“I’ll serve sweet tea and pimento cheese. Maybe a charcuterie board and a Pinot Noir,” I think to myself jumping into hostess mode. “Or, I could smoke a pork shoulder and make some deviled eggs. If they like sushi, we could just go to the restaurant around the corner though … if I’m feeling good and my blood count is high enough.” I have the internal conversation with myself.
I love to entertain and host friends and family at our home. But, if I’m honest … it stresses me out significantly. It’s anxiety that I bring on myself and between fighting cancer and prepping two daughters to graduate high school this spring, I’m looking for ways to build borders around our family. To protect them from distractions and toxins. Or, my breakdown.
This spring, since announcing I’ve had significant progression for a second year in a
row, I’ve had well-intentioned family and friends from all over the country reach out for a visit and just the idea of company fills me with vitality and zaps me of energy, nearly simultaneously. So, I’m trying to put some parameters in place to protect the relationships that matter the most and set some expectations for gatherings.
I often find myself worrying that my guest, from local to global, will be disappointed to find that I’m in relatively good condition. I suspect they picture a pale, wisp of a woman on the couch but truthfully, I’m rarely bedridden and try to make it a point to get out each day. I’m often embarrassed by how I feel physically – on the good days when I can walk and move around freely and on the bad days when I’m on the couch with a pillow over my head. I feel guilty about both situations … which is ridiculous, and I recognize that. There is nothing wrong with having feelings at both ends of the spectrum. So, I’m trying to be more up front and honest about where I’m at as we make and confirm plans.
For example, I recently shared with a girlfriend who wanted to get together for coffee, “I’d love to go on walk with you instead of just sitting and chatting, but I’ll be slow.” I didn’t tell her that it may take me a two-hour nap to recover from a two-mile walk but getting out the door is worth that to me. I wish I would have been more honest with her as we walked that although I was doing well at the time, I already knew I wouldn’t have energy to cook dinner that evening. It drained me but I was grateful to get the exercise. It was a great risk-reward. I enjoyed our conversation and felt invigorated as I ordered take-out that evening.
On the flip side, I have an acquaintance that can be relatively toxic and conversations with her feel like an inquisition. Just seeing her name in my inbox can heighten my angst. I’ve politely declined getting together. I don’t have energy available for draining relationships anymore. I decided to be more judicious with the boundary around our relationship. I’m comfortable with limited texting but I don’t need to invest chunks of time to rekindle our relationship. Our visits leave me grasping for peace.
In mid-March, we hosted my parents along with my uncle and two adult male cousins for a weekend. They flew in from around the country – Arkansas, California and Indiana. My parents are here regularly to help me with treatment, and we have routines already in place, but I was a nervous wreck before the others arrived. I felt pressure to have a litany of activities lined up and the forecast was awful – cold and pouring rain. It was like the entire city put cultural events on hold for the day – minus the St. Patrick’s Day parade and basketball championships. We don’t often get the opportunity to visit and scanning updates on Facebook doesn’t really build a relationship. I was looking for things that could entertain people ages from 18 to 79 and I wanted it to be perfect with everyone happy. A ridiculous expectation on my part.
It was a bit awkward in the beginning with side-hugs and lulls in conversation; it was probably the only time that our visit wasn’t back at the family farm for a wedding, funeral or reunion of sorts. But the three of them, along with our family of four, bonded over Big Ten Basketball and games of Euchre (cards). I took a nap in the middle of their visit; I couldn’t help it and I tried not to feel guilty. It was two days after a double dose of chemo. At dinner, we swapped stories about my grandmother and her cooking skills – not all that stellar – that I hadn’t heard before and we had a great discussion over cocktails about aspirational hobbies that unveiled our unique personalities in ways that no other conversation had. One wants a horse farm or to race more cars and the other is a serious astronomer but would like to get into sailing. I’m not sure when I’ll see these men again, but I was grateful they invested in our family and came to visit. It reminded me how critical it is to have these long-term relationships and overcome the awkward. By the time they left for the airport, we were hugging and promising to keep in touch.
Their visit got me thinking about the next guests I have on the calendar and the stress that’s already building so I decided to work out my own thoughts on boundaries and what I can do to make sure that I’m focused more on the relationship and visiting and less on the logistics or unreasonable expectations. It led me to creating a document that spelled out what my expectations are around covid (getting the vaccine or testing before a visit), local hotels and restaurants at various price points, things to do in the area and a few insights – like I might not make it to breakfast or take a nap at any time. I’m sharing it with out-of-town guests as we begin to schedule their visits. It’s taken a load off of me already and I hope it will make their visit more enjoyable for them too.
The most important thing in my life are my relationships. It’s my connections to family and friends that get me out of bed in the morning, hold me accountable to doing my best and challenge me to continue to dream big no matter what the latest scans show. So, I’m focusing on prioritizing those. For me, it starts with my immediate family. I need to really examine how future guests – even for the afternoon or the weekend – will impact our nuclear family. For example, I don’t want to share prom weekend with anyone else. That’s a sacred place for me and I’ll protect it by declining invitations from others to come visit, even for a cup of coffee that day. It protects my energy level so I can focus on where I want to be. I have no problem articulating that boundary.
Not everything is so clear. Or simple. Or easy. We have a weekend coming up that involves a lot of drama, literally. It’s one of the girl’s final drama productions at the high school and she has poured her heart and soul into it for months. And, the other one has a special admitted student day at the college of her choice. And, my in-laws are going to visit (for the first time in three years thanks to covid and other health problems) and watch Cinderella and celebrate Rose’s achievement. So, we are compromising. We’ve asked them to stay in a hotel nearby and made it clear that we’ll be departing for a road trip to visit the college before they are ready to say good-bye on Sunday morning. We are looking forward to having them in town but also found that a few conversations up front about expectations will help us all breathe a little easier and build on the relationships we’ve had for decades without the distraction of anxiety and stress.
Boundaries won’t solve all my problems, but I think it might help me navigate the difficult treatment schedule I have along with the chaos of a senior spring semester just a little bit easier. Here are a few of the questions I asked myself as I thought about where I might need boundaries in my relationships. Maybe they can help you as well.
Which relationships are the most important to me to feed and to protect?
What boundaries would help support my energy right now?
What would it feel great, or freeing, to say yes or no to?
What boundaries most align with my values or core desired feelings?
How can I share my boundaries?
Ann Camden uses her 25 years of experience as a public relations executive to help raise her voice and those of others for the metastatic breast cancer community through blogging, speaking and publishing her work on various platforms. Ann is on the Patient Advocacy Board of the Lobular Breast Cancer Association, co-hosts a Hope at Home MBC room for Inheritance of Hope and helps managed the NC Casting for Recovery fishing retreats. She was diagnosed in 2009 with ductal cancer and in 2016 with a second primary metastatic lobular cancer diagnosis. She has been in active treatment ever since and is currently fighting leptomeningeal disease as well. She publishes her blog down-not-out.com on a monthly basis. Married to a fellow Boilermaker, Ann and her husband, Jeff, have twin 18-year-old daughters that are seniors in high school and keep her both inspired and exasperated. They live in Raleigh, NC.