Five years later Dee had a recurrence of cancer and was failing. I mumbled something about dying of cancer and she retorted, “I’m not dying of cancer; I’m living with cancer.” She was saying that while cancer may be a fact of her life, she is in charge of living her life…until it’s over. She died a few weeks later…
We meet people everyday who have recovered or are in recovery from a major life changing event. Some deem themselves as survivors, and some just positively live their lives looking forward to the future (a thriver). What are the differences between a thriver, a survivor and a person in recovery?
A thriver is someone who grows vigorously, flourishes, or realizes goals despite circumstances. Thrivers are active agents in creating their futures. They look forward to an ever better future. They have a knowing that when setbacks come, they will land on their feet.
A “survivor,” in contrast, is someone whose identity incorporates a past wound such as sexual abuse, torture, cancer or some other horrible condition.
Renowned physicist and author of “A Brief History of Time”, Dr. Stephen Hawking, was again admitted to hospital April 21, 2009, seriously ill at age 67. Dr. Hawking has had ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease since age 21. Only 5% of people diagnosed with the disease live beyond the 10-year mark. Yet over the next 40+ years, he went on to become what many believe to be the world’s greatest living scientist. A true thriver!
I am close to a woman in her late 40s who has had cancer—skin cancer, deep muscle cancer, lymph node cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and bone cancer. She has had over 20 surgeries. To add to the horror of it, she is violently allergic to anesthesia.
Yet for this thriver, being a survivor is not part of her identity. She sees the cancer, endless operations, chemo, radiation and pain as just stuff she has had to put up with as she gets on with her life.
Others I have known have built their whole identities around trauma in the distant past. A woman in her 60s identified herself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. When we discussed therapeutically removing “survivor” from her identity, she gasped, “Who would I be?” She discontinued therapy.
I reflected on how I had been abducted and sexually abused twice as a child, one of the incidents involving horsewhipping and hanging. Of course, those incidents affected my life. Thirty years later, when I heard a man identify himself as a survivor, I realized that had never been part of my identity.
Being “in recovery” from alcohol is another form of being a survivor. Some years ago I knew a competent alcohol and drug counsellor who had herself quit drinking a couple of decades earlier. She lived a stable, normal life. I assumed she attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings simply to support her clients.
One day in a disagreement with someone, she shouted, “You’re messing with my recovery.” Her recovery? Wasn’t that 20 years ago? Then it sunk in that being “in recovery” had become part of her definition of herself as a person, part of her identity.
Back in my 30s, I had stopped drinking, because the huge amount of alcohol I was drinking was killing me. It took about three years to work through all the changes and recreate my life after alcohol. Now 30 years later, I can see that time as my recovery period, but being “in recovery” had never become a part of my identity.
I am thankful that right after I quit drinking, I had no one in my life telling me I had an incurable, progressive disease and would have to be in recovery for the rest of my life. It might have made my identity as a thriver harder to maintain.
I invite you to discard any identity based on a past wound. Be a thriver!