Wednesday 11 November, 2020

Putting Vulnerability to the Test: How Two Dates Went with Cancer

The masterful Brené Brown wrote the following in her introduction to Daring Greatly:

“Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be—a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation—with courage and willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”

Vulnerability is a must when dating with cancer

Vulnerability is thematic to this journey we are taking together. All of the self-doubt and fear we share about throwing ourselves to the dating wolves comes from a place of shame, as it has been researched and discussed by Brené. (Please read Daring Greatly, or at least watch her Ted Talks. You won’t regret it). By this I mean we are inherently ashamed by thinking we are lesser than. We aren’t the pictures of health and virility we’ve held in our minds our entire lives, and thus we think we aren’t enough, or that no one could possibly think we are enough.

I propose we accept Brené’s postulation: to be vulnerable is to walk into the arena and dare to be seen, regardless of the external reception, and in doing so be true to ourselves and our values. This messaging aligns with our give a fuck mentality; in other words, to be vulnerable is to not give a fuck.

And this is how I am approaching dating with cancer.

But the thing about theory is that it convinces us we know all the answers. It’s easy to imagine thinking the following: “Great, I’ve read about vulnerability—now I can be vulnerable.” This is dangerous thinking. It is the application of theory that makes the difference.

I’ve worked hard for a long time on learning how to be vulnerable, so I might have a head start as it relates to jumping into this process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t jump right in, too. To me, there is nothing healthier than accepting yourself—owning who you are—and engaging with the world on that basis. If you don’t feel like you’re prepared, and if my meanderings aren’t enough to help you take the plunge, I highly suggest reading the two books I’ve referenced: Daring Greatly and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Brené and Mark might be on different levels as it relates to expertise in their respective fields, but both have helped me a lot in their own way.

Having accepted vulnerability must be part of the journey, I simply cannot continue without discussing the story of my first two meaningful yet vastly different experiences in dating with cancer. It began in the same way I remembered from my time with dating apps: lots of swiping, few matches, and hit or miss conversations. But among all of the traditional angst running parallel with subjecting yourself to swipe culture, and doing so knowing I’ve got a huge secret to tell, I matched and conversed with two great women: D and K.

My two dates, D and K

D was a single mom of two grown children, and took COVID very seriously. (As should we all). She was very sweet, and kind, and we shared similar stories of recent breakups. (Coincidentally, she was one of the few who didn’t immediately project her own timelines onto me about taking longer to grieve and heal). She ran her own business and talked passionately about it, and she shared lots of wisdom and life experience in a very strong, independent way.

K was a teacher. We hit it off right away after matching on Bumble, talking for the next 8 hours, into the wee hours of the morning. (I do not remember the last time I did this). We shared interests in science fiction and fantasy and other nerdy pursuits. We shared values, and we seemed to vibe off each other. She was full of quirk and personality.

Telling them about my cancer diagnosis

I decided to tell both D and K about my cancer right away. I’d talked to several other matches beforehand and had learned that the responses I would receive—whether ghosting or not—would not vary whether I was funny about the cancer or serious, no matter how heavy the knowledge. For D and K, I settled with a matter of fact approach: “What are your thoughts on dating someone with cancer?”

D’s response was unexpected. She appreciated me telling her and didn’t ask much about it at all. She seemed more focused on building a connection, friendship or otherwise, than about what my cancer might mean in the end. I found this extremely positive and hopeful. Here was one of my first interactions, and it seemed I might not have to worry so much at all.

K’s response was to withdraw, but not completely. I could tell the great vibe we had shared was in jeopardy, even if she continued to talk with an aim to meet. And this was understandable, because our greatest bond had derived from a sharing of our tragedies and struggle: me with cancer and past medical issues, and her with loss of family members… including her dad from cancer when she was young. I became immediately weary—not because dropping the C-bomb was received negatively, but because I realized in that moment the extent of the implications dating and potentially marrying someone with cancer might have.

In Chapter 2 of Daring Greatly, Brené wrote about the myths of vulnerability. Among them, she discussed letting it all hang out. In her view,

 “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps… Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and discouragement.”

In Chapter 4, Brené goes on to discuss a concept she calls floodlighting:

“When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them—people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are the crucial connection questions. When we share vulnerability, especially shame stories, with someone with whom there is no connectivity, their emotional (and sometimes physical) response is often to wince, as if we have shone a floodlight in their eyes. Instead of a strand of delicate lights, our shared vulnerability is blinding, harsh, and unbearable. If we are on the receiving end, our hands fly up and cover our faces, we squeeze our entire aces (not just our eyes) shut, and we look way. When it’s over, we feel depleted, confused, and sometimes even manipulated.

What I learned about revealing my cancer diagnosis right off the bat

Here lay a risk and conundrum I had not expected when engaging in this process. By choosing to reveal my cancer right away, before even having met, I was dumping a heavy burden on someone who might not be equipped to receive it—where trust and connection had not been carefully shaped. Was this selfish of me? Trust is a two-way street; this isn’t just about me trusting someone with the reality of my medical condition, but also about someone else trusting me to be there for them if they are going to be vulnerable by choosing to spend time with me.

I told K I was presenting her with the information right away so she could have the choice to walk away, and in retrospect, considering what I learned about her personal tragedies, I’m glad I did. But was this for her benefit or for mine? Was I really just shying away from real vulnerability by foisting my situation on another without taking the time to build trust? These are questions I will need to keep in mind as I forge ahead with my journey, because I must ever be aware of other’s feelings.

In the coming days, I continued to talk with D and K to what I thought was great success. Instead, I learned another valuable lesson.

D spontaneously asked me to go for dinner in Canmore. Armed with my newfound give a fuck knowledge, I said why not and went. For the first time I can remember, I pushed aside any anxiety or second-thoughts about whether I saw potential with this woman, and instead just focused on the moment. I stepped into the arena, determined to enjoy the evening.

And I did. While there was not much romantic chemistry between us, D was very good company, and she gave me my first supporting and reinforcing experience. She didn’t care about the cancer, she sympathized and was attentive to my feelings, emotionally and physically (I was still recovering from surgery), and she was kind.

It didn’t work out for us, in the end. We stopped talking soon after the date in the way connections often do—a slow fizzle into nothingness. Whatever the reason, I won’t forget the tapas and the conversation. To me, my dinner with D was a beacon of hope. I could tell someone about cancer and garner a favourable response, and I could enjoy time together afterward.

But whatever brightness I’d gained after seeing D, I almost lost right away after the collapse of my connection with K.

K and I eventually agreed to an evening of wine and board games, true to our geeky selves. We assured each other we wouldn’t take things too fast or succumb to anxious attachment, which we both admitted we have, and to be conscious of the fact she wasn’t sure how to feel about my cancer. She had experienced great loss in her life, after all. As the days passed and our date grew closer, the length and depth of our connection waned. I knew what was coming, though she hadn’t said anything. Then, 30 minutes before our date, after not hearing from her the night previous or after I had texted asking if we’re still on, she reached out to tell me she couldn’t in fact handle the cancer. She had decided the idea of further loss in her life, however uncertain, was too much for her. This was totally fair for her to decide, and I understood. I wish she hadn’t told me 30 minutes before our date, but c’est la vie. We hadn’t built the trust necessary to provide a safe haven for each of our vulnerabilities.

Fear can transform into courage and gratitude

Despite being prepared, and despite my perspective going into this journey, this experience was still a sudden exposure to all of the doubts and fears I’ve had since being thrust into my new reality. Here was the grim reaper. Instead of a black-shrouded figure with a scythe, it was a red flag stitched into my brain. Alert: here be cancer.

Thankfully, my pangs of dread lasted about ten seconds. I had already steeled myself to the possibility of rejection and the reality of women not wanting to embrace me and the diagnosis I carried. I had already committed to being responsible for my own feelings and pushing forward—to being vulnerable. And I had considered the drawbacks of being vulnerable too quickly, for no two people are the same. With this in mind, I internally thanked K for the time we’d shared, then moved on. I hope she took only good things away, too.

These two experiences showed me the extremes I was facing. On one hand, D was sympathetic but seemingly apathetic about my health and it’s meaning in the future; on the other, K could not shake the prospect of future loss from her calculus of present connection. I am grateful for each encounter, and each provided me insight into the way forward.

Follow Asher’s (@dybsy) experience with cancer and dating – download the War On Cancer App below and follow @dybsy.

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