When I was 22, I had my first major abdominal surgery. Prior to my surgery, I had been in a period of body loathing. Part of that loathing came from malfunctions in my body that were very frustrating (malfunctions probably related to the cancerous tumors I had removed along with one of my ovaries). I now know that what I was experiencing in terms of repeated infections, exhaustion, bloating, etc. were symptoms of what I had and my body trying to cope with that—but at the time, it was just enormously aggravating to not understand why things were going wrong. To put it in simple terms, I felt angry at my body for not taking care of me and working like it should. Additionally, various life events and internal events had led me to a stage where I wasn’t taking good care of myself in terms of eating, exercise, emotional health, sleep, etc. I was avoiding my body; I avoided touching it, looking at it, thinking about it, etc.
I had a long healing process from surgery. I don’t react well to incisions of any kind (that eyebrow piercing in college? bad idea), and despite my work to the contrary, my surgical incision—about 10 inches long across my abdomen, through skin, fat, and muscle—grew deeply infected. I won’t get into the details too deeply here (be grateful, unless you’re into gruesome things), but having to heal the infection in addition to healing the actual incision and muscles and my mind and spirit—well, it was a lot to cope with, especially as a senior in college. And I won’t lie to you and make it sound like the whole experience was a bouquet of daisies, because it certainly wasn’t. I lost many friends (people have a hard time with the c-word), I fell behind in classes, and I wondered what would become of me. Moreover, going through another surgery a year, for the same cancer regenerated, pushed me emotionally to the edge of collapse at one point. There were many times in those two years that I thought, I don’t know how much more of this I can do.
As I told a friend who is going through some (partially self-inflicted) difficult times right now, we can either let the shitty things that happen to us just be shitty things, or we can let them be catalysts for our growth. There’s partly an active process to that (“How do I get meaning from this?”) and there’s partly a passive process (“How do I leave myself open to more than bitterness from this experience?”).
There were a variety of things I learned, over time, from my experience of having cancer and having those major surgeries. One thing I gained was an epiphany about my body: as fat/wonky/ungraceful/whatever as I saw myself, while I recovered from the surgery, I developed an appreciation of what my body could increasingly do. Emerging from a time when I could do very little, I appreciated what returned to me. I could laugh without pain! I could lift my arm without pain! I could walk the entire length of the hall without stopping from pain and exhaustion! I could carry a 10-pound box again! The simple became profound. I grew more aware of how all the muscles in my body are tied together. Instead of just feeling my depression and anxiety over what my body could not do at that time—fend off most illnesses, run a mile, fit in a size-10 dress—I instead grew impressed by how my body, and all bodies, function.
Of course, as happens with many epiphanies, I have struggled to retain the intensity of what I learned about myself in that time period. But I think of it sometimes—when I’m feeling negative about my body, when I am pushing myself while I’m running. I remember what it was like to need assistance sitting up. I remember when it was a struggle to walk down the hall. And I smile at what I regained and what I can do and how far I have come from those days. I remind myself–cerebrally and emotionally—how very much gratitude I have for the ability to move through life with relative ease.
Since January of 2007, I’ve been working to take better care of my body and my entire self. I started walking in January ’07 and started learning to run in March ’07 starting with running at 90 seconds at a time. A year later, I consider a 1- or 1.5-mi run a short run. For many athletic people, that would be considered hardly a work-out at all. But I run my short runs at a quicker pace than I run my longer runs, and I am still amazed and pleased that I have gotten to a point in my life where regular exercise is a happy, stress-relieving part of my routine instead of something I don’t do or something I dread doing.
And that exercise—the exercise and the other forms of self-care—enables me in other ways. I thought about that last Saturday when I spent my whole day on the first day of a local Habitat for Humanity build. Though I don’t write about my work on this blog, I work for a large Habitat affiliate. I work in an office; my work has to do with supporting people and engaging people in their own lives financially, spiritually, emotionally, and educationally (well, and it has to do with a whole lot of paperwork, of course). My work is typically white-collar social work; it is the type of cerebral and emotional work I would have always hoped and expected to have in my life. I didn’t grow up valuing the physical, and until last Saturday, I had never spent a whole day on a build site before. On the build site, I came with little knowledge but a willingness to serve: from 8-4:30, I was busy hammering nails, holding boards in place, helping lift walls into place, asking questions, and occasionally stopping to take photos of the day’s progress. I did work that, just a year or two ago, would have been very difficult for me to manage physically, at least for a whole day. I would have been worn out too quickly; I would have been too weak. I would have gotten too hot. Now, I can do it. And I loved it—I loved being out there and being physically involved in the construction of the house. I loved how the physical exertion in the construction of the house regrounded me in the primary end result of my work efforts. I have, at this time in my life, the ability to provide support to this program with my body as well as my mind and heart. I don’t take that for granted: I treasure it. And I’ll do what I can to maintain it, which means taking good care of myself for the rest of my life.
(I took my builder friend Greg out on site with me. He’s explaining something about wood to me here. You can’t see, but we’re up on ladders at the top of the wall.)