Hey there. FYI, this letter talks about cancer, grief, and death, so if you’re not feeling up for that today, feel free to skip it. That said, it’s a beautiful story about honoring fear and has a powerful journaling exercise for you at the end, so I suggest reading on, if you can handle it.
About a month ago, I sat on my kitchen floor bawling my eyes out because I had cancer and was going to die.
I don’t actually have cancer. Not that I know of at least. The doctors are 99.9999% sure what I do have are non-cancerous tumors called fibroids.
But the doctors thought my dad’s leukemia was just new aches and pains from turning forty. They thought my brother’s tongue cancer was herpes. They thought my nephew’s leukemia was allergies.
Doctors have been fatally wrong before.
My doctors have already been wrong before about my uterus too. They said my constant pain and horrible periods were just the consequences of old age and fatness. They hid my fibroids from me for years, failing to mention they’d shown up on the sonogram and gaslighting me instead.
What else could they be hiding?
What else could they be missing?
What if it’s cancer after all?!
What if I die young just like my nephew and brother did?!
My fear became palpable, my mind spiraling.
I pulled out every self-help book I had, hoping something would help me “shift my state” and “flip the switch on fear.”
I went to spiritual “guru” websites and got advice from well-meaning friends.
I went for runs (even though I’m severely anemic and shouldn’t get my heart rate up), I tried dieting (even though I have a history of disordered eating and am anti diet culture), I got acupuncture and therapeutic massages (okay, these were actually great).
I read everything I could about fibroids, studied the statistics about them turning cancerous, and joined online hysterectomy support groups.
But everything I tried had one fatal flaw: it wanted to “fix” my feelings.
Do you know the concept of spiritual or emotional bypassing?
According to Psychology Today , the term was coined by John Welwood in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening.
Spiritual bypassing is when people use spiritual practices to “cover up problems [as an] easy way out, as opposed to working on the actual issues and etiology* of the challenges.”
*In case you, like me, didn’t know the word etiology, it means the cuase or set of causes.
Also known as Toxic Positivity, emotional bypassing is similar to spiritual bypassing in that people try to jump over the hard feelings in life and focus only on the good.
Have you ever been in a shit life position and had someone tell you to “just think positive” and it would all be okay?
Did that help?
Or did you want to punch that person in the face?
I don’t know if you’re as prone to violent thoughts when you’re sad like I am, but I definitely feel like punching people in the face when they tell me to just think positive.
Yes, hope and optimism are important to making your dreams come true and thriving in life.
But honoring the hard moments and sitting with the hard feelings is just as important!
When my scary, fearful, negative thoughts first started creeping in, I tried to push them away, judging myself for being a paranoid hypochondriac. I felt like I had to put on a happy face for my friends and try to find a positive spin to all that’s happening.
But there’s no positive spin to a child dying of cancer.
And it can be impossible to put on a happy face when you’re in constant pain from the massive growths in your belly.
We judge certain feelings as “positive/good” and other feelings as “negative/bad” but in reality feelings are neutral.
It’s the meaning we give feelings that are positive or negative. It’s actions we take that are good or bad.
Sadness is a neutral part of life.
Grief means you loved.
As someone who has dealt with suicidal ideations since I was twelve, I understand that these feelings can lead to harmfull actions, but it’s taken me a long time to realize that it’s not the feelings that are harmful but the judgement we put on them.
This is what I love about journaling: it gives me a non-judgmental place to put my feelings. All of them.
Equally side by side.
None of them good. None of them bad. None of them a burden on me or someone else.
When the self-help books told me to think positively, journaling allowed me to NOT think, to just write.
Journaling allows me to release my feelings onto the page without pausing to anaylyze them. It gives sadness, grief, and overwhelm a place to go.
When people ask me how I have survived horribly dark days, I point to my journal.
When people ask me how I have accomplished so much in my life, I point to my journal.
When someone calls me well-adjusted, I laugh hysterically and then point to my journal.
The key to my personal and professional success is journaling.
In fact, I can only call myself successful right now, instead of pointing out all the times I have failed in life, because I journaled this morning on feeling like a failure!
In the process of writing out all of the feelings of failure I have, I was able to see all the times I’d put myself out there, despite the odds, and given it a try.
Journaling has taught me to see that I greive hard because I love hard. I fail a lot because I try a lot.
Journaling has helped me realize that I have the same value as a human being whether I’m getting a massive publishing deal and on Oprah, or whether I’m sitting on the sofa greiving.
By journaling regularly, you are able to gain a longer-term perspective on life, which can help you through the hard times.
When I was curled on my kitchen floor, my fear asked me to really think about what I would do if this was terminal cancer.
What would I change about my life?
How would I spend the last of my days?
Where would I go? What would I do? What would I stop doing? Who would I see? Who would I not waste my time on?
Instead of trying to bypass fear, I got out my journal and answered the questions my paranoia was already answering in my head.
If I had six months left to live, how would I live them?
If I could burn my life down right now, what would I keep? What would I want to grow from the ashes?
If I never once got a book traditionally published in my lifetime, would they still call me a writer at my funeral?
If I didn’t have to worry about money or getting cancelled or convincing publishers they should take a chance on me, what would I write?
If I could quit my company and walk away, would I?
By answering these questions that fear brought up that day on the floor, I’m now more focused, guided, and aligned today.
When I did this “if I had a terminal illness what would I do” exercise at the end of January, three things became very clear to me:
- I needed to take February off work too. Journaling reminded me that I valued self-care above all, and that I’d be no use to my clients anyways when I was in this much emotional and physical pain. I also looked at past journal entries and the reminders I wrote in there to slow down and not repeat the mistakes of my past where I avoided my feelings and had a nervous breakdown.
- I needed to sign up for a film directing course. I love that my career took me to writing, but I started writing screenplays because I wanted to make movies. Film school was super sexist and fatphobic, so I was steered towards writing instead of directing. I want to do both. So I’m taking an online directing 101 course through UCLA!
- I wanted to keep running School for Writers. I love what I do. Just because I needed a break from it, didn’t mean I needed to burn it all down. Helping you all write, edit, and publish books is my dream. Helping redefine the stories we tell is my purpose in life. Even if I was about to die of cancer, I’d still want to coach you all on story until I couldn’t any longer.
See how powerful and satisfying it can be to work through your fear instead of bypassing it!
I gained so much clarity and calm by doing this exercise, that I wanted to share it with you as well.
So, below I’ve outlined the journaling prompt for you.
If this is too hard for you right now or brings up self-harm thoughts, please don’t do it. Take care of your mental space.
But if you have the capacity, give it a try, and see what comes up.
I hope it helps you face fear, honor it, and get clarity from it.
P.S. Journaling is great if you’re struggling but it’s not a replacement for therapy or professionals. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health, the National Lifeline is here to help. I’ve had to use their resources before when I was having a really hard time, and their website saved my life once. There’s no shame in reaching out for help. <3
WHEN YOU’RE LOST, AFRAID OR FEELING LIKE A FAILURE, TRY THIS JOURNALING TECHNIQUE:
Imagine you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a year to live. Really sit in that and think about what you’d feel and what you’d fear. Then answer these questions:
- Who would you confess your love to? (I’m a romantic at heart, so I always answer this one first. My friends got many love letters this month thanks to this.)
- What would you eat?
- Where would you travel?
- Where would you live?
- What would you do with your time?
- What art would you make? (Did you know journaling is proven to help reduce tumor sizes and heal wounds?! Seriously.)
- Would you quit your job or keep working?
- Who would you want to spend your time with?
- Would you go on social media and share the journey or unplug completely?
- Who would you tell first?
- Who wouldn’t you bother with again?
- Who would you want to inherit your assets? (And do you have that paperwork filled out so it’s easy for them?)
- What legacy would you leave behind?
- What would you want them to say at your funeral?
- What didn’t you accomplish that you wish you had?
(The top questions can be done in your head, but the next set you really need to write down.)
Sit with your answers, then ask yourself this:
- What’s different between how I would live my life now, versus how I would live my life if I had a terminal illness?
- Is there anything I need to let go of in my life that’s not longer serving me?
- Is there anything I would add to my life to bring it closer to the live I want to live?
- What legacy do I want to leave in this world?
- How can I fulfill that legacy now, even if it’s only a small step towards that?
Once you have those answers, ask yourself this final big one:
- What’s one thing I can do RIGHT NOW to leave the kind of positive impact I want to leave in this world?
This whole process takes about an hour, and it’s something I suggest doing about 2x a year.
I hope it brings you clarity and focus and helps you feel confident that you are leaving a positive legacy in this world.