“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 my friend Holly? She is a 43-year-old graphic artist who shares a home with Jean, her wife of ten years, and their teenage daughter, Annie. She is also living with breast cancer. Holly had a double mastectomy three years ago and she has been dealing with some big-time body issues post-surgery.
The mastectomy scarred her both physically and psychologically. These scars have had a tremendous impact on her intimate life with Jean. In my earlier column, I recounted a meeting in which we tried to formulate a strategy to overcome these emotional and physical obstacles.
I asked Holly if she had ever taken the time to grieve the loss of her breasts. I suggested that she ask Jean to hold her while she mourned for what is no longer hers.
I recommended 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.
I gave Holly two exercises: 1) spoon breathing — to rebuild a sense of confidence about being physically together with Jean again. And 2) guided-hand touch — to reestablish a threshold for what is possible between them.
I asked Holly to get back to me in a few weeks and let me know how things are going.
An ebullient Holly returned, and recounted the couple’s past weeks.
“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 out all the stuff you and I talked about,” Holly said. “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 that I had a headache, she would leave me alone.”
As a matter of fact, Holly did have a headache, mostly as a result of all the anticipation. She had so much fear and shame bottled up inside for so long, she didn’t know what or how would come out. She was afraid she would say the wrong thing and make matters worse.
When she entered the house, Holly reported heading straight for the bedroom- but Jean cut her off at the kitchen, inquiring what was wrong.
“I was shaking all over,” she said. “My legs felt like rubber, and I began to cry. I wound up slumped on the floor where my crying became a wail.”
Understandably, Jean was freaked. She had never seen Holly in such a state. She helped her to her feet, and the couple stumbled to the bedroom to collapse.
However, Holly began to undress- until that point, a signal for Jean to exit.
“I haven’t let her see me naked since the surgery,” Holly said. “She was afraid to leave me alone in my hysteria, but she also didn’t want to embarrass me more. She got up to go, but I could feel her anguish.”
By that point, tears streamed down Jean’s face too. But Holly reached for Jean’s hand and pulled her down next to her. She began to undo the buttons of her top, turning away from Jean as she undid her bra. Holly was frozen in place.
“I was never so scared in all my life,” Holly told me. “Jean stroked my back with her fingers, and the caress was so gentle that it could hardly even be called a touch at all. But for some reason, it calmed me.”
As she turned toward Jean, Holly brought her hands to her face in shame and began to sob harder.
“She stood and faced me, and her hands reached out until they came to rest on my scars,” Holly said. “It was like her hands were both fire and ice, but I didn’t pull away. I was finally doing what I should have done two years ago.”
When Holly was finally able to speak, her first words were “they’re gone.”
She took Jean in her arms and the two kissed as lovers for the first time in three years.
Holly’s story and her courage were stunning, and she now reports noticing a renewed interest in living.
“I don’t mean just going through the motions- I’ve done too much of that already,” Holly said. “I want to live and be present for whatever life holds for as long as it is available.”
This new focus includes being aware of her own limits; when Holly is tired or in pain, she knows she needs to acknowledge it and rest.
I believe Holly is a role model for anyone facing a similar situation.