Survivor’s Guilt

I cope. I’m good at it. My automatic defense mechanism is repression. I like to make sure I’m so busy that I don’t have time to deal with personal, emotional things. It’s one of the reasons I have a tendency to overcommit.

The problem with repression is that there’s always a tipping point. The problem with my brand of repression is that I don’t know where that tipping point is, despite having surpassed that point at least once every semester since starting at MIT.

I’ve literally repressed my ability to gauge my mental health so much that the only reason I know I am stressed right now is because I have had about 3 weeks of continuous canker sores within my mouth, because I’m spotting, and because I have been tired for the past two weeks despite my attempts to get decent amounts of sleep.

So, my tipping point.

No, it wasn’t the chain suicides MIT has had in the past two weeks.

It was the conversation my French professor had with our class in response to the suicides. She told us about her taking medical leave last year because she had been diagnosed with cancer, and the subsequent chemotherapy afterwards. She told us about how she got through the worst of chemo because of the people around her. She wanted to remind us that we weren’t alone.

It was a good conversation.

Unfortunately, cancer is one of the few things that I cannot talk about without getting ridiculously upset.

My grandmother passed away from breast cancer my sophomore year of high school, on January 15th, 2010. She had been diagnosed earlier that year – the story I was fed at the time was that she had been watching a drama where the protagonist had been diagnosed with cancer, which inspired her to get a check-up specifically to look for cancer signs, when in actuality she had been a victim of horrific trauma which caused her systems to shut down. She underwent surgery despite her own protestations because my aunt, panicked, signed for it. She then underwent chemotherapy.

As a 13 year old child, I didn’t really understand what was happening. What I did understand was that grandma was sick. I knew that the chemo was making her absolutely miserable even though I was only home a few weeks a year because I was at boarding school and even though she tried to hide it from me.

I will never forget the shock I felt when I went into her room and saw her wig that she used to hide her hair loss. I hadn’t known prior to the discovery that chemotherapy made you lose your hair.

Honestly, I don’t remember much from when I was 13. I remember my grandma always being happy and strong and learning English to communicate with me. I remember her making the best pickled radish I have ever had. I remember learning about her getting sick and how she didn’t seem any different. I remember my grandma fighting with my mom and at one point hearing her say she had given up. I remember my grandma trying to survive for her grandchildren.

I remember the last time I ever saw her, lying frail and thin and weak in a hospital bed, attached to what seemed like hundreds of different tubes, unable to even breathe.

I remember the doctors telling us she was doing better.

She didn’t do better.

I remember on January 11th, 2010, I drew a picture of death in my sketchbook. I remember writing down how I felt about the whole ordeal. I distinctly remember wondering what would happen if she passed away on my sister’s birthday.

She passed away the day my sister turned 1.

I remember on that day I went back to that drawing and wrote that I had cursed my grandma into dying that day.

I remember being told my grandma passed away and that I wouldn’t be able to return to China to say goodbye, because my parents wanted me to focus on my studies.

As if I could focus on something as trivial as The Canterbury Tales or Pre-Calculus when my grandmother had just been taken from me.

So I repressed the memory. I don’t think about these moments. I think about my grandma when she was in her prime, caring for me and my parents and my aunt’s family. I think about her quirks, like how she liked to put her soup dumplings in milk in a bowl and heat them up and how she thought that was tasty. I think about her obsession with Chinese herbal medicines and how she used to stink up the house.

I don’t think about the memories associated with her being diagnosed with cancer.

I have a terrible case of survivor’s guilt, one that has continuously been repressed since I was 13. It’s been 6 years. Sometimes I still think about how it must be my fault that she passed away so coincidentally on Hera’s birthday. Sometimes I still think about how if I had somehow had shown that I cared more, she wouldn’t have given up.

The conversation we had today with my French professor drenched up all of these memories that I had repressed, and coupled with the amount of stress that I am apparently dealing with even though I don’t seem to feel or recognize it – I ended up breaking down in class.

So I want to thank everyone that had to deal with me bawling my face off all day today, whether it be my French II classmates who tactfully didn’t say anything, or my French II architecture grad student buddy who walked me to studio, to the people I ended up crying to in studio. I’m not in a good place. Again.

My roommate thinks that I should go to Mental Health, but thats a whole other blog post in which I get to talk about the stigma around mental health and how much of a non-issue my culture believes it to be. I’m definitely considering it, though. Again.

Maybe this time I’ll actually seek help.

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