You are anaesthetised and positioned on the operating table. You are cut open. Parts are altered, repaired or removed. The surgeon stitches you or staples you back together again. The procedure is finished and your are fixed, right? All the hard work completed by the surgeon and you are right to resume life exactly as you were, are you not? The answer to this is no.
Anyone who has had a major surgery will know that there are two parts to the recovery process. One part is the physical side of recovery. The area of blood, bone, organs, nerves, muscles, tendons and ligaments.In an earlier blog post I have already shared my experience of the physical side to surgical recovery. You can read about that here.
The second part of the process is the mental side. The arena of Positive Thinking and mental mindset. This is the part I want to talk about today. Now some people in life are just more optimistic, bubbly and overflowing with positivity. I wouldn’t position myself in that basket. I am perhaps more cynical, sarcastic and have a more wicked, dark sense of humour. Neither am I what anyone would describe as hippy or alternative. I do not meditate daily (although if that works for you, awesome!) and so the things I have learnt from the journey of healing after spinal sugery are things that everyone can adopt. They do not require a major lifestyle attitude shift and readjustment.
Get angry but limit it
Having to be in a position requiring surgery is shit. You may feel frustrated, furious, a seething hot mess of rage about the situation, how unfair it is. You may send up a huge “why me” to the universe as you flip it the bird. This anger and adrenaline can see you through the initial diagnosis stage and propel you into actions which are required to be made. However this kind of rage, this venting can be exhausting. You are going to need that energy to recover. So my suggestion is to have a big rage, a cry, shake your fists at the Universe but you need to limit it. Whether you choose one big vent session, or you time how long you will allow yourself to get it out of your system, find an end limit.
Acknowledge your feelings
The recovery process is all about the feels. I tell you there can be a range of them. A lot of pain relief also impacts on feelings by either numbing or amplifying the feelings. You may find that you feel like a machine. People may be commenting “oh you must be so upset” and you are left thinking “I don’t really feel anything”. On the other hand you may find yourself feeling overly emotional at everything both positive and negative. There are no right or wrong feelings. Your physio can tell you how a muscle should feel when stretching but not how your soul should feel while you heal. Keep your support person and doctors informed of your feelings so they can advise you if further help is needed as sometimes this can be a side effect of the medication.
Get the right team around you
Having a support team makes a huge difference in the recovery process to your mental health. My tip would be to rally people for specific roles. I have one friend who is awesome for the venting. The friend who will happily agree with you about how crap life can be, how much hydro can suck and will stand shoulder to shoulder with you when you feel like you are pushing life uphill. I also have a friend who is so happy they leave a trail of rainbow glitter in their path. She is awesome for supporting small acts of gratitude, for recruiting on days when flipping your thinking is hard and for directing you to see the light at the end of the tunnel, regardless how small the flicker may be in the distance. Thirdly is the logistical friend, who can make phone calls, arrange appointments, read documents and do all those things which need to be attended to while the medication has made you a mental zombie. Each friend has a different role to play. Each is important.
Accept the timeline
At the start of the process the surgeon will most likely give you a recovery timeline. Do not hold to this like a life vest. This timeline will be adjusted based on surgical success. This timeline then shifts after being reviewed by other people such as Physiotherapists and OTs. Post operative infections can also shift timelines. I am not a naturally patient person. I was the patient pushing the dr for answers he couldn’t give so early in the piece. In the end I had to accept that my timeline was not really relevant. It is a bit like giving birth. Babies will do what they will and you are just along for the ride. So I could get on board and accept the rate at which my body would heal, or I could push the timeline, pushy my body and in fact delay the process and recovery even longer. This has been a hard one. This accepting has seen me return to the venting step over and over and that is ok. Exhale and try to go with the flow.
I remember the first time I was allowed to walk around the block following surgery. It was a bit of a shuffle less of a walk. I was walking at a fraction of my pre-surgical frantic mum rush pace. But with having to slow down I could smell the roses that were out in the garden. I could see the new birds nest. My pace perfectly matched that of my endlessly curious botanically fascinated 4 year old. I was grateful for those simple things.
Focus on what you can do
So I couldn’t put on shoes with laces, do washing, dress myself without help, drive the car, cook dinner or walk around the shops. I could Facetime my friends, still cuddle my son, read a story with my daughter, play endless games of Uno while reclining on the lounge, binge watch Netflix episodes and catch up on reading between taking medication. Focusing on what I couldn’t do was only going to keep me angry. This anger in my body only caused my back muscles to tense and make me a miserable person to be around.
Be kind to yourself
Surgery is a stressful, painful process. In the recovery process I think it helps to remember to treat yourself like you would a good friend. Give yourself some grace. Go easy on the harsh criticisms. Be patient with yourself. Pick yourself up and brush yourself off and start a new day. If the end goal seems unattainable then focus on the day you are in. Don’t think further ahead. Reward yourself for what you can do.
Don’t allow yourself to make excuses
The balance to being kind to yourself is to also use the phrase ‘get shit done’. The hard work is not done by the surgeon. The hard work is done by you after the operation so you heal as best as possible and don’t end up with chronic pain. Follow the programs that have been written for you. Find out the difference between uncomfortable and painful. Find out when you are legitimately allowed to ease off on an exercise or routine.Don’t shy away from the hard work of healing physically or mentally.
Flick the Guilt
Guilt is such a common and unhelpful emotion. You may find while recovering that you will need to accept offers of help from people and loved ones. Over time you may feel guilty about this. I say flick the guilt. Flicking the guilt is not the same as being ungrateful. However this is not your fault. You are doing the best you can to get better so dismiss the guilt. If people are being negative in dealing with you or helping you then look to others to assist you. Perhaps paying people for services may be an option for you. You know that you would be quick to help others and having gone through this experience will make you far more empathetic when dealing with people later on. Don’t waste your energy or allow others to bring you down with guilt.
I hope that sharing some tips of how I have flipped my thinking and stayed positive help you if you find yourself in a similar situation. There are plenty of other things people say you should do but these are the things I have personally done to help me alleviate stress and anxiety and maximise the speed to which I will be back, pain free.