“So fuck you Hollywood
For teaching us that love was free and easy
For dressing all our daughters as princesses
For gulling us with tales of happy endings…”Frank Turner, “Good and Gone”
Let’s talk control. Specifically, locus of control.
- Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions.
- Individuals with an external locus of control believe that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power.
I grew up surrounded by people with an external locus of control. My mother’s life was constantly rocked back and forth by drama. She spent her days believing that she was a perennial victim of circumstance. Things in life “happened to her;” but she was never to blame for any of it. At least not outwardly. Her coping mechanisms emerged as a form of self-loathing that jailed her. She had both anorexia and bulimia. Once, I asked her why she did what she did and her answer was that it was because “it was the only thing in life she felt like she did have control over.”
At some point, alcoholism took the wheel for her. She passively let it drive her to the grave at 59.
My brother was the same. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age, he was constantly at the mercy of both his impulses and his rage. There was yelling. There were holes punched in walls. There were family fights that ended with him pinning my mother up against a wall. That, and a slew of minor delinquencies ended with my parents putting him in a children’s home by high school. Despite an IQ well in the gifted range, he didn’t graduate from high school, but later got his GED. He joined the navy, but panicked and went AWOL leading to a “general discharge,” accounting for his mental health issues. He’s moved from one co-dependent relationship to another, etc. I believe that there were chances to save him, but he could never save himself. He didn’t take his medication. He couldn’t find a way to learn from his mistakes.
And then there was me.
I was the one who didn’t do anything remarkable. I didn’t act out. I didn’t call attention to myself. I was okay- nothing to worry about. But nothing to brag about either.
The truth is that growing up, nobody really expected much of me. I was okay with that, because invisible happened to be squarely where I wanted to be. As I got older, I began to stick my toes in the water, and in so doing I gradually began to figure out that those low expectations weren’t actually my limits. Due to moves, I went to four elementary schools, stayed through tenth grade and then moved again my Junior and Senior year. Despite going to three different high schools in three years, I began to dabble in speech and debate, theatre and writing. Never much of an actress, I volunteered behind the scenes. Not just for school plays, but community as well. I joined the school newspaper staff at two of three of my high schools and wrote articles and movie reviews.
These relatively minor accomplishments were met with adulation and surprise. Surpassing low expectations became a secret talent of mine. It also led to an important discovery- that I DID have agency over my own life, even in the midst of all this chaos. I began to realize that the ONLY person who was ever going to change the course of my life was myself. After all, I had gotten an excellent vantage point into the alternative, and it wasn’t pretty.
The supporting player in someone else’s drama learns quickly that they can’t count on being saved. I became an expert in learning the best ways to not rock the boat. And at the first sign of land I took a leap, learned how to swim and never looked back.
With my 2.8 GPA at graduation, I made it into a mid-level college. When my parents moved again halfway through my Freshman year, I left home for the dorms and never looked back again. My grades excelled. I made the honors program. I took out loans and then some more loans to pay for school, lodging, and the meal plan. I worked part time as a tutor. I worked a summer as a janitor cleaning out dorms so I could have free lodging. I worked anywhere I could walk to because I didn’t have a car. I graduated college with a 3.8 GPA.
I have a very strong locus of control. I believe that events in my life occur because of my own actions. This does have several downsides.
For one thing, when a conflict occurs (especially in a work setting) I struggle deeply and go into problem-solving mode. I go to work trying to figure out how I “fix” it. I foolishly believe that I can logically repair disagreements with people who don’t and won’t play by the same rules.
It took me the longest time to figure out one simple truth. That you can only “fix” a conflict or disagreement with someone who is willing to get down in the dirt with you. If they aren’t willing to work and admit their part too it is a lost cause. These are external locus people. They are never at fault, and trying to resolve anything with them is like screaming into an endless chasm.
I’ve spent the last couple of years on a work project screaming into such a chasm. I tried to take a leadership role. I tried to solve problems. I tried to use my voice and skills with people who were never going to hear them. I turned myself into knots of stress trying to “solve” a problem that was beyond my control to solve.
When I finished that project, I moved to a new office and began to find my voice again.
Then cancer came along. And promptly smashed my world apart.
By the time I discovered it, the cancer was advanced. Had there been symptoms? Yes, there had been. And I had had them for quite some time.
- When I had tried a running program with my husband, I couldn’t get past a certain threshold. I had never struggled with stamina, and now, suddenly I did.
- My waistline became distended and bloated. I had always had a waist.
- I had heartburn ALL OF THE TIME. To the extent that I always needed water or gum to stop me from coughing in meetings.
- I had intestinal discomfort and cramps.
I blew all of these things off. Every one of them. I had been too busy trying to “solve” work problems and attributed all of these inconveniences as stress.
I was just stressed. And I was getting older. To feel healthier, I started taking supplements and probiotics. Individually, these symptoms were all minor. And they never took me out of commission. They never kept me home from work. Until they did. But of course, by then it was too late.
I have Stage IV cancer, and it is eventually going to kill me.
If I had paid more attention, I would have caught it sooner. I could have talked about it with my doctor. Maybe, just maybe, I could have discovered I was sick in time. Before it spread to my abdominal lining, maybe before it even spread to my liver. I could have figured this out before it was too advanced to cure.
I believe that events in my life are caused by my own actions. I stupidly focused on all the WRONG things for far too long. And in the process signed my own death warrant. I didn’t mean to- I swear I didn’t mean to! But I did.
And now I feel the pain, and the fear. I see that same pain and fear in the eyes of my husband. How could I do this to him? To my family?
I ignored my health because I was focused on work, and on people who didn’t give a damn about me and as a consequence ended up hurting all of the people who do. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
I am as angry as I am afraid. Maybe they are just two sides of the same emotion.
The doctors are telling me that my chances of making it long-term, or of getting to a cure, are very small. I’ve logically accepted that.
But I have an internal locus of control. I believe that events in my life are caused by my own actions.
So, from this point forward, I will continue to do everything that I am able to. I will research solutions. I will self-advocate. I will learn from my mistakes and do whatever it takes to stay here as long as I can. Because I owe that much to those that love me. Because I owe that much to myself.
My mother spent the last several years of her life, passively willing alcoholism to kill her.
The irony that the cancer spread to my liver is what ultimately might be the cause of my death is not lost on me. Not one single bit.
But life is not fair- that’s another thing I learned early on. And neither is death.
Finality has a way of forcing humans to seek out meaning. Soft focus fades and the nooks and crannies come to light. Her story may have been longer, but it’s narrative was very sad. Mom spent most of her life in the deep end and, but she never learned how to swim. The protagonist in her story was always waiting for fate to swoop in and save her and never figured out that it was first upon her to act.
My mother spent her last years waiting to die. I will spend my last years of my life fighting to live. Perhaps I can exceed one last low expectation and beat cancer after all.
Most likely not. But I am sure as hell going to try.