I’m currently visiting my parents in my hometown in New Hampshire (go…granite? And…cows?) as part of my summer “funemployment” travels. One of the best parts of visiting home, other than seeing my family and friends here on the East Coast, is hanging out with my old black labrador retriever, Jazzy (née Jasmine – yes, after the Disney princess. SHE HAD GREAT HAIR, OK?).
Jazzy is fourteen years old this month, and still almost as energetic and as sweet and hungry for treats as ever. She’s an extremely comforting presence to all who meet her, and she is possibly my parents’ favorite child. She’s also approximately ninety-eight years old in dog years, and our family is aware that we don’t have much time left with her.
This awareness was intensified this weekend, when I was petting her and discovered a large lump on her right flank. My parents took her to the vet on Monday, and found that it was cancer, specifically a mast cell tumor, common in older dogs. Despite her age, the vet recommended surgery as she’s in good shape otherwise, and it was scheduled for the following day. Though anxious about our beloved pet, we all felt good about this course of action and relatively upbeat.
However, about an hour after her appointment, I was petting her again, this time on her left flank, and, lo and behold, what should I feel there but another lump, this time with two nodules, that felt exactly like the cancerous tumor I had discovered on her other side. My parents and I promptly lost it. Jazzy, unaware of why we were all freaking out, simply went to each of us for her usual round of head scratchings, probably thinking to herself, “God, these humans sure are weird. Can I have a treat, please?”
Everything turned out ok – we took Jazzy in the next morning for surgery, and they simply removed both tumors, and told us it’s likely that this will be the end of it. She was hilariously high on pain medication last night (she would be a terrible companion for a pub crawl), and is pretty exhausted today, but the vet says she could live another year or more of high-quality life if no more cancer crops up. Here she is this morning in one of her favorite spots, her crate, dozing from the pain meds – you can see her scar on her belly if you look closely, as well as the white patch on her leg from her previous bout with cancer seven years ago (yep, this literal bitch is a literal 2x cancer survivor):
This whole incident, however, got me thinking about how I judge myself based on my emotional reactions. After I discovered the second tumor, I was numb, and then angry, and then I sobbed. I could barely sleep Monday night, and was a wreck most of yesterday from lack of sleep and anxiety about how Jazzy was holding up in surgery. And all the time I was experiencing this flow of “negative” emotions and sensations, I was berating myself for feeling them. “She’s just a dog,” I thought to myself. “Other people in the world are suffering horrible tragedies like earthquakes and starvation and Donald Trump running for president, and you’re literally losing sleep over a fourteen-year-old quadruped who’s already lived beyond the average lifespan for her breed. You’re a ridiculous and stupid white girl.” I apologized to my mother when she saw me crying. My parents were great, supporting each other and me by saying “it’s ok to be sad, we love her – old dog or not.” I still couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt, however, over being “too emotional” over something that was “not a big deal.”
Once the surgery was over and Jazzy came home in good, albeit dog-drunk, shape, my relief allowed me to make the connection (my therapist would be proud!) that trivializing my emotions, regardless of their cause, is a pattern I’ve engaged in my whole life. I used to get so upset at work when I was stressed or when someone said or did something unprofessional or mean, and then get even MORE upset by the demon voice in my head which told me I was overreacting or being unreasonable. Society in general teaches us to suppress or hide “bad” emotions, like grief, anger, or frustration, especially when the cause of these emotions isn’t justifiable by some arbitrary standard. Inconsolable because your ninety-year-old grandfather died? Well, he lived a long life, what are you crying for?! In a rage because some sexist jerk at work made a joke about the size of your ass? Happens to everyone – no need to make a fuss – also, you might want to consider losing a few pounds! Depressed because you got divorced? Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all!
Any of this sound familiar to anyone?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy or feasible for people to go around constantly weeping or screaming or otherwise giving full vent to every single emotion in public. But I do think that we harm ourselves by judging certain emotions as “bad” and then encouraging, if not mandating, that we suppress any expression of these emotions, even in public or professional settings. I think it can be appropriate, even useful, to cry at work, for instance: one of the best moves I ever made in managing the relationship with a client was telling him that he had made me cry (he had berated me in a meeting in front of forty people). When he truly realized how his actions had made me feel, our entire relationship changed – it became more honest, more respectful, and more effective. By the time I left the company, he was my favorite client – all because I let him know, with my words AND body language, how angry and sad he had made me feel with his behavior.
Lol looking at this post it seems sort of weird to go from talking about an old dog with cancer to crying at work, but to me the connection is important. It’s ok for me to cry about my sick dog. It’s ok for you to be angry with a mean coworker and to express that anger appropriately. It’s ok to laugh out loud when something is really fucking funny. It’s ok to be a real, whole human being, and not a robot or a Vulcan.
If you’re reading, I’m interested to hear about your own experiences – how do you deal with strong emotions in tough situations? How do you remain authentic to yourself in a society where authenticity is often touted but rarely embraced?
I hope you have a great week. I’m off to pet Jazzy – she’s milking this “I had cancer! Pet me!” thing for all it’s worth!