I have a lot to say -- A LOT to say -- about this experience. The diagnosis; the hospital experience; the total lack of embedded, cultural support for women moving through this experience; the ridiculously amazing support I have received from those friends and family members and strangers (who have since become friends) who answered my call for support about a month ago; what it means to "recover" and to "heal;" how important the mind-body connection is when one or both have been injured or hurt in some way; how much healthy, fit people take for granted every single day; how strong a woman has to be in order to live the life her physical body requires of her, let alone thrive in that life; etc... yes, I have some things to say.
But I'm taking the advice of countless wonderful people in my life who have all consistently told me the same thing: take it easy on yourself. This six-week mandatory (according to doctor) recovery period is becoming an interesting and potentially life-changing experiment for me. Can I... for six weeks in a row... that's 42 days in a row!!!... Can I... take it easy on myself? If you're not the kind of person who immediately finds this thought difficult, you won't probably know what I mean when I say: I have to will myself every single morning to not create goals. I have to tell myself every day to not make a list. I have to remind myself every day that whatever happens today is just fine. Did I get my walking done? Was I able to finish the sandwich I started making? Did I read anything worthwhile? Did I update the blog? Did I make that $80 investment in magazines worth it today? I have to be willing to answer even these questions about simple, easy tasks with a "no" and be totally okay with that. If you know me, you can imagine: THIS. IS. HARD!
So... I began simply, as Natalie Goldberg suggests we do when telling our stories, "with simple words. The way an animal cries out in pain." And what I've come up with for the moment is a simple narrative about how these first nine days have more or less gone. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone but my very biggest fans (read: my sister -- and even she might have to skim) wanting to read this blow-by-blow account but it's what came out of me when I had to begin writing this experience. It's a humble beginning... but it's still a beginning. And I AM -- I am I am -- OKAY with that.
So here you have it:
My husband, bless his heart, is not a morning person. Under normal circumstances, there isn’t a thing – not a thing – in this world that would have seen him up this early. But he was up-and-at-‘em and figuring out his food situation for the day by the time I was out of the shower. He has celiac (as I’ve mentioned before) and has to plan and pack all his own food when he’ll be away from the house for an entire day. He is also an avid breakfast eater. Some people can’t do anything before drinking coffee. He can’t do anything before eating first breakfast and sometimes second (in this way, yes, he is like a hobbit).
I noticed in the shower that I was scared but steady. I began to marvel a little at how strong I was. I began to visualize what was about to happen. Tim would drive to the hospital while I laid back, closed my eyes and took deep breaths, preparing myself for surgery, etc… . The first thing he says to me when I get to the kitchen, where he’s prepping food is, “You don’t mind driving do you?”
Something snapped in me. I wasn’t angry. I saw him halfway through his breakfast, busy packing his food. I realized, because he was not exactly human so early in the morning and pre-several-breakfasts that he meant absolutely no disrespect in assuming that I would drive myself to my own surgery. He couldn’t have known that his driving was a clear part of my visualization; that I felt I needed him to drive in order to maintain my handle on my fear. If it weren’t for that fear, which was abundant and all-consuming – I almost felt like I was standing in it as if it were a wind that was only whipping through my own body – I would have said, “Honey, is it okay if you drive? I’d rather try to relax all the way to the hospital.” Instead, with the gale howling through my ears, I said, “sure,” and I grabbed the keys. I took my bag and myself out to the car. I turned on music I knew would get me pumped up (the soundtrack one of my TQP coaches encouraged me to make) and I waited for him to join me.
He was too tired to notice I was furious. I was too scared to worry about or deal productively with how furious I was. I was also keenly aware that my fury was childish and I needed to get over it if I was going to get myself ready for what was about to happen to my body.
Eventually, after settling our neighbor, who watched the children for us, into the house, Tim came tromping out and got into the car with his half-eaten breakfast and his fully packed lunchbox. I barely noticed he was there. I let the music I had chosen fill my head. I drove.
It was amazing to feel so mindful of the fact that, on a normal day, if I didn’t want to drive, I would have asked. On a normal day, I would have responded with a smile when he put his hand on my arm, my knee. I would have chatted about something. I would have discussed whatever it was we were on our way to do. I would have teased him about being up so early and how much he must be enjoying it. But I didn’t have the energy for any of that. I was 100% focused on trying not to blow away in the howling cyclone that whipped its way through my body. I turned the music up. I sang.
I didn’t realize, by the way, that one thing major surgery takes away from you temporarily is the ability to raise your voice. For the past seven days, I haven’t been able to sing above much more than a quiet whisper. Louder than that, hurts.
Eventually, about halfway to the hospital, I told my husband what was happening to me. How I was focused on mastering the fear I was feeling. How I was working up to putting on my game face. How on a normal day, I would’ve had the strength to ask him to drive if I didn’t want to but today, I was too weakened by fear. Of course, he apologized and he asked if I wanted him to take over driving now. I said now I needed the music and the focus of keeping the car on the road to maintain my steadiness. He understood. I was finally able to eek out a smile. He told me for the bazillionith time that everything would be okay. He’s still telling me every single day, multiple times each day.
As soon as we walked into the hospital, exactly what I expected to happen, happened. I began having little flashbacks of being with my brother, Mitchell, in the hospital, last August. But this time, because of TQP and the happy practices, I believe, these flashbacks came at me with a new and sudden realization. Part of what made Mitchell’s experience in the hospital last year remotely bearable or less hellish or full of what felt like some kind of grace for all of us was the connection, the communication we had with the people who make a hospital what it is. Walking up to the registration desk, I was profoundly aware that I was surrounded by a roomful of other souls. A handful of people waited there to be called for their surgery. They each had at least one loved one with them, sometimes two or three. As I approached the receptionist, I was aware that this was the beginning of her workday. She had a cup of coffee in front of her and I thought about the fact that she probably didn’t feel very peppy yet without having finished it. This kind of awareness, that I was surrounded by regular humans – all with their own fears and heartbreaks and families and friends and histories and hopes -- facing another day, broke open inside of me. I suddenly felt desperate to make the receptionist smile. I felt that if I could get her to smile just once, everything would be okay.
She asked all the questions you’d expect. And then, she asked, “Is it okay if we give your room number out to people who call asking about you?” I said, “sure,” then, after a second, added, “I mean, unless it’s my ex-husband.” There are a many reasons I knew at that moment that my brother Mitchell was intervening in my life that morning. Not the least of which, that is not a joke I would tell. I’m not a particularly “jokey” person, especially in a situation like this. The other reason is that it wasn’t really true. I harbor no resentment at all towards my ex-husband. It was like I wasn’t even talking about my own ex-husband. I was just being silly, just making a joke, the same kind of crude, silly joke Mitchell made constantly just to see people smile, just to lighten the mood. When she looked up at us, giggled and smiled, I saw her melt a little bit. Everything would be fine. Here we all are, just human beings, trying to do the best we can by each other. I was going to be fine.
I resolved at that moment to try to connect with every single person that I came into contact with at the hospital. To really begin that connecting process, as Tim and I sat and waited for my name to be called, I said a loving kindness meditation for everyone in the waiting room. There was a much older man on oxygen waiting to have surgery, with what looked like his elderly wife and his son and his son’s wife. They all looked so scared and sad. There were two Mexican men chatting in Spanish and laughing quietly, while their wives sat on opposite sides of them, clinging to their arms, smiling and nodding while they talked. The men looked fairly relaxed. The women looked cautious, a bit nervous, through their smiles. It was difficult to tell which of them were having surgery. There were others too. One woman sat flipping through a magazine, page-by-page, not even reading or looking, just flipping over and over and over. I wondered if she was there for a hysterectomy too. Her husband also had a magazine in hand. He was reading it intently though. I looked at each of them one-by-one and thought to myself, “may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be safe.” This is loving kindness meditation. I said it for the receptionist too and the other hospital workers who drifted endlessly into and out of the room. I said it for Tim. I said it for myself. Until they called my name.
I received last minute texts and facebook messages from friends and family in that hour before surgery that filled me with strength and happiness. When that windy fear whipped up inside of me from time to time and the loving kindness and the joking and the messages were not enough, I repeated my mantra for the day to myself: “trust the universe.” “Trust the Universe.” “Trust the Universe.” When they pulled me away from Tim and into the surgery room (which was serious business, it looked like a Television set), I kept saying that mantra over and over until they told me I’d start falling asleep now. I said out loud, “I think this is the last thing I’m going to remember” and it was.
When I woke, I remember feeling more than anything else at all, simply thrilled, elated, overjoyed to be alive! I knew I was smiling enormously in this almost crazy way. Every person that walked up to my bed was greeted by me maniacally saying, “Hi! How are you? What’s your name? It’s nice to meet you! (imagine Buddy the Elf and you’re not far from what I sounded like)” with a huge smile on my face. Mitchell was still with me. The nurses all smiled back, giggled a little, commented on my cheeriness. It made me so completely happy to see them smile at me. It made me so happy to realize that I am a person who has the capacity to make other people smile, just like Mitchell did, even in a moment where my body is incapacitated. I was strangely mindful of all of this right at this moment of coming out of surgery. I remember the nurse in recovery (whose name, I think, was Becky) calling up to the nurse on my floor to let her know I was coming. She said, “I have a very nice lady coming up to you guys. You need to treat her well. She’s a sweetheart!” Again, I was keenly aware of how happy it made me to hear someone say that. It made me so proud of myself that even in this moment of pain and relative horror (I had just been sliced open at the base and somewhat gutted, you know…) I was able to smile and make people feel that way.
Every nurse who came into my room, for the rest of my stay, usually introduced themselves right away. They were always greeted by a smile from me and a “Hi! It’s nice to meet you!” If they didn’t introduce themselves, which happened maybe only once or twice, and usually because they thought I was out of it and didn’t want to bother me, I asked them what their name was. I always tried to follow those basic introductions with a quick little joke about the time of day or the current state I was in or something, anything… I received so many smiles, so many jokes back, so many sweet words and so much encouragement. Throughout the three days that I was in the hospital, I grew to love and respect nurses in a totally new way. Obviously what nurses do is important and meaningful but until you’ve been the one that relies on them so heavily, it’s hard to feel just how important and how meaningful.
The first hours after the surgery aside from my interaction with nurses are a little bit of a blur. I know Tim came into my room almost as soon as they got me settled, before the nurses had even left. I know he and I sat and talked. I know shortly after that, my friend Linda arrived and we talked and she stayed the night. At some point, I received two beautiful bouquets of flowers and when Tim brought the first one in, I teared up and said, “Oh! I was hoping I’d get some flowers!” I know, at some point, Tim had to leave and he texted me later that night saying it was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
I was kept on a liquid diet for the entire first day. I think I might have had a little beef broth that was absolutely awful and tasted like tin. And, I tried to drink a little Vernor’s but it burned my throat. Mostly, I drank water for that whole first day.
Day Two: They put me on percocet. This is supposedly milder than dilaudid but because I wasn’t controlling the dosage, I felt like I was getting too much. But, for a while this didn’t bother me. I took my first shower. I took my first walk around the halls. I took another walk around the halls. And another. On the second day, I was so doped up on pain meds, I walked about 16 laps of that hallway. Far. Too. Many.
I hadn’t slept at all the night before. I don’t know if it was the dilaudid or the anesthesia or the fear or a combination of all three but I only slept about ¾ of the way, if that makes sense. I know I never entered R.E.M.. I know I didn’t dream. I just floated, a little bit awake, all through the night. This wouldn’t have been that much of a problem except it had been a big few days prior to the surgery and I hadn’t actually slept soundly or much for about six days at this point. This is the one thing I feel I did terribly wrong in getting ready for surgery. I should have slept well and hard every night for the week prior.
Around 5am, when I had gotten all the tubes out of me, the nurse gave me some graham crackers and peanut butter to hold me over until breakfast. I was so excited to eat breakfast! What they sent me, however, was utterly inedible. And, I am not a hospital food snob. Hospital chocolate pudding is some of my favorite eats. I’ve gotten good salads, sandwiches, breads from hospitals. I was willing to give the food a chance. Cold black coffee, rubbery greasy eggs covered in cheese, a REPULSIVE mini muffin straight out of a box (I couldn’t even tell you what flavor it was supposed to be!), and a small dish of mushy canned pears. I was able to choke down two bites of the nasty eggs and forced myself to eat all of the pears because I knew I needed fiber.
It felt so good to shower and get out of the hospital gown. I was able to stretch my adorable little neon yellow sundress over my giant swollen belly. I had three visitors that day! I was able to stand up for 10-15 minutes at a time! The Percocet was making this feel like a pretty awesome day.
After the abysmal breakfast, I called Tim and asked him to do some shopping. Kefir, fresh greens, whole grain bread, peanut butter, hummus, carrots, apples, bananas. I also asked him to bring my liquid probiotic (that was another thing that they took me off of on the morning of Day 2 – the antibiotics!) and the leftover “miracle pudding” that was in our fridge at home. I was going to get as much fiber and good bacteria back into my belly asap. You can probably imagine my next goal.
But, as I was waiting for Tim to bring food, my friend Crystal arrived with my favorite salad from Heather’s in Bay City. Avocado Salad. Yum!!! Never had a better tasting salad in my life! And then the hospital brought me the ugliest black bean burger you have ever seen with a fruit cup and another cup of black coffee (I do not drink coffee – but apparently they think that’s the only way to get a person to poop). Later, for dinner, Crystal and I dressed up the black bean burger with the greens that Tim had brought me with my grocery order and split it. The hospital dinner was a pesto chicken sandwich served on those bagel thin breads apparently soaked in water before served (omg. Bad.). I can’t even remember the side. And, of course, the coffee I did not ask for.
My least favorite moment of Day Two was my last dose of Percocet at 5:15pm. 5 minutes after they gave it to me, I lost my mind. Tim was just about to walk down the hall to heat up some oatmeal for me to eat for dinner instead of the hospital’s soggy chicken sandwich. Suddenly, panic took my body over in a way that it hasn’t since I was 15 years old. I had tunnel vision. The room seemed to be collapsing around me. I felt I couldn’t breathe, that my heart was racing. I was suddenly paranoid that someone was trying to kill me. I was suddenly paranoid that I was dying in that very moment. I grabbed the pillows behind my head and threw them. I told Tim, “I’m dying. I’m dying.” I’m so glad he was the only one in the room. My nurses, Lynette and Ali, came rushing in. They checked all of my vital signs. I was not having an actual physical reaction to the medication. Lynette said it would be very unlikely that the medication would be to blame since I had already had five doses. After much discussion and while I tried to calm down, it was decided that I was completely exhausted and needed to sleep for real and for a long time. I still believe that the horrible way pain meds make me feel triggered that panic – not that the medication CAUSED the panic but that it triggered it. I’m certain of it. I was finally calmish and laying down with my eyes closed and covered with a dark t-shirt to block out the sun by 7pm. I made a promise to myself that I would not get out of bed or open my eyes, unless I had to go to the bathroom, until 7am. The Panic was telling me to jump up out of bed and run. It took so much energy and focus to lay still. I had to say to myself, “this is your work right now. Your work is to lay still here with your eyes closed. That is all you have to do.” Just about then, my friend Sue came back to check on me and Tim had to leave. I was so relieved that Sue was prepared to spend the night. She stayed and we were quiet and I finally did sleep hard through the night for the first time in six days.
Day Three: At 7am, I walked a lap around the halls. I hadn’t had any pain medication since 5:15pm the night before. As I walked slowly and cautiously, I realized that the Percocet was the reason I was able to walk so much the day before. I hadn’t been able to feel how much pain I was in. This morning, I could feel it. And the pain forced me to move a little slower and stop moving when I had moved enough. 1 lap. Not 5. 1 lap was enough.
During this lap, I ran into my night nurse, Michelle. I adored her, not just because she was a wonderful nurse, but because she said so many nice things about my fitness level. I loved that she noticed my strength and felt secure that it would help me a great deal through my recovery. She buoyed me up with those little comments. I felt very grateful for her. When we met up in the hall that morning, we talked about my panic the night before, about how I slept through the night, about the fact that I was walking despite the pain. She said something about the woman in the room next to me not wanting to get out of bed. I remembered all the women I had talked to who complained about the nurses “making you” get out of bed after surgery. Not a single nurse had to ask me or even suggest that I get out of bed. I was out of bed every chance I could be. I’m not saying I’m better or harder or tougher than the woman who refuses to get out of bed. Not at all. I think there are many differences between me and that woman though. And I know that the differences that matter are all mental. My mental preparation for this surgery was thorough. I enlisted an army of people to help build my confidence, my happiness, my belief in myself – and it worked! By the time I went into the hospital, I felt more love and care for myself than I have ever in my entire life. The woman who refuses to get out of bed does not love herself. This dawned on me the moment that Michelle told me about this woman. It made me feel an immense sadness for her. It made me wonder who would be with her when she got out the hospital. Who was going to be supporting her? What did she plan to do with her time? I worried about her. I felt more grateful for everyone on TQP than I had even felt before. They were the reason I was not the woman who refused to get out of bed.
By 9am, I had eaten the decent hospital breakfast: a tiny box of raisin bran with a little milk and decaffeinated black tea and the doctor had come and told me I could go home. I was still refusing any pain meds. My friend Crystal arrived and relieved Sue. I was never alone for a moment in the hospital. This too, reminded me of Mitchell. He had never wanted to be alone last summer, not in the hospital and not at home in his last days. He knew he needed people to get through this. I know I’m just like him in that regard. I need people. I get my energy from people. Just having people with me the whole time I was in the hospital was my lifeline, my connection, my force.
Shortly after Crystal arrived, we were packing my things and figuring out how to get me out to the car. I felt exhausted and in some pain – but not excruciating pain and it subsided almost completely if I sat or laid down. I was glad that I had refused the pain medication because it felt so good to be coming back to my body in this way. It felt wonderful to know what was happening in my body and what my body needed. And what my body needed most now was my own home.
(Still) The QueenPrincess