Mary had been married for twenty-seven years when she was diagnosed at age fifty-two with breast cancer. Virtually overnight, their marriage that had been characterized by a high degree of trust, respect and intimacy, became a battleground in which Doug was the enemy who was the object of all of Mary’s fear, pain and rage. “It was like getting hit by a truck”, said Doug. “It just came out of nowhere. One day we were in love with each other, the next day, it seemed like she wanted to kill me. The cancer diagnosis really threw us both but I never expected that reaction from Mary. No matter what I did, it seemed like nothing was good enough. Every effort I made left her feeling angrier with me. After a while I just gave her more space, but this infuriated her even more. She raged at me accusing me of abandoning her. I knew that she was scared; we were both overwhelmed by the cancer, but no matter what I did, nothing seemed to help. I wasn’t going to leave the relationship but in all the time that we’d been together it had never been so hard.”
“It was as though I was possessed by a demon”, was the way Mary described her experience. “For the first six months after the diagnosis, throughout the chemotherapy, the surgery, and the radiation treatments I was a raving lunatic. It wasn’t just Doug that received my wrath, it was everyone, but he got the brunt of it. It wasn’t that I hated him; it was that somehow the cancer had ripped open the doors that contained all of the rage that I had been stuffing my whole life.
Fifty years of being a good girl, a nice person, a patient wife, pretending that I never felt angry or helpless or tired or upset. It all came up at once. It seemed like there was no controlling it, and even if I could, there was a part of me that didn’t want to. Even while I was raging at Doug and feeling guilty about dumping so much on him, a bigger part of me was saying ‘Yes! Go for it! It’s about time! You’ve swallowed enough shit for three lifetimes. No more!’ I know Doug’s didn’t deserve what I dumped on him, but I would do the same thing if I had it to do over again. For the first time in my life it seemed as though I wasn’t driven by my fear of displeasing people. What did I have to lose? For the first time I felt free.”
What Mary experienced was a form of what we call ‘shadow possession’. When we fail to honor the unwanted aspects of ourselves for prolonged periods of time, a life crisis can unexpectedly rip the cover off our feelings exposing us (and others) to the raw emotion that had been covered by a lifetime of denial. All hell breaks loose.
Doug and Mary’ not only survived their marital crisis, but came through it with more personal strength and shared love and than they had previously experienced. They both describe their current relationship as having greater depth, passion, and authenticity than they had prior to her diagnosis. Mary says, “Cancer forced us into a place that we had been avoiding throughout our marriage. It confronted us with the fact that we had been settling for security and comfort rather than the passion that comes from real honesty. The first thing that we both had to get honest about was how dishonest we had both been. We next had to admit how much more we wanted out of the marriage and how afraid we were of going after it. We had both been playing it safe and if it wasn’t for the cancer we probably still would be.”
Doug says, I can’t really say that I’m glad that Mary got sick, but I am grateful for the changes that the crisis provoked in our lives. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but what we came through it with was sure worth it.”