“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.”
“Let’s take a fresh look at our mortality, and let’s do so in an interactive and positive way. Let’s celebrate the concept that living well and dying well are one and the same thing. I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that, as we die, we can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers. I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying–with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain, and sorrow.”
I presented a workshop to a group of seniors, at a senior center, north of Seattle awhile back. The workshop was titled, Managing Our Mortality. I like that title; if for no other reason than it doesn’t seem to spook folks into thinking doom and gloom as they consider the end of their life. Fact is, and this is a real curious thing, for most people the concept of their mortality is easier to handle than the concept of their death. Even though, let’s face it, they basically are one and the same thing. Such is the power of euphemisms.
At any rate, I began my presentation with some preliminary thoughts on the concept of living a good death. This is another favorite topic of mine. See an earlier posting of mine, Is Death The Enemy? I am of the mind that a good life and a good death are one and the same thing, but this is a real hard sell for someone who is enjoying one’s life (especially one’s golden years) and who is not yet ready to go push up daises.
All these workshops begin with a proclamation. “Let’s take a fresh look at our mortality, and let’s do so in an interactive and positive way. Let’s celebrate the concept that living well and dying well are one and the same thing. I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that, as we die, we can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers. I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying–with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain, and sorrow.”
While I was saying this I was watching the body language of those gathered to hear me speak. I know this is a critical moment in the presentation. A swift rise in the anxiety level of just a few participants can be contagious to the whole group. I notice that there was a modest amount of lip pursing, clearing of throats, shifting in their seats, and crossing of arms. This signaled that some were ill at ease, but I thought I was ok with the majority so I pressed on. But just to be sure, I casually added that I deliver this very same message regardless of my audience—college kids, soccer moms, healing and helping professionals, what have you. This seemed to settle down my audience a bit. I guess they were reassured that I wasn’t singling them out for a special dose of reality just because they were of a certain age.
I was just about to move on to my next point when a nicely dressed woman with carefully coiffed platinum-colored hair meekly raised her hand with a question. I called on her. She said; “I don’t understand the concept of a good death. There’s nothing ‘good’ about death. Death is the end. I’m really enjoying my retirement, I’m involved with all sorts of creative things I never had time for when I was working and raising my family. I don’t relish the thought of all this coming to an end any time soon.”
There was a lot of nodding of heads in agreement. A man, further back in the room, who appeared to be well into his 70’s, stood up, with the aid of his cane, in anticipation that I would call on him. I pointed to him and asked, “Do you have a question?” “Yes I do! Actually it’s more of a statement.” I said, “Please continue.” “Well, seems to me that dying is hard enough. All this talk of a ‘good death’ sounds like you are layering on an expectation that we do it correctly. I take exception to that.”
Again, there’s more nodding of heads. And then there was a fair amount of whispered chatter too.
I could tell the anxiety level in the group was beginning to peak. Perhaps I misjudged my audience. I thought they were with me, but at least some of them were either resisting or confused by the concept of a good death. So I decide to circle back to see if I could head off their growing concern.
I addressed the man in the back of the room who was still standing and leaning slightly on his cane. “I think there has been some misunderstanding. When I use the term a ‘good death,’ I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a ‘proper’ way of dying. As you suggest, sir, dying is hard enough all by itself, I certainly don’t want to add performance anxiety to the mix. Is anyone else getting the impression that I’m talking about a ‘correct way’ to die?”
I quickly took stock of the situation. If a few people were bold enough to raise their hands, others must have been feeling the same way but were too timid to acknowledge it. I decided to approach this in different way. I asked; “If we were talking about living the good life, would any of you feel as if you needed to conform to some arbitrary notion of what the ‘good life’ is?” Most everyone shook their head. “I thought not! So why then, did you make that leap when I mentioned the concept of a ‘good death’?”
This stumped my audience.
I went on to say; “One of the reasons death is such a hot button issue for most of us is because we’ve isolated death way over at the extreme end of our life. I think that’s a mistake. For one thing, it makes death stick out like a sore thumb, when actually it is part and parcel of life. Death is embedded in life. Nothing is alive that will not die. In fact, more things die than will ever have a real life. Consider the infant that is stillborn. For that child birth and death occurred at the same moment. But just because you and I lived beyond that crucial period in our lives, doesn’t me we were in the clear, so to speak.
If the truth were told, the first breath we took once outside our mother’s womb set us on a trajectory toward the inevitable end of our life. And each of us is old enough to have witnessed the death of many people, some older and some younger; if not personally then by proxy. We’ve all seen the carnage of war, the ravages of disease, and we’ve known sudden and accidental death too. So, to my mind, every breath, between our first and our last, is both our living and our dying. That’s why I say that living well and dying well are one and the same thing.”
I let that settle for a bit before I continued.
“There’s a secret I want to pass on to you. It’ll seem pretty simple and self-evident once you’ve embraced it. And the secret is: we must learn to integrate death into life. Once we do that, death stops being this freakish, scary thing over there waiting for its chance to pounce. Death is actually beside us all along. No, that’s not right! Death is not beside us; it’s in us! We are our death in the same way we are our life.
When we live the ‘good life,’ however we choose to define that, we are also living our ‘good death.’ And that’s what I want to address today. If we want to insure that our death, in as much as we have control over it, be good and wise, then we have to be proactive. Just as we have been proactive in living our ‘good life,’ in as much as we have control over that.”
Before I moved on to my next topic I had one final thing to say about a good death. “If we fear death then, on some fundamental level, we fear ourselves. And nothing good, least of all a good life, will ever come of that.”