It feels like a weighted blanket, rooted in some unnamable space between body and mind, applying a firm pressure as it whispers that you don’t belong. Over time those whispers grow louder. They’re immune to whatever logic and rationalization the mind presents back at them. The Interloper’s screams insist evermore loudly that you’re a fraud, all the while tucking the blanket that much tighter.
The Interloper convinces you that you’re in the wrong place. That you should feel bad. That you’re not only fooling everyone else, but that you’re fooling yourself, too. That you are, in fact, the Interloper.
Which brings me to how I’m feeling now.
Why things are different this time
I’ve felt out of place in various ways over the years, especially when taking on new professional challenges. Most of us probably have. It can be daunting fumbling through something new.
For me, the reasons for feeling like an imposter have always been grounded in something real. I may have felt out of place because I needed to learn something new, or because I had people relying on me to get something critically important right. It’s been easy to recognize when it’s from taking on something that’s on the fringes of my comfort zone, but always seemed tied to something that I could do.
So, then, it has come as a shock to me that I’m experiencing imposter syndrome as a result of my cancer diagnosis. It’s not like I’ve chosen to give myself colorectal cancer. I haven’t decided that getting my guts cut out is on my to-do list. This time it’s not tied to anything I can control.
So, what gives? Why is the Interloper yelling at me and calling me a fraud?
I don’t know yet. But here’s what it’s telling me:
You should feel guilty for having cancer
You’ve spread fear to those you care about. You’ve deliberately burdened people who didn’t need it. You should feel terrible for putting that weight on other people.the Interloper
I know it’s irrational, but the truth is: I do feel guilty. What makes it more grating is that I know that I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t feel guilty if I broke a leg or had a cold. I’m sick. I’m just not in a place right now where my mind will allow me not to feel guilty.
I’ve chosen to share my diagnosis with friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve shared the burden of my illness with others. I’ve caused people to worry. Made people upset. Retraumatized those with sensitivities to this disease.
It was also important to me to share loudly and clearly that this can happen. It’s been increasingly clear over the last few weeks how important it is for me to share my experience as an example to others.
You don’t feel like you have cancer, so it can’t be that bad
You look normal. You seem to feel pretty normal, too. Why are you making such a fuss?the Interloper
I’ve shown symptoms. I’ve had a colonoscopy. A biopsy. I’ve had an MRI and CT scans. My blood has been drawn. I’ve had IVs so many times lately that the marks on my arm would raise an eyebrow if I answered “no” to being an intravenous drug user.
It was obvious when my colonoscopy was cut short because the endoscope couldn’t get around my tumour that there’s a problem. This is a real thing.
These pictures from my CT Colonography—which is probably on the up there list of uncomfortable diagnostics that a person can have—prove that there’s a problem. I can see it’s there. I believe it’s there. I just haven’t been able to feel that it’s there.
Even with all of this evidence staring me in the face, the Interloper is insisting that everything is normal.
Which is sort of true to a point. Aside from being tired, I don’t feel sick. I haven’t had surgery, or radiation, or chemotherapy. I haven’t done anything about it.
Hell, I don’t know the staging or have the full picture on spread, yet.
It just doesn’t feel like I really have cancer, even though I know that I do.
You have it easy
You’re still alive. You haven’t even had treatment yet. Where do you get off on finding this part hard?the Interloper
It’s not lost on me how absurd it is to put this in writing. But the Interloper is working overtime to convince me that I have it easy.
Like many of us, I’ve lost several family members to cancer, including my mother—who died of colorectal cancer, no less—and my situation just isn’t the same as them.
Cancer is unique in that every aspect of the disease, from the type of cancer all the way through treatment and prognosis, varies so widely from person to person.
I feel like I have it easy because, as far as I know, mine has been caught early. I’m not finding out in the ER by showing up with abdominal pain and requiring emergency surgery to clear an obstruction. That happens to people. It’s not happening to me.
Compared to what I know of other people’s experiences, my situation just seems stupid. I know that it’s not. I just can’t help but feeling that way.
You don’t deserve the care, concern, or help that people are offering
Why should anyone help you? You don’t deserve it.the Interloper
I have a hard time accepting help because I’ve always enjoyed being the helper.
It has been extremely difficult to let people jump in and offer assistance. For no real reason, it makes me uncomfortable.
It’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for the support. It’s that I haven’t learned how to cope with needing it.
I’ve really appreciated all of the emails, calls, and messages that I’ve received from friends, family, and strangers. I like hearing from folks.
It’s just outside of my comfort zone.
Well, shit. What do I do now?
There’s nothing to do. This is the problem.
I can’t project manage my way out of cancer or my feelings, but I can at least get them out of my head. This situation is so far beyond my control that I think I just have to strap in for the ride.
Maybe as time passes, I can remove the Interloper from my life. I hope they take their weighted blanket and fuck off. They can take the cancer, too.