Am I a Survivor


"Are you a survivor?"

I had gone out with my son for his birthday. Dinner and a movie. A pleasant day out. It wasn't supposed to be complicated and then, mid forkful of food this perky mid aged woman looks at me and says "You look like a survivor. Are you a survivor?"

And for the life of me, I had to think about it! A survivor of what? Neglect? Abuse? Detroit? I mean, I'd escaped Los Angeles, but this was a bit personal wasn't it? This isn't the first time I've been asked that question, and I wish people would think about it before they ask because it's so uncomfortable! There were at least four men around us with shaved heads, and she never asked them if they were survivors.

The first time I was asked this particular question was in a store. A previous co worker said "Oh it's so nice to see you, and I see you survived!"

And I had the same reaction. ….what??? I managed to mumble out a few self deprecating nonsensical noises and fled the store, ditching the cart at the end of an aisle. After I realized what she'd been talking about, I felt humiliated. I mean, what was I next to these women who'd bared their teeth at the C word, flipped it off and kept on walking?

I do not have a head clear of hair because of cancer. I shave my head because it feels unutterably good. When I let my hair grow, my scalp itches and drives me insane. I can do a mohawk for a few weeks, but then it all has to come off again. I scrape my head down to the scalp every 3 days religiously. So what does that make me? A survivor of dermatitis? That really doesn't seem to count in the big picture of the issue they are referring to.

I guess I am a survivor of other things. I made it through the gulf war. I navigated more than one hostile workplace, I boldly placed myself on the front lines of Barrens Chat and came out ahead. I have survived continuing panic attacks from PTSD for years. Oh yeah, and I did have Osteoclastoma of my left hand when I was a child. That's a malignant giant cell tumor. But it was only one surgery and I never had any issue with it again.

Does that count? Should I respond "yes" when people ask me this horribly uncomfortable, prying, personal question? Why do they insist on making that assumption when there are many women who shave their heads because they just damn well feel like it these days? Am I supposed to stand up and proclaim myself to be a survivor? I never underwent chemo or radiation therapy. I threw up once in the recovery room on a nurse who didn't get out of the way fast enough, but I don't think that really compares with women who have undergone weeks, months, or years of uncertainty and pain only to discover that they have to  lose a limb, or their breasts, or their bladder.

In all the ways I can think of, every woman is a survivor. We get up every day and know there is a chance that we could be harassed or turned down for a project because we are women. We know that we will regularly be paid less for the same work, we will have our jobs explained to us by people who think we obviously can't know what we're doing, We will turn down opportunities because we are made to feel that we, women, are the lesser of the species and we can't imagine how we could be better than that man over there. We often find it difficult to even stand up for ourselves in a doctors office. A position which could mean the literal difference between life and death.

So yeah, I guess I am a survivor. And along the way I've gotten better at answering that question. I was able to say "no. I just like my head shaved" to that woman at the bar. Perhaps she was a cancer survivor herself. Perhaps she was looking for that small percentage to identify with. To connect to those who could empathize with her experience. I too have felt the loneliness of isolation when I was the only woman in the group. Or the only one with a different experience in a group of people with shared experiences.

I am a survivor in so many ways. I'm just not ready to say it out loud.