I think I still have some healing to do.
March 16, 2008 8:26 AM   Subscribe

How can I best heal emotionally from life threatening surgeries?

Earlier this month, during a stint in the hospital, I had a couple of "incredibly dangerous" thoracic surgeries...ICU, 12 days in the hospital, respirator, and so on. While I am on my way to full physical and emotional recovery, and no longer wake up crying, I am looking for advice or tips (ideally from people who have gone through surgery) on how I can aid my emotional recovery. I have an appointment with a therapist for some short-term treatment, but feel like there must be some people here who've almost died and have a little wisdom they could share.

For the record, a lot of good came out of my ordeal already, besides improved health. For example, my world-view and relationships have grown stronger. I am also doing a he'll of a lot better than I was doing a week ago when I was discharged. I'm just looking for some casual advice on how I can rebuild my life. FYI, I am < 30 years old, with a family that I am very grateful for and that I love very much.
posted by milarepa to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's good that you have an appointment with a therapist. Your body has gone through a huge trauma, and you're right that it takes time to heal, both physically and emotionally. Invasive surgeries can feel like a violation, and can also trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (which your therapist should be aware of and should be able to give you coping strategies). I don't have any words of wisdom other than to be good to yourself, spend lots of time with people who care about you, and work with your therapist. Best wishes to you.
posted by amyms at 9:16 AM on March 16, 2008

yep, seconding a therapist. an ex of mine had to have his chest cracked to remove a tumor pressing against his heart (also as a young man) and learned that open-chest surgeries often result in the kind of feelings you describe. i'm not a therapist, and it's good you're seeing one, but just know that you're not alone in this. a lot of people go through the same experience.

i think on some level it will just be a matter of perseverence--just ride it out. don't worry that your feelings are bad--they are normal, and they will change.

good luck. you'll get better. just hang in there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:56 AM on March 16, 2008

It sounds from the wording of your 2nd paragraph, that you already instinctively "know" the answer. While the traumatic experience is disturbing in the short term, those feelings are short lived and you will recover and grow out of it a much stronger person. If you require some therapy to work through those life changing feelings, go for it. Personally, I found it cheaper to share dinner/drinks with friends and be reminded why I'm so lucky to be alive.

In the past 5 to 10 years, I've had several near-death experiences (emergency surgery for choking, car accident that ended in rolling my (soft-top) jeep down a ravine, and an extremely stressful job that literally pushed me right to the edge of suicide). Looking back, I now reflect that those things were some of the best to ever happen to me. Where before I was non-committal, hesitant and doubtful of my own inner strength/beauty, now I am much more assured and radiant. I've stopped living my life thinking about what I "cant do".. and am now swamped with possibilities/ideas of all the things I "can do".
posted by jmnugent at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2008

What it takes to rebuild your life is going to vary widely from person to person and context to context. For me, a return to routine (or the creation of a new routine) is most helpful after a traumatic event. I've had lots of surgeries, all under the age of 18, and one accident when I was 23 that involved a head injury. When I was a child, the comforts of home were most important to me. My own bed, especially. I pushed myself to normalcy as soon as I was physically capable. After the head injury, though, I felt incredibly lucky to be alive, and I set off on some new adventures. I dealt with some emotional issues that had predated the accident. In a sense it felt very much like there was a "me before the accident" and a "me afterwards." By surviving that, I felt nearly invincible and I was less afraid to try new things. (Although, I have never gone tobogganing since.)
posted by desjardins at 11:51 AM on March 16, 2008

A thought I have is that, since you were prompted to go to the hive mind to mine for ways to cope, a potentially positive place to reflect on your experience is post-op group therapy for those under 30. Not sure where you live, but many large hospitals host such groups, which might be helpful especially in recognizing that you are not alone, in hearing others put words to some parts of your own experience, and by finding out what helps others begin to find a "new normal" again. Best of luck!
posted by dreamphone at 11:59 AM on March 16, 2008

I'm glad you're OK! As everyone else said, you're already aware that you need to recover not just physically and are taking constructive steps. Based on my experience with serious (but not life-threatening) surgery, I'd add that it's very, very early yet. The physical trauma just hit you a few weeks ago and, as you heal, is still going on -- your body, and your sense of self, are just going to feel out of whack for a while, which is very unsettling. And even the very positive steps you're taking can't magically cure that, so you have to be patient and not try to rush the recovery process. Just let yourself feel however you feel, and eventually, equilibrium will return. For months after my surgery, long after I was more or less physically "back" and doing all my normal life activities, I still felt a bit like a pod person some of the time, like I was inhabiting someone else's body or like somebody else was in mine. Weird sensation, but it faded, and now it's hard to remember.

Also, spoil and pamper yourself (in healthy ways). Yes, you want to do as many normal activities as you are up to, and restoring your regular routine can be very helpful. But doing little kindnesses for yourself, giving yourself a break when you need it, anything that connects you with the simple fundamental joy of being alive -- all of that is a great way to purge the residual stress, regain your strength and improve your outlook.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:48 PM on March 16, 2008

Welcome to the party. There's nothing like being handed a notice in your twenties in a 144 point font that says, "YOU ARE MORE MORTAL THAN YOU SUSPECT." This happened to me when I was in my mid twenties and featured 3 weeks in the hospital (1 week of which was in the ICU) and an additional month+ convalescing at home, living on disability. Holy crap - was I really disabled? Yup - I could barely get around with a walker and needed help doing very simple things.

Here's a checklist of things to do:
  1. Breathe deeply in the morning
  2. Be inwardly and outwardly thankful to the people who helped you
  3. Write up a chronicle of your experience while it is still fresh in your mind and refer back to it in a year
  4. Think about this: you looked into the void and it looked back into you. What has changed in terms of what is precious to you?
  5. Figure out which of your fundamental assumptions have changed and which have stayed the same
  6. Walk on. Just walk on
I discovered, at a rather inopportune moment in my ordeal that my penis is not a one-way, exit-only conduit as I had previously believed for more than two and a half decades. That was one hell of an vignette as they rammed the catheter in. I noted the manufacturer was in my home town and the father of one of my friends worked for them in management. I further was able to dredge up his home phone number from the dim, pain-racked recesses of my mind and was sorely tempted to call (at 4:00AM his time) and have a conversation like this, "Mr. S? Hi yeah, it's Plinth. You know, Tom's friend. Not terrific. I was just having one of your catheters put in and I wanted you to know that I was thinking about you." <click>

We cope as we can.
posted by plinth at 5:54 PM on March 16, 2008

Bummer! Milarepa disabled his/her account?
posted by msali at 6:37 PM on March 16, 2008

It might help to simply remember all the many ways you could have wound up dead, or morbidly disabled, and get on with living your life grateful for every day you get to wake up in an intact body and a functional brain, with your family near. It's a lot better hand than many are dealt, and may be the best existential gift you ever get in this life.
posted by docpops at 9:08 PM on March 16, 2008

It seems like milarepa is taking a break from the snark.

I hope he/she is doing well.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on March 17, 2008

Me too. Take care of yourself, milarepa.
posted by homunculus at 2:02 PM on March 17, 2008

I hope you consider coming back, milarepa. People here care about you.
posted by Locative at 5:51 PM on March 18, 2008

He's back!
posted by homunculus at 2:42 PM on April 18, 2008

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