“She stood and faced me, and her hands reached out until they came to rest on my scars. It was like her touch was both fire and ice, but I didn’t pull away. There was no turning back. I was finally doing what I should have done two years ago.”
Do you remember me introducing you to my friend, Holly? She is a 43 year old graphic artist who shares a home with her wife of ten years, Jean, and their teenage daughter Annie. She is also living through breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy three years ago and has been cancer-free since.
Holly has been dealing with some big-time body issues post surgery. The mastectomy scarred her psychologically as well as physically. This has had a tremendous impact on her intimate life with Jean.
In the earlier column I mentioned above, I recounted an meeting she and I had where we tried to come up with a strategy to overcome these emotional and physical obstacles so that she could resume some semblance of intimacy with Jean.
During that meeting I asked Holly if she had ever taken the time to grieve the loss of your breasts. I suggested that she go to Jean and ask her to hold her while she mourned for what is no longer hers?
I recommend that the Holly and Jean begin to explore what is possible in their sex life together now. I suggested they avoid comparing what they are able to do now with how things were in the past. “Keep the exploration simple and open-ended. And I suggested that they avoid creating a goal to be achieved in their exploration. That’s where most people in their situation go wrong.
I gave Holly two exercises: 1) spoon breathing — to rebuilding a sense of confidence about being physically together with Jean again. And 2) guided-hand touch — to help reestablish a threshold for what is possible between she and Jean as they move forward now.
I suggested that she and Jean keep these exercises playful and that she honor her limits. I asked her to get back to me in a few weeks and let me know how things are going.
Two weeks later an ebullient Holly returned to see me.
“I’ve had a great two weeks. No kidding. Jean and I are on cloud nine. It all started when I got home from our last session. No sooner did I get in the door than Jean was at me with her usual twenty questions. ‘How did it go? What did you talk about with Richard? Did you talk about me?’ And so on and so on. She was following me around the house like a puppy.
I was afraid that was gonna happen. On my way home from your office I was trying to work things out in my head — what should I tell Jean? I couldn’t just blurt it all out, all the stuff you and I talked about. Besides, I was afraid that Jean would pitch a fit about me airing our dirty laundry in public. I thought maybe if I told her I have a headache she’d leave me alone and I won’t have to mix it up with her right then and there.
As a matter of fact, I did have a headache, a big one, but it was mostly from all the anticipation. I had so much bottled up inside of me for so long, all that fear and shame, I didn’t know how it was gonna come out or even if it would come out at all. I was so afraid that I would say the wrong thing and make matters worse. I’ve done that more than once in our relationship.
When I got in the house, I headed straight for the bedroom but she cut me off at the kitchen. ‘What’s wrong, babe? Don’t you want to talk about it?’ I was shaking all over. My legs felt like rubber. I began to cry. I kind of fell in a swoon right into Jean’s arms, just like in the movies, except I’m lots bigger than she is so she couldn’t really catch me. I wound up slumped on the floor where my crying became a wail.
‘Jesus, Holly, what is it? Talk to me. Are you sick? Say something, damnit. You’re freakin’ me out.’
It was only then that I realized I hadn’t yet said a word to Jean since I got home. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I was like a madwoman curled up on the floor rocking back and forth sobbing like a motherless child.
Jean was indeed getting pretty freaked out by this time. She had never seen me like this. She helped me to my feet and we stumbled to the bedroom where we both collapsed on the bed. Mind you, I was still carrying on this whole time.
I started to undress. This generally is a signal for Jean to leave the room, because I haven’t let her see me naked since the surgery. She was afraid to leave me alone in my hysterical condition, but she also didn’t want to embarrass me any further. She got up to go. I could feel her anguish. By now, tears were streaming down her face too. I reached for her hand and pulled her back down to the bed next to me. Still no words.
I began to undo the buttons of my top. My hands were shaking and I was moaning deep inside. I turned away from Jean and undid my bra and let it slip from my shoulders. I had gone this far, now all I had to do is turn and face her. But I couldn’t raise my head. I was frozen in place.
I was never so scared in all my life. Jean stroked my back with her fingers. Her caress was so gentle that it could hardly even be called a touch at all. But for some reason her touch calmed me. I took a couple of deep breaths and stood. Then I slowly turned toward Jean. I brought my hands to my face in shame and began to sob more intensity.
She stood and faced me, and her hands reached out until they came to rest on my scars. It was like her hands were both fire and ice, but I didn’t pull away. There was no turning back. I was finally doing what I should have done two years ago.
When I was finally able to speak, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘they’re gone.’ I took Jean in my arms and pulled her close and we kissed like lovers do for the first time in three years.
I was stunned by Holly’s story. Tears welled in my eyes as she recalled her joyous reconnection with her lover. I thought to myself, what a courageous woman!
After my breakthrough with Jean, I noticed that I have a renewed interest in living. I don’t mean just going through the motions. I’ve done too much of that already. I want to live. I want to be present for whatever life holds for me and for as long as it is available to me. It also means being aware of my limits. When I’m tired or in pain I need to acknowledge that and rest. I’m not real good at taking care of myself in this way, but that’s going to improve, so help me.
What a role model Holly is for anyone facing a similar situation, indeed anyone of us. Too bad there isn’t a place out there where people, like Holly, could tell their intimate stories, successes as well as disappointments, and inspire others.