The morning of December 7, 2000, the day of my hysterectomy, came all too quickly. My parents had flown in to help me with the surgery and recovery. The grief was overwhelming; I could feel it coming off of them in waves. I’m not sure they knew quite what to do to help me through these unchartered waters. Most of all I was missing Julie.
We arrived at the hospital early in the morning. I had agreed to donate my uterus and ovaries to the local University for scientific study. There was a team of interns and Dr’s from the college there to greet me and thank me for my contribution. I laughed bitterly and said, “Well my womanhood has never done me any good so maybe you can put it to good use!” I don’t think they knew what to say to that. The thing about experiencing the grief of others is that sometimes it is plain awkward and I think too many of us make the mistake of thinking we need to say something to help them feel better. Silence in the presence of someone else’s pain is ok. In fact, oftentimes it is preferred.
After I had been prepared and my parents were back in the waiting room, I was left alone with my thoughts for the first time in days. For me, this was a very scary place to be. I had studiously ignored the pain and anguish. I worked hard to avoid feeling anything or dwell too much on what had happened. I just couldn’t bear the sorrow that threatened to pull me under. When everyone, including the nurses, finally left the room it all came to bear down on me. I started wondering if I could just will myself to fade away during the surgery. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t feeling particularly suicidal; rather, I just didn’t think I could stand to wake up afterward and face what was to come. I longed to close my eyes to the oblivion of anesthesia and never return.
Before they took me into the operating room the anesthesiologist offered to give me a drug that would relax me. I didn’t particularly think I needed it, but I thought, “Why not?” He left me shortly afterward, alone again. Many of you may say what I felt next might have been the drug, but I know better. I began seriously thinking about “willing” myself to stay asleep forever. I thought if I could just tell myself not to wake up again, I could make that happen. After all, mind over matter right? In the darkest moment as despair enveloped me I felt a presence next to my bed. I turned my head and didn’t see anything. “Drugs…” I thought. Then it was there again. “Julie”, I breathed. She was there with me as surely as my dog is sitting on the floor next to me now. Her presence was unmistakable, she knew she was needed. I heard her voice in my head say, “Hang in there baby girl.” The tears came in earnest then as I sensed among her the presence of my future children. I could picture them rooting for me, pushing me forward, begging me not to give up. Call me crazy, blame it on the drugs, but I know what I felt. I could feel Julie with me as they put me under. Instead of going in with thoughts of never returning, I heard the Dr say that I was smiling.
Mighty miracles are wrought through circumstances that are sometimes painful. Often we don’t understand why things happen the way they do and it takes faith in great abundance to pass over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. My recovery, both physically and emotionally, from these traumatic events proved to be just such an experience. I wish I could tell you that I handled it with grace, gratitude, and ease. Nope, I’m only human. I’ve been accused of having a false or fake overly positive attitude. Some people just can’t believe that a person who has been through the crucible I have can still have a smile on their face. Well, here is your opportunity to gloat because you’re right. I have my bad days too and the months that followed my hysterectomy were one, long, really bad day.
The first order of business was the physical recovery. My body does not react well to stress of any kind and so you can imagine it wasn’t very pleased with me for what I had just done. I was originally scheduled to stay in the hospital for two nights. It quickly became apparent that two measly nights weren’t going to suffice. I woke up in terrible pain and throwing up. I threw up constantly for three days straight. Can I tell you how awful it is to heave your stomach contents after you’ve had your gut split open from stem to stern? I’m pretty sure I popped a few of my staples out. Then, just for fun, my kidneys decided to stop functioning. Later they decided it was because I’d had a bad reaction to one of the narcotics. This left me feeling more achy and sore than was normal for this type of recovery. Although, if you ask me, I’m not sure recovering from a hysterectomy can be classified as normal in any way. On the evening of the third day the Dr was in for his daily visit and I was begging to go home. I realized that they were afraid to let me go but I knew that I would recover much more quickly in my own bed, with my own bathroom, and without the constant interruptions for vitals all through the night. He made me a deal, if I could keep my breakfast down the next morning, they would let me go home. Little did he know, if you issue me an impossible challenge, I’ll do everything in my power to conquer it. I said, “DEAL!” He left me with a skeptical look; only fair since I’d been tossing my cookies uncontrollably for days.
The next morning the nurse brought me the worst looking breakfast I’d ever seen. I mean this was bad even for hospital food. I was bound and determined and literally gagged it down. I did everything in my power to hang onto that meal. It was grueling beyond imagination. The nurse came to help me shower and I was so nauseous I thought I’d pass out. I kept chanting to myself; hold it, hold it, I want my own bed, and I want my own bathroom. This was my mantra over the next few hours and finally the Dr said, “Can’t believe you did it. You’re free to go…” He left the room shaking his head and muttering something that sounded a lot like “…stubborn…” The final hurdle was to remove any staples that managed to remain in my incision. The nurse came in wielding, no joke, a staple remover. I’m sure this was a “medical” version of one but it sure reminded me of the one I had sitting on my desk at work. I’m not sure why this detail has stayed with me; I just found it really funny. She proceeded to pop staples out left and right and I couldn’t help but laugh as they were literally pinging off the walls. The whole situation seemed hilarious to me. Now looking back I realize I was trying to avoid the emotions that I knew were coming later. I still wasn’t ready to go there. Instead of crying I did everything I could to find the humor in the situation. I even tried humor on my parents but I think they were too busy with their own grief to appreciate it. As we drove away from the hospital I said to my Dad, “Oh, I feel as if I’ve left something important behind!” Laughing at my own joke I expected Dad to join in but I was met with silence. I had taken for granted how hard this must have been for my parents as well.
We got home and, sure enough, I finally began to feel some relief. At some point that first night I awoke early in the morning and didn’t feel anything. I mean, I really didn’t feel anything… no pain. It was such a revelation to me I started to cry. For the first time since the onset of my periods I didn’t feel any pain. No pain! I could hardly believe it. It was amazing. It had been so long since I’d had even a moment without pain that I’d forgotten what it felt like. There were other perks too. I won’t lie, it was wonderful to be free of menstrual cycles and all that they entailed. I rejoiced when I got rid of the giant pillow-top maxi pads I’d been wearing. I danced a private little jig when I threw out the last of the drugs I’d been taking.
The emotional recovery was a bit more difficult. I became very good at stuffing the sorrow of the situation away. In the rare moments when the despair would creep to the surface I felt that I would drown in it. I couldn’t have that so I continued to bury it deeper and deeper until it started to fester. I became fixated on my need to avoid the pain. I actually developed an obsessive compulsive disorder. It started with counting stairs. I lived on the top floor of my apartment building and I would count each step as I went down and again as I came up. At work I would take the stairs just so I could count those too. It eventually got to the point where if I was interrupted and lost count I would feel this crushing urge to go back to the beginning and start over. I’m not sure how it escalated to this degree but soon that is just what I would do. If I lost count I would go right back to the beginning and start fresh. Eventually it spread to how I’d lock my doors, wash my dishes, brush my teeth, and so on. My days became clouded with oppressive rituals that needed to be met for me to feel stable. I was living a full on “As Good As It Gets” life. It is hard to explain but the idea is that because I felt out of control over so many things this was my way of controlling what I could. These habits also provided the ultimate in emotional avoidance measures. As long as I could count my stairs or flip my dead bolt a certain number of times I wouldn’t need to give in to the devastation.
I also started binge eating in an attempt to stave off the sadness. I would go to the local burger joint on the way home from work and down an entire meal followed by a large shake. Then I would go to the grocery store and proceed to put all kinds of things into the cart, a cake, chips, soda, hostess snacks, candy bars etc. At home I would eat as much as I possibly could making myself sick with self loathing. After one of these binges I would proceed to starve myself for days drinking only juice and water until I was so weak from the resulting fast that I could hardly move or think straight. Meanwhile my friends and family remained relatively unaware of just how desperate the situation was getting. This was my fault as I pushed them all away. I couldn’t handle their discomfort with my situation. I didn’t want to hear platitudes anymore. If one more person said, “Well you can always adopt…” I was going to loose it! I felt like I was having to nurse them through my grief and I just couldn’t bear the burden of their sadness let alone my own. I was too selfishly wrapped up in myself to realize that they were desperately trying to help.
It all came crashing down one morning when I made it all the way to work only to find that I’d forgotten to put on shoes and socks. This was it, the final straw. I couldn’t avoid the pain any longer. All those years of refusing to address the severity and weight of my situation finally caught up with me and I was literally going insane. I decided then and there that this was my own personal “Mt Everest” and I was going to claw my way to the top if it killed me. That morning as I drove back to my apartment to finish getting dressed I took the lid off of all those dark and scary emotions and cried. I cried, and cried, and cried until I had to call in sick. The scales had tipped in the opposite direction and I fell into a deep and terrible depression. The most fatal mistake I made during this time? I walked away from my faith in God. I wasn’t angry with him. I know you may not believe me as you read this, but truly I wasn’t. Instead I was hurting and confused. I turned away because I couldn’t understand why this was all happening to me. That morning as I faced that deep, dark well of frustration and misery I realized that the first thing I needed to do was turn back toward my Heavenly Father and allow him to help me heal.
I found a therapist knowing I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed to find the balance between functioning in everyday life and still acknowledging the losses I had suffered. She helped me realize why I had developed the obsessive compulsive behaviors. Once I understood why I was acting this way I was able to overcome them. I was also forced to face the fact that I had become bulimic. When she first suggested this I was skeptical, after all I didn’t binge and purge. Unfortunately I had to face facts and the truth is that not all bulimics purge, fasting in excess as I was to punish myself for binging was a form of bulimia. All of this led to some very difficult soul searching and emotional awakening. Luckily I was surrounded by patient and loving friends who stuck by me despite the roller coaster I was on. Some even jumped on with me, threw their arms in the air, and helped me fight my way back to humanity. It was grueling work to face the grief. It was hard to look at the sacrifices I’d had to make and come to terms with it. In the end all of that hard worked paid off and I can tell you it is worth it.
You may think me prideful after you read what I write next but I don’t care. I’ve worked HARD to get where I am today. I’ve earned this perspective going to the very gates of hell and back again. While I may not have come out unscathed, I came out and I have learned to cherish the scars I obtained along the way. I am a strong woman. I have earned the right to say that. I have a faith that runs deeper than my bones. My soul has to come to grips with a failing body as I continue to face down health challenges to this day. Therein lies my strength. This body does not get to dictate how my soul feels anymore. There are days, as anyone who struggles with chronic illness can attest, when this perspective is harder to maintain. However, for the most part, I’ve learned that with Heavenly Father in my corner, I can do hard things. Not only can I do hard things, but I can appreciate why I MUST do hard things. These experiences have made me who I am today and I’m not ashamed of it. I am complicated. I allow my emotions to reside near the surface because I know the danger that comes when you push them away. I am fiercely loyal because I know that you can loose the ones you love in the blink of an eye. I never take the little things for granted because life is too short. Most of all I will never allow my relationship with God to fail again. Without Heavenly Father and my Savior I would still be that sad, strange woman counting stairs, abusing my body with food, and slowly going mad.
There is a light at the end of every tunnel. Sometimes the tunnel is long, and then your flashlight gives out, and then you run out of food, and then you trip and fall and break a few bones… But I am telling you that there is an end. Those trials have made me the strong, complicated, overly emotional, person that I am today and I would not trade that experience of growth for anything. I like who I’ve grown to be. This is how I’m able to muster up a positive outlook even after everything that I’ve been through, especially facing what I’m currently going through. It has taken me a long time to get here but I figure if Heavenly Father and Jesus love me for who I am and for all that I’ve accomplished, than so can I.
The End… um… Not Really 🙂