Have you ever had a major surgery, one that required a hospital stay and general anesthesia, one that opened up your body to hands and instruments?
I had laproscopic surgery on December 11, a partial hysterectomy to address increasingly incapacitating effects of large submucosal fibroids. Fibroids are benign growths that the majority of women develop in midlife. The location, placement and size of fibroids determine if they are undetectable and of no consequence, or if they create major problems such as pain, swelling, and extremely heavy bleeding, which mine did. After exhausting other treatment options that all stopped working, it was time for surgery.
I’ve been offline and not writing for awhile now, letting myself recover. My energy has been absorbed in healing, even my mental energy. I imagined that I’d have lots of time to read, blog, come up with ideas and insights to launch in the new year while laying on the couch and letting my body heal. Ummmm…not exactly. Even my mental capacity was redirected to what my body needed to recover. What’s surprising is that I thought it would be any other way, given what I know about the powerful connection of mind-body. I went into denial and wanted to, in essence, disconnect my head from my body.
In the days leading up to the surgery, I was highly aware that my greatest anxiety wasn’t about the procedure or even the pain or limitations I knew I’d have afterwards. I have a highly skilled doctor, and I trust her surgical skills completely. I broke my left clavicle in a mountain biking accident a few years back and learned that I can handle pain and inactivity, and how to ask for help and depend on others.
What bothered me most was the reality of being completely exposed and vulnerable while unconscious. I did not want to be naked, strapped to a table and opened up in front of not just my doctor but the whole surgical and post-op team including observing students, technicians helping to keep the specialized equipment running, and all the people who would care for me overnight in the hospital. When you enter the hospital, you immediately agree to give up a great deal of privacy and autonomy. Up to 15 different people will come into your room around the clock, take your blood, stick tubes in you, lift up your gown and look to see how you’re healing, all on their schedule, not yours. You have to wake from a deep sleep at 5 am to talk with 3 residents about how you’re feeling. You need to get out of bed and walk down the corridor, covered in a flimsy gown and robe, pushing your IV pole that has your catheter bag hanging on it, the tube taped to your thigh and hanging out for all the staff and visitors and other patients to see. Yep, that’s my pee hanging there…
So, the only way I found to deal with all of this was to surrender. My life coach once said, quite wisely, to me, “It’s better to deal with how things are than how we wish they were.” I did my best to shift my focus from all that was uncomfortable and out of my control (ah, the operative word) to the positive realities such as: My doctor truly cares about me as a person and my health, works extremely hard to be the best surgeon she can be, and wants to teach other aspiring doctors to be the same way. The residents who will assist and/or observe are probably nervous and scared by their increasingly challenging responsibilities, and their whole lives are focused on doing well and becoming skillful. The nurses and assistants are trained professionals who will work really hard to ensure that I get everything I need, including smiles and encouragement.
When I kept my focus on the strengths of my situation, I was able to step out of my clothes, put on the pre-surgical gown, and give myself into their hands. I was still nervous, but I wasn’t afraid as the team of women wheeled me away into surgery.
I also came to realize that my anxiety was tied to the abuse I experienced in my home as a child. I felt some of the same feelings of being vulnerable, hurt, exposed, helpless, and violated. Having this insight before the surgery allowed me to come to terms with my fears and come into the present reality. This is a very useful healing strategy for all of us who have experienced trauma or abuse – to place what happened in the past firmly back in the time it happened, and focus on the present where the abuse is not happening in physical reality. Grounding in the present creates a healthy separation between history and current reality.
I knew I wanted to write about this experience as a way to keep making sense of it, yet even now, I’m not sure what I most want to share. I did a lot of reading about the surgery I had, what to expect, and other women’s experiences with hysterectomy. I suppose I want to share my story to help others who have similar fears or worries about an upcoming surgery or any other major event that requires you to surrender your autonomy.
But really, it’s clear that these lessons apply to just about anything we do in life, as we never really have control at all. Yes, we can make choices and influence things, but control things? Not so much.
So whatever is causing you anxiety – falling in love, having a child, moving far away, retiring, buying a house, going back to school – the same principles can apply.
1) Realize that your current situation may be bringing up feelings from past experiences that you can consciously separate from current reality. Free your mental and emotional energy by placing the past where it belongs – in the past.
2) Acknowledge the current reality instead of wishing it were different (it’s not) or going into denial (oh, it won’t be that way for me). Be calmly realistic, without dramatizing or awfulizing it (exaggerating by using words like horrible, terrible, devastating, etc).
3) Identify the strengths in the current reality that give you courage and peace. Use these as touchstones to calm and relax yourself.
4) Surrender to the experience, trusting yourself to respond with all the wisdom and skill that you have within you.
On a final note, one of the best things about the whole surgical/hospital experience and recovery has been the freedom to focus on the small gains I make each day. I’m really happy that I wore a pair of jeans yesterday for the first time instead of the soft waistband exercise pants that I had to wear because of my swollen abdomen and incision sites. At 3 am in the hospital, I walked all the way to my bathroom and got back in bed. My hair was standing on end, my backside was hanging out of my gown in these weird mesh hospital undies, and I was shuffling and stooped. I turned to my warm and helpful PCA (personal care assistant), Curtis, and gave him a huge smile. “I’m so grateful I could do that!” I said, beaming. He beamed back and said, “Yes, it’s all about appreciating every little thing.”
That’s my only new year’s resolution – to appreciate every little thing.