I wrote this essay after attending the Callanish Retreat at Brew Creek Centre in late April. A version of this piece will also be published in the Callanish newsletter.
My breast tumour was treated well by health professionals over the course of my cancer diagnosis and treatment last year. My mass was identified, removed and destroyed. The remaining parts of my breast were radiated for good measure. Eventually, my physical scars began to heal, my hematoma shrunk and my burned skin faded.
The rest of me – the bits that were attached to my cancerous breast and housed my mental, emotional and spiritual health – were largely ignored by clinicians. I craved kindness in every health care interaction, even trying to make eye contact with the parkade attendants to no avail. I rarely found the loving kindness I so desired in the hospital. To them, I was just another middle-aged breast cancer patient. It was as if I was an unwanted breast mass and nothing more.
I endured my treatment deep in a state of emotional suffering. I had trauma from the hospital experience and was rattled by catching a glimpse of my own mortality. Even worse, cancer had triggered all the unresolved issues in my life. It was as if all my sorrow that I had carefully packed away the past 50 years was on full display on my kitchen table. I had no choice but to look at all this ugly pain that stemmed from my family of origin. I had no tools and little support beyond my dear husband and beloved children, who were also healing from my cancer in their own way.
I was discharged from counseling sessions at the hospital after four short sessions. “Where do I go now?” I sobbed at my last appointment. “Google therapists,” I was told.
Thankfully, Callanish Society showed up in my search results. I embarked on counseling appointments with Susie Merz, trekking across the city for regular sessions as the rest of me slowly began to heal.
I embraced everything about the Callanish house – the streaming light in the building, the warm greeting when I walked in the door, the peaceful hushed atmosphere, the tea offered to me at the start of each session. It was everything I was missing in my patient experience at the hospital.
I signed up for the Callanish retreat, but was terrified of the idea of being part of a group. I’m an introvert – fine in one-on-one situations, but I struggle in larger settings.
The retreat date crept closer. But because of my work in therapy with Susie, where she gently guided me through my pain, I was feeling stronger and more resilient. I didn’t know what to expect, but I felt ready to be with other people who had cancer too.
To prepare me for the retreat, Susie sagely recommended: “You will have to allow people to be nice to you.” As a caregiver, mom to a kid with a disability and classic nurturer and pleaser – as silly as it sounds – allowing people to be nice to me was a challenge.
Driving up to the gravel parking lot at the retreat location at Brew Creek Centre, there was a group of lovely women standing there, smiling and waving, awaiting my arrival. My room was beautifully appointed and tucked away on the second floor of a wooden cottage. There was a massive vase of gorgeous flowers to welcome me. This was my first glimpse into what was to come in the next five days.
We began each day meditating, learning qigong and slowly waking up to the sounds of beautiful crystal singing bowls. There was hard personal group work in the mornings, carefully facilitated by professionals, focused on loss and death. The afternoons were for rest and relaxation – with therapeutic touch, music and counseling. The day was studded with joyful meals, prepared with love by the volunteers in the kitchen. There was camaraderie, laughter and tears. Each day ended with an evening council, where everybody – staff, volunteers and participants – gathered in the great room around the crackling fire.
I was treated with unconditional kindness. I did allow people to be nice to me because I never once felt judged. Just being me seemed enough. It gave me comfort to know that every person working at the retreat was there to share her gifts with us. There was a clear belief in the concept of benevolent service – an approach that is sadly missing in today’s health care world. Us retreat participants were not a burden – instead we felt like a joy. I had a sense that every touch at the retreat was carefully planned and tweaked based on years of wisdom. I wasn’t scared because I was safe.
Here are the fragments of what remains after the Callanish retreat: I have access to a new serenity inside of me. I don’t wake up feeling panicked anymore. When worry crosses my mind (and negative thoughts do still come) I now have tools to pull up to let them wash over me. I can close my eyes and breathe, listen to music, walk in nature, or simply remember my time at the retreat. If I start ruminating in the past or fretting about the future, I pause and centre in the moment. I look up in the sky and think, “It’s a beautiful day.”
My husband says that I smile easier now. For anxious, tormented me – these newfound skills are the ultimate gift for me and my family. Despite cancer (or maybe because of it?), I have finally found a sliver of peace in my heart. A deep, heartfelt thank you to all the kind souls dedicated to the Callanish retreat for guiding me towards my own invincible summer.
Edited to add: I so wish we had more Callanish in health care. More care, more service, more kindness, better food, more acknowledgment of the trauma patients and families have been through, more love. xo.