Cira Center for Behavioral Health

Inside My Childhood War

by | Apr 8, 2016 | Blog

It was October 16, 1996.  I am 15 years old and sitting in an assembly at my high school chatting with my friends when the nurse finds me and tells me that my Mom is here and needs to talk to me.

Meredith is dead.

I hear my Mom’s words before I ever make it to the nurses station. Before I see her bloodshot, teary eyes. Before she actually says the words out loud and makes them real.

“Honey, Mere died this morning.”

Instantly, my world split open and I fall, swallowed up in the crevice. I don’t remember anything else about that day after that moment.

I stumbled numbly – the shell of a person – through Meredith’s wake, giving her eulogy, and then finally her funeral. When we were at the cemetery and it was time to leave, her coffin mere feet away, above ground for those final moments, the loss was so powerful, I literally doubled over in agony. A searing pain exploded from the pit of my stomach and chest that was so unbearable I thought I might die myself. Collapsed on the floor and completely inconsolable, grief wracking my body, tidal wave after tidal wave in an onslaught that seemed never-ending. I could not bring myself to leave her side.  It was some of the most traumatic pain I’ve ever experienced, my teenage self having no idea how to manage the intensity of those feelings.  

How does anyone bury a 15 year old?


Meredith and I fought in a war against cancer together.  Our first tour of duty was in the Winter of our 7th grade year, when Meredith lost both her Mom and Grandmother to cancer within weeks of each other.  A few months after that, Meredith herself was diagnosed with a rare and severe bone cancer that took every ounce of her strength and courage, almost dying several times throughout her battle.  It wasn’t until the end of our 8th grade year that she finally started to recover.  After that we got a few months of reprieve, but in December of our freshmen year, we were deployed again when I was diagnosed with cancer.  A much less severe cancer than Mere’s (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to be exact), but cancer nonetheless and Meredith helped me until I was in remission in the middle of that Summer.  Our final tour commenced just a few weeks after my recovery before our sophomore year, when Meredith got sick again and this time succumbed to the disease.

For 3 years straight, all Meredith and I did was fight for our lives or help the other fight for hers.  

Our very young lives that were still silly and childlike despite our illnesses, were constantly peppered with facing our own, and each other’s, mortality; a white noise in the background that was impossible to get rid of and equally impossible to ignore.  We had the same oncologist at the same hospital.  We helped each other through hair loss, friendships lost (what teenager wants to deal with cancer??), and school dances missed.  Through chemotherapy, radiation and stints in the ICU.  Through wig-vs-bandana decisions (being bald in junior high and high school is NOT fun, for the record). We were the only ones capable of understanding what the other was going through.  And we both fought courageously.  

The problem is that my fellow soldier died…and I survived.  

Just saying those simple words all these years later still makes my eyes well up with tears that eventually spill over.  It’s unconscionable.  She shouldn’t have died.  She had been through so much already.  She never fell in love.  She never learned how to drive a car.  We were supposed to be roommates in college together.  She was going to be a veterinarian. It shouldn’t have happened that way.

And why her and not me?  The survivor’s guilt I felt – correction, still feel – is the most illogical sounding concept, but haunts me endlessly nonetheless.  I have always lived for the both of us without even fully realizing that’s what I was doing.  Always striving to be the absolute best person I can be because I feel like I owe that to her.  She wasn’t able to become an adult, to go on and do the great things I know she was capable of doing.  So I need to do that for her.

And not just because she didn’t get to, but because I feel like I need to prove that I deserve to be here.  I push myself SO HARD because some deep, dark part of me feels like I need to earn my keep.  That if I let myself slide even for a second, death will come for me again and this time I will not evade it.  Or even if I do, someone I love will pay dearly…again.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  

But that’s exactly how it feels.

Most people can recognize that they are anxious because their stomach turns, they get a pounding headache, they catch their thoughts spiraling out of control.  Me?  During a particularly difficult week, I was driving on the Eisenhower to have a play date (and a Mommy date ;)) and had a horrible image of getting into an accident, my car flipping over multiple times with my babies and I inside.  Intrusive images of something terrible happening to me or the people I love – that’s how I know that my anxiety is up.  Those horrific images serve as a reminder to me that screwing up or simply falling short of my enormously high expectations means that I should be punished.

The point is this: there are times when I feel SO BROKEN.  Despite the almost 20 years that have passed, despite the therapy, despite the money I raised for cancer research in Mere’s name (more on that later), despite loving relationships that affirm my goodness, despite amazing children that reflect my goodness, despite a career that I LOVE and excel at…this nagging feeling of not being enough persists.  Which makes me feel even more broken.  And at times, the feeling of brokenness is so intense and real and isolating, it can seem as though I am the only person on the planet who feels this way.  Yet I know from my role as a psychologist that I am not alone in this feeling.

And you aren’t either.

There are times when we all feel broken…we all feel unworthy…we all feel undeserving…we all feel like it’s an up-hill battle and we don’t have the energy/courage/will to keep climbing.  There are moments in our life when we ALL feel that way.  

To feel broken is simply to be a human who is still breathing.  And being a human who is still breathing is a truly wondrous thing.


Dr. Colleen Cira is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, trauma and anxiety expert, clinical supervisor, writer, speaker, wife and Mommy of two little ones.  She has a practice in Chicago’s Loop and Oak Park.  To schedule an appointment with her, please visit: