’m not used to such a frank discussion about sex. I’m more comfortable with the locker room bravado that passes as sex talk for us guys. At least in that situation I don’t have to be honest. This is very intimidating.”
Michael is 52. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago. Two years ago his disease process escalated to the point where he was confined to a motorized wheelchair. This past year he has had several MS-related setbacks that have kept him bedridden for several weeks at a time.
Things have become so difficult that several months ago he was forced to sell his once-thriving law practice. The few hours of work he can manage a week at his old firm are more frustrating than fulfilling for him.
Mike is often depressed. He continually repeats his self-defeating mantra: “I’m not half the man I used to be.” The superhuman support of his second wife Maryanne and his son Kyle along with his beloved Seattle Seahawks are the only things that keep him from killing himself.
The first time I met this couple, an exasperated Maryanne tearfully reported how Mike’s smoldering rage and bouts of sullenness terrorize the family. “I love him, but he’s gotta get off his pity-pot or I’m gonna walk, and take Kyle with me.” Mike sheepishly acknowledged his disruptive behavior. His ruggedly handsome face distorts with shame. “It’s not me. It’s this damn MS. I just can’t seem to get it together. I feel like such a failure.”
When Mike and I have some one-on-one time together, I broach the topic of sex. Mike blanches. I start by asking him some very pointed questions about his intimate life with his wife.
“I’m not used to such a frank discussion about sex. I’m more comfortable with the locker room bravado that passes as sex talk for us guys. At least in that situation I don’t have to be honest. This is very intimidating.
I’ll be straight with you. I don’t want to talk about this because I’m afraid you’ll want to know how a gimp like me does ‘it.’ I’m afraid that if you ask, I would have to tell you that a gimp like me no longer does ‘it’ because he can’t get it up anymore.
I’d probably then have to tell you how frustrating it is for me not to be able to make love to my wife, and how this is a source of constant friction between Maryanne and me, how she accuses me of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, how she doesn’t care if I have a hard-on, all she wants is for us to be close.
So you see, if I told you all these things I’d really be embarrassed. So I’m not going to say anything at all.”
“I see,” I responded. “Do you really see yourself as a gimp? Or is that just a term of endearment you use for yourself?”
“What do you think? Just look at me. I’m one fine specimen of virile manhood, wouldn’t you say?”
Mike turns bright red. I can’t tell if it’s rage or embarrassment. Maybe it’s both.
“Ok, Mike, have it your way. Maybe you are a gimp. Although I wouldn’t have guessed by just looking.”
I decide to tell Mike about another client I had years ago. He had an even more advanced case of MS than Mike. His wife claimed that despite being a very large man and being bedridden he was a remarkably good lover. She said he had a vivid imagination and an exceptionally talented mouth. He was affectionate and gentle and there was absolutely no hint of a chip on his shoulder. My former client used to say that his pleasure came from giving pleasure to others.
Mike apologized. “I’m not myself today. Or maybe this is what I’ve become. I know my wife and son think so.”
I go on to tell Mike that many women don’t care at all if their partner has an erection or not. In fact, most women report that when their partner’s penis is hard it generally means only one thing and it’s rarely about them. It’s the old “get it up, get it in, get it on, get it off and roll over” routine, which is not particularly fulfilling for a woman.
While losing the ability to have an erection may be a humbling experience for a guy, his female partner may have an altogether different experience. For her it may signal the possibility of some really good sex.
I ask, “How do you feel about your oral sex technique, Mike? If Maryanne wanted you to pleasure her orally would you be comfortable doing that? Maybe she would prefer hand stimulation.
Ya know, that other MS client that I just mentioned? He couldn’t use his hands very well so his wife used them for him. She would take his hand and stimulates herself with it. He loves it. Would you feel comfortable if Maryanne used your hand like that?
How well are you able to communicate your needs for sex and intimacy to Maryanne? Are there any specific issues that get in the way of asking for what you need?”
“We stopped talking about sex about the same time I got sick. Actually, we never really discuss it at all. What generally happens is Maryanne brings up the topic, I get angry, and she gets hurt. That’s how ‘discussions’ about sex go in our house.
I wish I could tell her how I really feel, how ashamed I am, not just for being such a bully, but also for being such a coward. I wouldn’t even know how to begin such a conversation. I can’t seem to get past saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m sorry, all right, real freakin’ sorry. I’m afraid of what would happen if I opened this can of worms. Would I ever be able to look her in the eye again? Sometimes I wish I were dead.”
“So you’re not talking to your wife. Are you talking to your doctor about your erection concerns?”
“Nope, I just figured there wasn’t anything to talk about. Besides, it’s too goddamn embarrassing to admit.”
“Listen, Mike, you may want to reconsider that. Here’s my advice. First, begin a dialogue with Maryanne. Let her know that you are serious about working through your problems as a couple. I’m here to help if you need someone to guide the conversation.
Second, contact your doctor as soon as possible and initiate a frank discussion about your erection concerns. A great deal of progress has been made recently in understanding and treating male erectile dysfunction.
Most men occasionally experience the inability to have an erection, but repeated problems, whether they are organic or situational, constitute what was once referred to as impotence. Men with chronic erection problems are often too embarrassed to ask for help, and they may not have the impetus to do so if they’re not partnered. So statistics on how widespread this concern is among us guys is hard to come by, no pun intended.
Getting an erection for a man is like lubricating for a woman. Both processes combine complex emotional and biological functions. So it’s clear that either a physiological or psychological problem can interfere in the arousal stage of the sexual response cycle for either women or men.
For example, a relationship problem, depression, anxiety, prescription medications, excessive alcohol consumption, a hormone imbalance, cardiovascular disease, a neurological problem, being overweight, even some over the counter cold and allergy medications and something as simple as a poor diet can contribute to arousal dysfunction.
As you undoubtedly know, major breakthroughs in treating erection problems was made by a chance discovery in the mid 1990’s. A researcher who was studying the effects of a new heart medication noticed a remarkable side effect in some of his male subjects…erections. When Viagra hit the market it revolutionized erectile dysfunction therapy.
It’s important to note that this medication as well as all the other erectile dysfunction meds out there are ‘erection enhancers’ not ‘erection inducers.’ I say that because without proper stimulation, these medications will not cause an erection on their own.
There are some reported side effects to these medications and one can only get them by prescription, so you better talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
You see, Mike, there are options. Stop thinking about what used to be and start working at finding out what is currently possible.
If you can’t take any of these ED meds, there are still other options, like a penis ring and pump. And if these things don’t work there’s still no need to go without partnered sex and pleasuring. There are erogenous zones all over and in your body.
Your erection-centric sex life maybe over, but there is so much more available to you if only you give yourself and Maryanne a chance to make the discoveries. Why not give it a try. I mean, how much time do you have left? Don’t let this issue continue to contaminate your marriage and short-circuit the intimacy that is still available to you. Maryanne deserves better and so do you. I’ll continue to be available to you as a coach and guide if you wish. Because there’s no need to go through this alone if you don’t want to.
Now get out of here and make something pleasurable happen. You won’t regret it.”
“I was just sitting here thinking about what would be on my mind if I were in your place, facing my imminent death. I suppose I would be thinking about immortality, not in any conventional sense of that word, but more in terms of my legacy. I guess I’m really self-conscious, or maybe it’s vanity, I don’t know, but I think I’d be wondering about my contribution to this wounded world.”
My good friend Kim called me out of the blue. She asked if I would be available to consult with a couple of her friends, James and Rebecca. James is dying.
I didn’t know Rebecca or James personally, but I had heard a lot about them from my friend Kim. I talked to Rebecca briefly by phone and accepted an invitation to visit with them the very next day. When I arrived at their home, I found James very close to death. The scene was calm and, at first glance, everything seemed to be in order, but the tranquility was deceptive.
“I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. James has been actively dying for weeks. Why is it taking so long? We’ve prepared for the end in the best way that each of us knows how, both psychologically and physically. Everyone has been extremely helpful. Hospice has been wonderful. But we never thought it would turn out to be such a marathon. We’ve been waiting and waiting for what seems like forever for the end but it doesn’t happen.”
She went on to say, “Don’t misunderstand, I’m not impatient for James to die, but there’s something unnerving about all of this that has us both on edge. It’s like standing at the airport fully packed for a long trip waiting to board a flight that never arrives. It’s been exhausting for the both of us. I can’t help but think we’ve overlooked something. I’ve quizzed James about it, but he doesn’t know what it could be either. That’s when Kim suggested we talk to you. We’re both afraid that our impatience and anxiety is going to disrupt the tranquility we’ve worked so hard to achieve. Can you help us?”
James confirmed what Rebecca told me. “Look at me! There’s nothing left that works, I can barely see anymore. It’s pathetic. I should have been dead by now. Even my hospice people are surprised that I’m lingering. I think I’ve been extremely patient so far, but this is ridiculous. I want this to be over, damnit. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
There was a blockage, no doubt about it. I could feel it all around me. Had they overlooked something important? I thought I’d better try and find out.
“Yeah, months ago. I’m satisfied that we’ve taken care of every last legal detail. I’ve even had two different lawyers sign off on the deal.”
“How about family; any unfinished business there?
“No, my parents are here, sisters and brothers have all been through here at one time or another. I’m feeling real good about all of my relationships.”
I was stumped. They appeared to have thought of everything. Nothing seemed out of place. So why did we all feel on edge? We sat quietly for a while and then I said, “You know, James, maybe it’s something metaphysical.”
“You mean like God and heaven and that sort of thing?”
“Yeah, in a roundabout sort of way. I was just sitting here thinking about what would be on my mind if I were in your place, facing my imminent death. I suppose I would be thinking about immortality, not in any conventional sense of that word, but more in terms of my legacy. I guess I’m really self-conscious, or maybe it’s vanity, I don’t know, but I think I’d be wondering about my contribution to this wounded world. Since I think about this a lot and I’m not sick, I’m sure that I’d be concerned about it as I lay dying. We’re not such different people, you and I. Do you ever wonder about the impact you’ve had on your world? Is any of this even making any sense?”
Silence. Then tears pooled in his eyes.
“You know, I’ve been a foodie all my life. When I moved to the Bay Area thirty years plus ago it was because it’s the center of the food world. All the world’s greatest cuisines come together here. It’s the culinary Mecca. This town really appreciates the creativity and art involved in cooking. I’ve had the good fortune to work with the best chefs in the world and, in turn, they’ve shared my table. I was good; I mean I was real good. And now that I’m dying, no one has asked me for my recipes. Was it all for nothing?”
“Sweetheart, your friends would never think to ask you for your recipes. They all secretly covet them, of course, but asking for them would be out of the question. It would be kind of ghoulish, don’t you think? Like vultures hovering, waiting to pick over a carcass. And you have to admit that you haven’t been particularly forthcoming about any of this yourself.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m dying. It’s different now. It’s my legacy, just like Richard said.”
Two days later a simple but elegant ritual had been prepared. Champagne was chilled, a couple of friends were called, and James directed Rebecca to fetch his treasure. Choking back tears of gratitude, he blessed us all.
“Thanks for making this such a great ride, you guys.”
As he said this, he handed each of us a memory stick, which held the booty. James entrusted us with his cookbook manuscript in the hopes that we would have it published after his death. He insisted that the title be: Food to Die For. We promised that we would do our best and thanked him for his trust and friendship.
I guess that took care of that, because seven hours later James was dead.
“Can’t you see I’m starving? I have needs too, you know. For as much love as I get from you, I could be living on the moon. Are we ever going to resume our sex life? Because if I wanted to live like a nun I woulda joined a convent. Your sex aversion is making me sick.”
I want to introduce you to my friend, Holly, (not her real name). She is 43. She had a double mastectomy three years ago and has been cancer-free since. She’s a graphic artist, shares a home with her partner (now wife) of ten years, Jean, and their teenage daughter Annie.
A beautiful smile radiates from Holly’s full mocha-colored face. Oodles of thick jet-black braids spring from her head as from a fountain gone mad. She is forever brushing one or another of them from her face as she speaks. Her frequent laughter is like music, making her whole body dance and shake, but her levity masks a somberness and apprehension that is very troubling to her.
She tells me; “I often become consumed with worries about getting sick again. My fears can turn into a paralyzing dread that takes days and sometimes weeks to shake. I know that until I can accept the possibility of my own death, I’ll never be able to embrace all the great things that are right in front of me.”
Later in our conversation she says;
“Ok, so if ya wanna know the truth, I’m dealing with some big-time body issues. The mastectomy really scarred me psychologically as well as physically. I didn’t realize the dimensions of all of this until I had finished the chemo and radiation I was doing. For a good six months after the surgery, I was so sick from all that poison that the thought of sex of any kind made me nauseous. I didn’t even want to have Jean in the same bed with me. It was awful.
Over time the nausea diminished and I was able to resume some semblance of intimacy with Jean. We were able to be close and do some touching, like sitting on the couch holding hands while watching TV, just as long as it wasn’t sexual.
Then a couple of months ago, Jean and I had this big blowout. We were screaming and yelling about God only knows what when she finally blurts out; ‘Can’t you see I’m starving? I have needs too, you know. For as much intimacy as I get from you, I could be living on the moon. Are we ever going to resume our sex life? Because if I wanted to live like a nun I woulda joined a convent. Your sex aversion is making me sick.’
The intensity and ferocity of Jean’s outburst blew me away. I had completely forgotten about her needs. I know I still love her, of course, but after the surgery I didn’t feel whole. I didn’t feel like a woman, know what I mean?
When things simmered down a bit, I think Jean could tell she wounded me deeply, she said; ‘I’m doing this as much for you as I am for myself. You gotta deal with this, babe.’
Jean was right! I was starving too, but I was too afraid and ashamed to admit it. We’ve made some lame attempts to move past the status quo since then, but it’s still not like the old days.
My God, in the old days Jean and I were like wild women, letting it all hang out. Some of that was lesbian pride, but it was also a kind of in-your-face protest. We were both like; ‘These are my breasts, damnit! Get over it!’ I don’t see how I can ever regain that.
I mean, how can I make a gift of myself to someone if I’m not feeling much like I’m a treasure? I still have shame about losing my breasts. I’m not a whole person anymore.”
“Hold on there, Holly. Where did you lose your breasts, at the laundromat? You didn’t lose your breasts. You had cancer. They were surgically removed to save your life. There’s no shame in that! To think otherwise is self-defeating.
Besides, it doesn’t sound like Jean thinks of you as damaged goods at all. You’re still attracted to her, right?
That’s what I thought. Well then, you’re just gonna have to let your love for one another heal you of your shame and self-doubt. You are no less a woman without your breasts. I wonder, have you ever taken the time to grieve the loss of your breasts? Could you go to Jean and ask her to hold you while you weep for what is no longer yours?
Your shame is indeed getting in the way of you reconnecting with Jean. But Jean is your life partner and this is part of life. Share it with her. Don’t try to carry this alone.”
Holly countered; “But I have this completely non-existent sex drive. The first couple of months after the chemo and radiation, I would have this weird feeling when Jean would try to be close to me. It was like being on a bad acid trip or something. I felt as though my body was there with her but I wasn’t. I felt nothing. My headspace was totally different from how it was before I got sick. I would lie there thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening? Will I ever feel normal again? How many more opportunities will I have to be with Jean like this before I die? Why don’t I feel what I used to feel?”
I said, “Well, for one thing, you were fighting for your life back then, right? That’s bound to alter a person’s perceptions a bit, wouldn’t you say?
Listen; can I suggest that you have a heart-to-heart talk with Jean about your concerns? Tell her what you are telling me. Just be sure that you have this conversation at some neutral time, not during an intimate moment. This way you could speak freely about what you are thinking and feeling without fear of Jean misinterpreting your comments as sexual rejection. How does that sound to you?”
“But what if I screw this up?” What if this somehow scars Jean for the rest of her life? I don’t what that to happen. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. I’m afraid something bad might happen and that’s why I’m frozen in place.”
“There are ways to overcome this stalemate, Holly. First, you need to reassure Jean that you are committed to working through this impasse with her. I think she needs some assurance that you haven’t given up. And in return you could ask her for her patience, because the process may be a slow one. One thing for sure, you’re gonna have to give her some sort of timeline; otherwise you may find yourself putting this off indefinitely. And that won’t do.
I recommend that the two of you begin to explore what is possible now in your sex life together. Avoid comparing what you are able to do now with how things were in the past. Keep the exploration simple and open-ended. And I suggest that you don’t create a goal to be achieved. That’s where most people in your situation go wrong. Keep you exploration moving forward, of course, but also try to keep it open-ended.
You guys might start with some cuddling and spoon breathing. Do you know what that is? It’s a great exercise! I highly recommend it.
Here’s what you do lay on your side next to one another like two spoons—Jean’s front to your back. Then try to match one another’s breathing pattern. First Jean will try to match your breathing pattern then you guys could switch position—your front to her back, and you could try to match her breathing pattern. This exercise can be done with or without clothing. You will be amazed at how comforting this will be for you both. It’s the ideal place to start rebuilding a sense of confidence about being physically together.
As time goes on, your spoon breathing embraces could become more adventuresome. When you are feeling up to it, take one of Jean’s hands in one of your own hands and guide it over your body in a way that feels pleasurable and comfortable for you. You could show her the kind of stroke and pressure that is desirable for you. This will be a very effective way of reestablishing a threshold for what is possible between the two of you now as well as moving forward.
Guided-hand sensual touch like this can be expanded to include genitals if and when you ready. You could help educate Jean on how to pleasure you in a way that would allow you to be more of a passive recipient rather than an active participant in your lovemaking if that’s what you want.
I suspect that these two exercises will be a good place for you and Jean to start the non-verbal communication that is just as essential as having that chat that I mentioned earlier. The only other suggestions I have to offer are these: keep these exercises playful and honor your limits.
Maybe you could get back to me in a few weeks and let me know how it goes.”