Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lesson #8: Recovery Road

Sitting in the car, heading home, on the Friday of my first week back at work after my surgery, I put my head in my hands and started to cry. I was exhausted both mentally and physically. I felt like I had just been through a week of boot camp. I had totally underestimated the amount of stamina I needed to get through one simple day of work. I was frustrated with myself for being tired. What was wrong with me? The surgery was over, I had rested at home for a week and worked from home for another, why wasn’t I one hundred percent?

At three weeks I still couldn’t chew very well, my lower lip was still (and is still) numb which made everything from speaking to eating to crying an effort. Everything felt like an adjustment -- from wearing a seatbelt to talking on the phone, to the clothes I could wear, to rinsing out toothpaste. I was overwhelmed and depressed.

It took me a while to realize the problem was not with my recovery – the problem was my expectation of what should happen.

I have a long history of ignoring what my body is trying to tell me. I have an arrogance about my will being able to drag my body along regardless of any illness or injury. I’m that person who never gets sick for a day, because I don’t let myself be sick. When I’m under the weather I tell myself to buck up, I deny the sniffles, ignore the sore throat and open the window to cool off from a fever. When I do finally succumb to illness it isn’t pretty. It takes me out for a week, lands me in the doctor’s office listening to a lecture about how close I had come to being hospitalized.

I guess at my core I believe I am useless if I am not contributing to society in some way. Clearly my sense of safety is predicated on being in the world, making a contribution, working until I drop. Being sick makes me feel like that wounded antelope you see in all those nature films that gets eaten by the lions. Who wants to be that guy?

Yet who wants to be the woman crying in the car at the train station because she has pushed herself too hard? Frankly, I’d almost prefer being the antelope.
It is hard to face your own limitations and to respect what you need to heal, I’m afraid it is even harder to continue to ignore the small still voice inside you that asks you to breathe, to listen and to honor the amazing vessel that enables us to live fully in the world.
I am lucky I have people in my life who remind me to slow down, and who are patient with me when I cancel plans because I am too tired.

I am now seven weeks out from the surgery and take great pleasure in sleeping on my left side again, and being able to turn my head without using my whole body. The sensitivity in my left back molar has returned, something that used to annoy me but I now take as a reminder that my nerves are slowly coming back to life. Worrying about what I still cannot do, takes the focus of what I can do again, chewing came back just in time for the best corn of the season and because it is often hard to talk when my lip is acting up I save my words for when it is really important (and honestly, I like the challenge of taking less and listening more.)

Yesterday, after being able to take my first long walk, it occurred to me that I had been looking at this whole recovery thing all wrong. Instead of thinking it was taking me away from my job, I realized it was my job to recover and it warranted my total and complete focus and priority.
I stopped wishing I could get back to my old self and made peace with this newer, modified version of me. With any bit of luck she won’t met that crying woman in the car anytime soon.

Lesson #7: Letting Go...

In early July I had a surgery to remove a tumor that was growing on my left jaw. The tumor was benign, the surgery, although delicate, was a success and had a side effect of some temporary paralysis in my face mostly in my lip and ear lobe. The hardest part of the recovery is dealing with limited mobility in my neck, some pain and the inability to eat most solid foods for a while. Still, as I keep reminding myself, it beats having a tumor growing out of your jaw.

Going through this experience has given me a profound respect and admiration of anyone who goes through life changing illness, accidents or surgeries. It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to keep yourself focused on your health and well being when there are so many reasons to get distracted and depressed. I think of people I have known who had months of recovery after accidents and am newly impressed by their strength.

For me, the work began as soon as I discovered I would have to have surgery. Until I got a second opinion I was hoping I would be told it was just a big cyst that could be removed on my lunch hour in the doctor’s office. When I heard the exact same information from the second doctor, and saw the image of the tumor on the MRI I knew I would have to face my fear of surgery.

It is a lucky thing to say the last (and only time) I have been in the hospital before this was when I was five years old to have my tonsils out. Unfortunately, that experience traumatized me and influenced the way I feel about myself and being taken care of.

Forty five years is a long time to avoid facing a fear and as much as I would have liked to have gone ninety, it was not realistic for me the think I would never have to revisit those terrifying feelings of a five year old alone on a gurney without her parents to comfort or explain to her what was happening.

My anxiety over the surgery was palpable and it expressed itself in a spike in my blood pressure that was so high my doctor was concerned I would not be able to go through with it if we couldn’t normalize it. For anyone who has ever had anxiety, you know how hard it is to quell it when it is expressing itself physically like that.

Friends and family offered to be with me but everything they said upset me. While they were trying to help I only heard conditions. No matter what they said I felt like abandonment was inevitable. To avoid that feeling I had learned not to depend on anyone. I even asked the doctor if I could be released the day after surgery on my own as I didn’t want to ask anyone to pick me up.

Before I even had the surgery I was suffering and deep down I started to think this tumor was trying to teach me something. On my bad days I thought it was telling me I was alone and always would be and on better days I thought it was challenging me to test the waters again, to be willing to let go of many of my outdated beliefs. Maybe what was true when I was five did not have to be true at fifty.

The shift began when I made a decision I would do whatever it took not to be afraid of what was happening to me. I sought the counsel of everyone I could. I spoke to friends who had been through multiple surgeries, life threatening cancers, and long rehabilitations. I talked to my doctor about my anxiety and he helped me break it down practically, assured me I had made solid decisions about my care. I spoke to my therapist about the experience and my commitment to change how I felt. My yoga teacher offered kind words about surrender and acceptance.

And then, one night, in a class I take on Buddhism during a meditation I felt something inside me start to change. I saw that little girl at five and felt love and compassion for her fear but I also saw a five year old that survived and learned how to take care of herself. And instead of making me sad, that revelation made me happy. I learned how to be safe in world that didn’t always feel that safe. Until then, I had never seen that experience in that way. My memory was locked in the trauma not in the survival.

The truth I saw after that meditation was that my suffering was not coming from the surgery but from my inability to accept what was inevitable – whether or not I wanted it to happen – the surgery was unavoidable and I had to a choice to either resist it and suffer or accept it and trust
I would be okay.

It came down to a decision and a leap of faith. (And let’s face it, what else is there when facing the challenges of life?) Did I want to live in a world where I was abandoned and afraid or a world where I was loved and taken care of?

My friend Donna stayed with me in pre-op and although the surgery was delayed by three hours, my blood pressure was steady and normal. I did not need an anxiety medication. When asked how I wanted to go into the operating room I opted to walk-in and shake the hands of my surgical team before I lay down on the table. When the anesthesologist promised they would take good care of me, I believed her and thanked her.

I have accomplished many things in my life but nothing made me prouder than learning how to surrender to surgery and to the outcome. And nothing honored the memory of that frightened five year old Teri more than the fifty year old version walking in on her own, ready, willing and able to face the challenges ahead.

As crazy as it sounds, I had a moment just before I left for the hospital where I thanked that big round tumor growing out of my jaw, thanked it for being benign and for showing me how to let go of my fear and accept the love and kindness that was all around me.

Little did I know…there would be more lessons to learn as I recovered.