My mission of self-discovery began when I started documenting my journey through breast cancer. But it did not end there. The more I wrote, the more I learned. I initially wanted to know why my breast cancer diagnosis set off such a wave of sorrow inside me. Why was my past trauma fast and furiously suddenly showing up in my present, and why was I rocking myself to sleep as I did as a child? What I found out was so much more than I envisioned.
As my hands fiddled with a paperclip I had picked up on the side table, I talked about the loss and pain of my childhood. Again. It was like looking out a train window, watching the stages of my life rumble by. I traveled through all the grieving steps again—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and not all in that order. The psychological stress of digging it all up again took me back to a time and place I was way too familiar with. There I was: a sad child, a lost teenager, a lonely young adult. A feeling of panic often sat in the pit of my stomach. During my therapy sessions, the gate that held back the pain and trauma of those memories was starting to open.
The stress and trauma that my body had experienced were still inside me as if frozen in time.
My therapist’s name was Carol, and our entire first session focused on my family and upbringing. Part of me wished we could have fast-forwarded through that part, as it always conjured old deep-seated wounds. Try as I might to will those wounds to be healed, they wouldn’t cooperate. And, like unhealed wounds, mine started oozing blood again.
I had finished my treatments for breast cancer months ago—four rounds of chemotherapy and thirty-three days of radiation. I wanted to put this whole cancer chapter behind me. I was getting my energy back. I believed I was moving on with my life. Why couldn’t I shake the impending doom feeling and the crippling nightmares?
Processing Past Trauma
To process the flooding memories, I woke up most days at five am and wrote until mid-morning. I hung up large 20 x 20 post-it notes on my office wall. As a visual person, I thought that might help me make sense of what was going on in my head. It was as if someone suddenly turned on a movie projector, scenes of my childhood that had laid dormant for close to forty years played. I filled the yellow paper cup with each scene that played in my head.
Here I was fifty-three years old and teetering on the edge. As I desperately searched for the off button, I relived each episode I wrote about. Week after week, crumbling into tears and then trying to climb up from the exhaustion that followed.
Would I ever finish mourning the loss of my childhood?
I remembered how I’d filed away information I’d found when first looking for causes of my breast cancer. Now my curiosity led me back to that research.
I found an article that suggested a cancer diagnosis may trigger cognitive and emotional responses that relate to a patients’ prior traumatic experiences. Is that what happened to me? Has my body held onto all these emotions, and my cancer diagnosis brought it all back? I now understood why I’d still been rocking myself to sleep.
Spring turned to Summer and then into Fall. One beautiful golden day in early Fall, I took my laptop to a coffee shop and sat outside, deeply breathing in the cool autumn air. I discovered a study on ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) that suggested that multiple ACEs may be a risk factor for cancer development—the higher a person’s ACE score, the greater risk to their health throughout their life. For instance, a person who answered yes in four or more categories was twice as likely to develop heart disease and cancer and three and a half times as likely to develop chronic lung disease as a person who’d answered no in all categories.
I took the quiz that went along with the study and answered yes to seven of the ten categories.
I’d always thought that the cause of my anxiety, panic attacks, and depression was related to my upbringing, but I had nothing to prove it. Was it possible that my traumatic childhood had caused my cancer?
Writing My Memoir
What started as a memoir of my breast cancer journey suddenly had a different focus.
I’d come to read books, like Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score and Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s Childhood Disrupted. Both books would become like bibles for me—for living life after trauma.
After several months of seeing Carol, my nightmares lessened, and I was now taking daily walks. My emotional frailty disappeared. I felt strong enough to stop therapy and focus on living my life. My writing continued, and I felt compelled to share my voice through my writing with the world.
My writing led me to better understand myself and the choices I made along my life’s path. Addressing my traumas and writing about them has allowed me to move forward. When you can speak about the trauma you experienced, that’s when you begin to heal. When you walk the path through self-awareness with compassion, you open yourself up to the possibilities of a reclaimed life.
My memoir turned into a story of how our legacy lives within us and how healing from the adverse effects of childhood can genuinely take a lifetime.
Like a lotus flower, we all can rise from muddy waters to bloom out of the darkness and radiate into the world.
Susan Frances Morris was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, the second-oldest of seven siblings with two sets of twins. She was a practicing nurse from 1989 to 2011, primarily in women’s health. The highlight of her career was the time she spent at Yale New Haven Hospital working in nursing management alongside international experts in the field of women’s health. She met her current husband, Bruce, in 1989. Her passions are walking and bike riding in nature, yoga, traveling, photography, and jewelry design. She has three grown children and four grandchildren. Susan lives with her husband and two dogs in Clifton Park, New York. You can find her on her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.