Every month on the 18th, I celebrate women.
This month I sat down with Heather, one of my oldest and dearest friends for over 27 years.
She is a cancer survivor and a survivor of domestic violence. Toward the end of our interview, she asked if she could share her experience of surviving domestic violence.
Her courage to share this with all of us is incredibly brave and I hope you take a few minutes to read the entire interview.
This is the first time Heather is speaking publicly about all that she went through.
When I asked her to be our Inspirational Woman, she didn’t think she was an inspiration.
When you’re done reading, I believe you will all agree with me, she is!
18th Style: Where are you originally from and where do you live now?
Heather: I am a New Yorker through and through. My family and I lived in Queens until the summer I turned 10 when we moved to New Rochelle. I say I’m from New Rochelle, but the Queens never left me. Recently I moved to New Jersey from Long Island. It is quite a change, but very positive since I wanted to be closer to my family.
18th Style: Tell us a bit about your background.
Where do I start? I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1983 (right before we moved from Queens to New Rochelle). I was an awkward kid (and I think I am an awkward adult).
I had my first major surgery in 1993, moved to LA right after college graduation. Changed careers and came back east two and a half years later.
I was a successful event planner and planned, or was involved in planning every kind of event. From society weddings at Tavern on the Green to outdoor concerts and Thanksgiving parades.
I left event planning to slow down a little, I was living to work, not working to live.
I started temping as an administrative assistant until I figured out what I wanted to do next, but that turned into a full time job. Four years later, I resigned to get married.
A few months later I was diagnosed with cancer and now, four years later, I’m going through a divorce.
I loved, and still love the man I married, but his addiction to cocaine and alcohol stole him from me. Although his physical being is still here, the man who swept me off my feet, left long ago.
18th Style: You attended Emerson College and had the opportunity to study abroad in the Netherlands. What did you love most? What do you love most about Europe?
Heather: It was such an amazing experience and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. I would encourage anyone, should they have the opportunity (or their children), take it.
Money is always a concern with an adventure, but I offset my cost by being an RA (resident assistant), which covered some of my expenses and was not much more than a semester in Boston.
But that is not what you were asking. 🙂
You want to know what I loved most. I loved everything. I loved the setting, I loved the bonds I made, I loved meeting people from all over the world and being immersed in different cultures, I loved the sightseeing, going to Amsterdam, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Brugge, Dachau, Vienna, Florence, Rome… I can’t narrow it down. It was just the overall experience that was amazing.
My one major takeaway was to appreciate what is around us.
As Americans, or at least New Yorkers, we tend to fly through life without really seeing life. As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
So, when you’re out walking, enjoy peoples yards, watch the wildlife, look past the obvious and see the design, wonder what the dog smells in the wind, the way the leaves blow.
Just stop and enjoy the moment, that moment could change your life.
18th Style: What are your favorite hobbies or pastimes?
Heather: My favorite hobbies or pastimes? Does spoiling and playing with my dogs count? After my pups, I love to cook and entertain.
One of my favorite things to do, going to the farmers market, buying a bounty of goods and trying to figure out what to make.
I love creating things from cooking, to painting, to crafting. I also love my NY Giants. If you want me or my brother-in-law to show up for family gatherings, they all know to not plan anything on Sundays during football season (unless there is a TV).
NY Rangers are a close second and NY Yankees are right behind. And books! I don’t want to leave my books out. I am an avid reader and can spend hours in the library.
18th Style: You are incredibly witty and have such a great sense of humor, where did this come from?
Heather: As I mentioned, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 1983. I was still only 9.
A few months after my diagnosis, I was sent to sleep away camp for the first time, and when I came home, my family had moved from Queens to New Rochelle (I did know we were moving).
So I was 10, going into 5th grade at a new school with kids who had known each other since at least 1st grade, if not kindergarten, all while dealing with an illness that not a lot of people, including doctors, knew a lot about. I think my wittiness and sense of humor was borne out of necessity. Sometimes you have to laugh because the alternative is to cry.
We’re going to shift gears now.
18th Style: You’re a cancer survivor, if you’re comfortable talking about this, when were you diagnosed and what is your diagnosis today?
Heather: Two weeks after I got married, on March 10, 2014, I received my diagnosis. I had a very rare form of cancer called Perianal Mucinous Adenocarcinoma.
It is so rare that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City treats, at most, two a year.
As of this writing, I am still cancer free.
18th Style: Where are you in your cancer journey and how are you doing today?
Heather: Since I am on a fairly powerful drug for my Crohn’s, I still see my oncologist every few months for screenings. So far so good, but I still struggle daily, both physically and mentally.
My treatment consisted of chemo followed by a surgery to give me a permanent ileostomy pouch (an ostomy is an opening created in the skin to which a pouch is affixed to catch refuse), followed by radiation, then a month in the hospital and an emergency surgery to fix my ostomy, then, in December of 2014, I was finally strong enough to have the tumor removed. Because of its location, I had a team of surgeons play Tetris with my insides.
My body will never be the same and it has taken some time for my brain to understand that my body just can not do things which used to come so easily.
Couple that with dealing with the realization that I have a bag attached to me 24/7, I have some pretty down days, but I work really hard to not stay there.
Life goes on and I have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other because I need to believe that “it” will get better.
18th Style: Any words of wisdom to other cancer survivors out there?
Heather: Trust the process. It will get better. As bad as it is today, tomorrow might be worse, but the day after could be better. Don’t bury your head. I won’t go away on it’s own. Get on it as soon as possible and fight because you have a life to live!
18th Style: Who or what inspires you?
Heather: My dogs inspire me. I know it sounds weird, but have you ever just watched a dog? Mine are funny, inquisitive, curious, intuitive, happy and loving.
They enjoy moments. They love playing, going for rides, meeting new friends (human and four legged), swimming, smelling the wind.
I love watching them enjoy their world. It constantly reminds me to enjoy my world, both the big events and the small moments.
When they come to me to play, I stop what I am doing and play. With their attention span, it will take no more than 5 minutes from me, but makes their day.
There is nothing so important that I can’t walk away for a few minutes. It is the least I can do for them considering everything they do for me.
18th Style: What’s your favorite quote or saying?
I have many favorite quotes. One of them is, “This too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”
18th Style: Lastly, what’s your favorite movie?
Heather: My favorite movie is an old movie that very few people have ever heard of. It is called, Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
The film pairs my love for mystery with food. What could be better?
18th Style: Lastly, is there anything you would like to share or talk about that I didn’t ask?
Heather: I had mentioned earlier I love the man I married but that he turned to cocaine and alcohol. It was hard.
I was trying to take care of myself and continue my recovery while battling him and his demons. He was destructive, not just to himself, but his behavior effected me, the dogs, his kids, his father, his business.
He was in and out of jail and rehab so many times I lost count. He was angry and took his anger out on me. He did hit me. Once.
I had the wear with all to grab ice, call 911 and went outside to wait. He was arrested that night. I was embarrassed for a long time, but I had an epiphany and realized I did not do anything to warrant anything that he did to me.
I was a loyal, devoted wife through all of his indiscretions, drinking, coking, disappearing acts, etc.
I made sure his daughter’s rent and tuition was paid, I made sure the credit cards and taxes were paid.
I didn’t cause it, I can’t control and I can’t cure it. That has to come from him and it was not something he wanted. He would yell at me, degrade me, call me names, but I would remind myself that he is projecting his shortcomings on me.
I am strong, I am a good person and I try to do the right thing. Heck, I had already battled cancer!
I set boundaries. I would not keep alcohol in the house, I would not get alcohol for him, I stopped helping him.
My final straw happened the day after he came home from a rehab to avoid jail. He drank and was calling and texting incessantly while I was in NYC at Memorial Sloan Kettering with my surgeon to find out if I needed another surgery.
He was supposed to start outpatient treatment. Clearly he did not. When I got home, I did not go in the house. I knew that would result in something unspeakable happening to me.
Instead I got in the car, pulled out of the driveway and as soon as I turned the corner, I called him and told him we were done and to get the &%$! out, I then called a divorce attorney I had previously met with and told them to file the paperwork and have him served.
I am still not officially divorced, but I am no longer living with his chaos on a daily basis.
If anyone is in an abusive relationship, whether it has to do with drugs, alcohol, or anything else, it is not your fault.
All you can do is take care of yourself, the best way you see fit. I know it is painful and emotional.
The man who was supposed to be my prince became a bigger monster than cancer and the hardest thing I have had to do in the last couple of years is mourn a man who is still living.
Do not be embarrassed about your situation and do not be embarrassed to ask for help. You are worth it.
If you or someone you know, needs help, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline.