My eyes were caught by a very interesting tweet this week, from blogging friend Bringing up Goliath where she asked “Wondering when to tell a new friend my breast cancer story. Has this happened to anyone else? How did you bring it up?”
This is something I immediately identified with, and there followed a flurry of tweets and Facebook discussion which quickly revealed that this is a dilemma faced by many of us. This was developed into her blog post which appeared later the same day. The post beautifully describes the quandary we find ourselves in when connecting with someone new, developing a friendship and when and how to “disclose” such an important piece of personal information.
At the crux of this is the fact that although many of us are not in the midst of heavy treatment, we have been and we live with the knowledge that we may again be. That is just the reality of the diagnosis. It is not about being negative or positive, it is just a fact. It might not be visible but it is there. so this means it is an important part of who we are now, it is a Big Deal and it is Never Over.
This is a predicament I often find myself in, living overseas and amongst a community of transient people. In my professional and personal life I meet new people regularly. One of the first questions we tend to be asked, after name and what are we doing here, is “how long have you been here?” And that is where it starts to become difficult for me. I have been here, in Myanmar, for over 2 years. But my first year was the lost year and I don’t really feel that I can truly say I have “been here” that long. But the question is usually asked far too early on to be able to clarify. Depending on how much I feel I connect with this person I might say nothing, or I might drop a bland “I missed most of my first year due to ill health”. And then I try to move the conversation in another direction so that I don’t have to “come out” so soon in a possible friendship. But that then gives the problem that if I connect with that person more regularly, if we develop a friendship, then when is the right time and how on earth do I disclose this? I have a strong urge to share this Big Important Fact, which has become an elephant in the room. But I am the only one who knows it is there.
This reminds me so much of a similar disclosure question which I also struggle with. Someone very important, close to me, is gay. Lets call that person A. In our own home context, disclosure, while never easy, is familiar ground. However, in different parts of the world this is not an easy subject to broach and it requires a very sensitive reading of a context and situation. As friendships and working relationships span a wealth of diversity in terms of nationality and background, so too do the values and beliefs held. And that is something which must be respected and understood. I remember misjudging a situation horribly in one country I lived. I had been there for a number of years and developed some very close friendships. One particular friend and I were very close. We worked together on issues of diversity and equity which were deeply rooted and challenging. We had also supported each other through a number of personal crises and problems. So following a visit from the aforementioned A with their partner, I had a long chat with my friend. Now A is very open and comfortable about disclosure, and I have “carte blanche” to be open about their status. A signal was given and I shared with my friend the fact that A is gay. To say that my friend was visibly shocked is an understatement. I instantly realised that I had misjudged the situation and that she was most uncomfortable. But like a disclosure about breast cancer, it cannot be retracted. Once revealed it is well and truly out there. We both changed the subject, and did not return to it. I felt dreadful for having made her so uncomfortable and for not respecting and realising just how deep rooted beliefs are, even though we had worked together on diversity and discrimination. But the incredible thing was, that months later, she raised the subject with me herself. She asked if the friend who had visited with A was in fact their partner. I confirmed that they were in a relationship and we were able to move forward. It taught me such a lot about the complexity and diversity of deep rooted beliefs. And she is still one of my closest friends nearly a decade later. But with every new friendship, if the topic of friends and families comes up, I always have to stop and think whether it is appropriate or not to disclose that A is gay or whether a little white lie is easier for everyone.
The awkwardness of sharing the fact that I have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer might have different reasons for its discomfort, but the result is similar. This is often further complicated in this overseas context where friendships are formed with people I might not connect with in different circumstances. I live in quite a small city and in terms of expats (I really try and avoid using that term but find no choice here) it is like a small village. And that means that word gets round. It is no secret in social and professional circles that I am “the woman who was treated with breast cancer” but that does not mean I know who knows it, and that makes it more complicated. And let’s face it, over a year after the end of the visible treatment and sick leave, it is not necessarily something which is still mentioned.
Another aspect of this mobile and transient life when coupled with the internet and technological advance, is the reconnection with people I may have lost contact with. This has happened a number of times, thanks to Facebook and Twitter particularly and I am delighted to reconnect with friends around the globe. But the same question arises, and is really difficult. When and how do I tell them that I am not the same person in many was, as I was before. And I am not talking about the differences due to surgery and treatment, but the difference in my mindset and psychology.
In all of these situations, I find that when I get to a stage that I feel that it is like “keeping a secret” not to have disclosed, then I try and seek a signal or opening. I also drop little hints, being on long term medication, having been medivacked, having a serious illness hep to lay the foundation for the Big Disclosure.
This is a situation which keeps coming up and is not likely to stop doing so any time soon. So when I am introduced to someone new here, and I am asked “How long have you been here?” I feel myself hesitate before I hear myself reply “Around 2 years……..”