The members of my large family have always considered it their life’s mission to give inappropriate and unsolicited advice. Whether it was my great-great-grandma telling me that gum sticks to your heart, or my little brother reminding me that my loud sneezes are a huge character flaw, there is never a shortage of cautionary tales and questionable self-improvement tips. So on the rare occasion someone I respect passes down a piece of useful information, I try to pay close attention.
One of these moments presented itself when my grandma interjected in the middle of an unrelated conversation that I should “make a point to look better than you feel.”
I don’t remember exactly, but I assume I must have looked especially terrible that day, because grandma is never intentionally offensive. In her defense, as a teen I had this bad habit of skipping showers and generally neglecting my appearance if I was sick or in an otherwise foul mood. I think the vibe I was going for was something like, I’m having a particularly nightmarish period so suffer as I suffer, bitches!. . . I’m ashamed to say it didn’t get much better as an adult.
Over time, the meaning of my grandma’s carefully offered nugget of insight started to sink in. I was 21 when I developed salivary gland cancer on the right side of my neck. Then came the worst year of my life, filled with invasive diagnostic testing, risky surgery and six weeks of radiation therapy during which I dropped thirty pounds.
Needless to say, I know something about feeling like crap. I found myself falling back on Grandma’s old mantra, “Never look as terrible as you feel.” Some mornings, it took all the will I could muster just to shower before treatment. I was tempted again and again to give in to the “Screw you, world,” attitude. For a while, taking the time to get dressed in real clothes, do my makeup and fix my hair seemed like a huge waste if time.
But I soon discovered that looking normal eventually helped to make me feel normal.
It was a huge boost when I found out that the other moms at my stepdaughter’s bus stop had no idea there was anything going on. I could talk about normal things with normal people who didn’t pull on my ear to look at my scar or ask me over and over again how I was feeling. This was possible only because I took the effort to control how much I let people know about my illness.
In the middle of this whole mess, I got together with some friends from college who I hadn’t seen in ages. They had no idea about the cancer. When someone eventually asked me about my fresh scar, they were surprised and even slightly offended that I hadn’t told them. I then explained that I didn’t want cancer to saturate any more of my life than it had to. My life was made up of so many beautiful and wonderful things–I didn’t want people to forget that there was more to me than my cancer.
Looking back on it now, I know I would have had a much harder time handling everything if I had given in and just let it all go. No one would have said a word. . . goodness knows no one would have blamed me. But I would have been completely consumed by the darkness. My reflection in the mirror would have confirmed all of the horrible thoughts in my head, making them real and giving them power to control my life.
The idea that you can trick your brain (and the world) into believing you feel better than you really do can be powerful and life-changing. It was the best gift I’ve ever been given, passed down by a wise woman who had no idea the tool she was giving me. I encourage anyone going through physical or emotional challenges to remember that yes, the shower will be worth it.