When I had surgery on my spine in December of 1998, one of our stories about my father was on my mind as I entered the hospital. As my condition worsened, the neurosurgeon ordered an MRI for the first Monday of our Christmas break from school. I took the films straight over to his office and after he looked at them, he told me he wasn't sure how I was still walking. Then, he told me he had an opening in surgery the next afternoon. I think that's the best way to have a major surgery. There was little time to worry or panic; I barely had time to take care of things before we were due at the hospital.
The family story of self-determination and the fighting spirit that was on my mind as I was prepped for my spinal surgery was the one about my father's gallbladder surgery in the early 1970s. It was the only surgery he ever had and that was a point of pride, as if his health were a sheer act of will. The story was always told that the day after surgery, the doctor on duty came in to check on my father. "Where's the patient?" he asked my father, who was dressed and doing push ups on the floor. He was released the same day. His roommate was still in bed and groaning with pain when the doctor checked him. That patient had also had his gallbladder removed on the same day.
I expected to show the same strength and determination. My pain before the surgery was intense and both of my feet were so numb that I had trouble walking and I had stopped driving. I was unable to straighten my back which meant I was teaching middle schoolers from a hunched position. My doctor had promised the surgery would give me relief and that was all I cared about. When the physical therapists came to my hospital room post-surgery, I pulled back my covers, ready to bounce out of bed and begin exercising. I was shocked when I couldn't stand up. I was even more shocked when they told me that was expected and that we would try the next day. I felt so defeated and so ashamed. My parents attitude was all concern, though. My mother hadn't completely recovered from seeing me as I was first wheeled into the recovery room. During surgery, I was on my stomach and my face had been placed in some sort of form. So, when my family saw me right after surgery, my face was extremely swollen and Mama thought it was some sort of reaction to anesthesia. No one else was putting pressure on me, but a lifetime of strong examples was fueling my own guilt.
I've felt a similar guilt and shame over the past few months, especially in September as my pain worsened. I have had three surgeries: spine, gallbladder, and sinus. I have had multiple root canals and a tooth pulled while pregnant so I couldn't have the "good drugs." I delivered my three children naturally, each delivery induced by Pitocin, with doctor and nurses standing and wondering aloud how anyone could have such control and be so calm. I have never felt pain like that I experienced recently. The best description I can give is that it felt as if a super-hot metal rod was running from my lower back to my toes, with pins and nails being poked into it all along its length. I could only stand or sit for 5 minutes or less at a time before I had to retreat to my bed. There, I would roll around, face down, screaming into my pillow as I stretched my legs until the pain became bearable. I could not even lie on the couch; it had to be bed. Driving was torture. We had a brand-new van that I should have been excited about, but the sight of it made me cringe. I felt instant pain as soon as I climbed in the seat and I would practice deep-breathing relaxation as I drove, panting my exhaled breaths as best as I could between crying. It was not a safe situation, so I relented and called upon two neighbors for help. Those sweet ladies drove my girls to school each morning and brought them home every afternoon. I said "yes" to another kind friend when she asked to drive me to my pain management appointments. I began a restricted diet, in an attempt to reduce inflammation in my body and though the diet was extreme, it was easy because I was so nauseated from the pain. Vicodin took several hours to kick in, so I would time my doses for doctors' visits and physical therapy appointments. Even when it kicked in, its only real effect was to relax me a bit.
The first time I went to physical therapy, I was so ashamed of myself. The drive, though only a few miles, was so painful that I cried the whole way there. After I checked in with reception, I could not sit down or stand any longer and with a sense of failure, I asked if I could lie down. I dreaded meeting my physical therapist. What a great first impression. He was bound to think he was working with some lazy whiner, for sure. I lay on my side as he approached me and introduced himself. I introduced myself with an apology for lying down and I think I started babbling about growing up on a farm, being a hard-worker, and having delivered three children naturally. He just smiled kindly and gently told me, "No, you have no reason to apologize. This is exactly where you need to be right now." I wanted to cry, with relief and appreciation this time. I had seen a glimpse of him working with other patients, as he clapped his hands and gave enthusiastic commands to "Keep it up!" But he had acknowledged my pain. I spent that entire first therapy session on the table and the results of his initial exam were not encouraging. I remember the phrases, "quality of life" and "increasing your mobility." Over the next weeks, I would see a pain management doctor where I had three x-ray-guided epidural steroid injections administered by an anesthesiologist. The first one had no effect and I was disappointed and scared. I was still spending most of my time in bed, with even a walk to the bathroom leaving me in agony. I daydreamed about whole bottles of whiskey and morphine IVs, but I still rarely took pain pills because it seemed wimpy and dangerous. I only left the house to go to doctor and PT appointments.
During that time of bed rest, I read three great spiritual books, which I wrote about in an previous post. One of the many things I gained from that literary retreat was my first acceptance of suffering. For the first time in my life, I accepted pain and my limitations. I realized I could lie in my bed, feeling my pain, and be content, spiritually and emotionally, with my present situation. I could put my energy into diet choices, physical therapy exercises, and spending quiet time with my children as they curled up next to me as we read and talked. I didn't have to fight it, as if my recovery depended on a sheer act of will. I was doing everything I could and it was okay. I was living and for me, at that particular time, in those circumstances, it was a real life. It was complete, although it was not ideal. My body needed rest, to heal and recover. My body was full of inflammation and I didn't need my soul to be inflamed, also, by feelings of guilt and shame. I needed the calm and peace of acceptance and God granted me the grace to suffer.
Instead of the frantic and frenzied attempt to save myself, I stopped trying to live up to the American ideal of a "go-getter." Instead, I rested. I depended upon God's grace, not on myself, and in doing so, found myself more receptive to that grace because my body, mind and soul weren't using all their efforts to engage in some misguided battle.
Because what does it really mean to live and to "have a life?" St. Therese, consumed on her deathbed by the violence of tuberculosis: what she less alive in those final moments than she had been when she first entered Carmel? Blessed John Paul II: did he still "have a life" in those final months of such suffering? Was he any weaker on his deathbed, where he accepted no extraordinary life-saving efforts, but allowed death to come naturally than he was as a young bishop in Communist Poland? My suffering was miniscule compared to that of these two great saints, but their great example gave me such comfort. I also realized that in the moment, pain is pain. I didn't have to make it seem like less or more, in comparison to previous experiences or the experiences of other people. I could just accept my pain, in that moment.
One of the many treasures I received when I entered the Catholic Church was the theology of suffering. Ever since my conversion, I have had moments of grace where I understood a little more about that theology. My recent experience was one of those fruitful times. Even as I recover, I value my time more. I choose activities carefully, saying, "No," more often so I can have energy for the most important things, instead of an attempt to do it all. There are always times to stand strong, to work through the pain, and push on, yes. Otherwise, how would anything ever get accomplished in this world? I am now in a place, physically, where I can push myself a little harder. But, I also finally have peace as I mature beyond trying to attain, or maintain, the status of "go-getter." Sometimes, for the really important things--like grace-- it's more about being open to receive, not what I achieve.
|My portable TENS unit. This is what allowed me to drive without intense pain and to go to the grocery store again! I can wear it when I'm out-and-about. It scrambles the pain signal before it reaches my brain. I LOVE my unit.|