Some people write to remember; others to understand themselves.
For Susan Frances Morris, it’s a mix of both. In her forthcoming memoir, “The Sensitive One,” which is out on Aug. 24, Morris delves into her childhood traumas and her breast cancer journey.
Morris started journaling when she was a teen growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, though at the time, she never dreamed of writing a book.
“I’ve journaled throughout my life as a way of processing my feelings and thoughts. When things would happen, it always just seemed to sit with me [for] a couple days. Then to make sense of it I would just journal,” said Morris, who is a Rexford resident.
However, after being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through treatment for it, journaling took on a new meaning.
“Your life does truly change after breast cancer; mine did anyway,” Morris said.
At the time of her diagnosis, she was 50 years old and working as a registered nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Frustrated and desperately searching for answers, she researched the risk factors associated with breast cancer. She found a growing number of studies pointing to long-term exposure to stress and traumatic childhood experiences increased one’s risk of breast cancer.
Earlier in her life, Morris had plenty of experience with both of those. When she was a young teen, her father began drinking heavily and acting erratically, at times even abusive. Morris remembers feeling that her mother was emotionally absent and unable to talk about what was happening.
In the midst of this, she started taking care of her younger siblings.
“I became the mother figure for Mary and Margaret. I didn’t have to step up as I did, but my heart gravitated toward their sad eyes. I’d wake them up for school in the morning, read them bedtime stories, and tuck them in at night,” Morris wrote.
Beyond what was happening with her father, another one of Morris’ siblings (she is the second-oldest of seven) was struggling with schizophrenia and had destructive tendencies, at one point starting a fire in the family’s home.
While her parents eventually separated and her sister got medical help, after graduating from high school, trauma seemed to follow Morris. Her first husband, who she refers to as Dave in her memoir, was both physically and verbally abusive. After several years of simply trying to survive the marriage, she fled and filed a restraining order and for custody of their two children.
In the ensuing years, she studied to become a nurse and found her passion working primarily in women’s health. She went on to marry her husband Bruce in 1991. They had a child together and for years her life was free of the traumas she had endured as a child and young adult.
However, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, the memories and emotions of those experiences came flooding back.
“The fear that I had as a child just started coming out during my cancer treatments. I was rocking myself back and forth to sleep at night and I thought I was going crazy. . . I don’t think I had experienced a fear somewhat like that since my early 20s,” Morris said.
After going through surgery as well as radiation and other treatments, and finally entering into remission, Morris found that writing about her experiences, both during her cancer journey and her childhood memories, helped her to heal.
“I struggled through . . . got into therapy, did all of the hard work through it and I feel like all of those scenes that are in my head, they’re not there anymore. They’re out on paper. As part of the writing process, I just put them all to rest,” Morris said.
She at first hoped to write essays about her experiences with cancer, maybe to help anyone currently going through it. However, after taking a memoir-writing workshop, she knew she had a bit more to say than would fit in an essay or two.
“That workshop changed my life because it was small, maybe 30 people . . . and when they asked to write down scenes of your life that perhaps could be chapters, I couldn’t stop writing. All of these scenes were in my head. I looked around, everybody had stopped and I’m like ‘Wow, I’m still writing.’ And that blew my mind, realizing that all of those things were still in my head, pretty vividly,” Morris said.
Just a few years after going back to work in the medical field following her cancer treatments, she decided to leave to spend more time with her three children and four grandchildren.
“My daughter at the time was about 16 and I [wanted] to be home during those important times after school,” Morris said. “We developed this tea time we had every day like at 4 o’clock and we’d catch up. Those are the things you remember.”
She also wanted to focus on writing what has become “The Sensitive One.”
“I was writing like every day. Almost to the point where that’s what woke me up every morning because I had another scene I had to finish. I felt like I was on a mission and I couldn’t put it down,” Morris said.
It took about eight years to write and edit. She broke up the narrative so that chapters of her cancer journey are interspersed with memories from the past, creating connective tissue between the two.
“I think the reason I wanted it woven was [it was] because of my breast cancer that all of this childhood stuff started coming back to the surface,” Morris said.
Published through She Writes Press, Morris hopes that “The Sensitive One” makes readers more aware of how one’s childhood experiences and traumas can impact them later in life.
Perhaps even more importantly, she’s glad to be able to share her story.
“I think we all have a voice and part of me feels like we’re all in this world together, right? And if we’re not here to share experiences with others to help others through things or to share our stories and to help others along their path, what are we here for?” Morris said.
At its core, “The Sensitive One” is a story of resilience. As Morris writes “Like a lotus flower, we all have the ability to rise from muddy waters, to bloom out of the darkness and radiate into the world.”
In celebration of the book’s release, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 24, Morris will be in conversation with New York Times bestselling author Judy Mandel, through a virtual event hosted by Northshire Bookstore. For tickets and more information visit northshire.com. For more on Morris and the book, visit susanfrancesmorris.com.