Mental Recovery After Surgery

Before I got sick about 3 weeks ago, I was in my prime physical and mental state, probably fitter and leaner than I’d ever been. I was hill riding for 50 km 3-4 times a week out in the country and approaching my goal of an average speed of 30 km per hour. I was meditating more, and preparing my first series of 3 lectures in Classics.

Then all of a sudden I started to get sick. Bad abdominal pain, fever, loss of appetite, headaches, and nausea among other things. After a couple of days I got some medical advice and ended up at the Emergency wing of our local hospital. The longest I’d ever spent in a hospital before this was about 4-5 hours. I left 3 days later. I had appendicitis.

Though I had always been afraid of ‘going under the knife’ I had an amazingly positive attitude once I was actually there. It was funny actually. I was put on the emergency list for surgery, so we just had to wait for a slot in the schedule to open up. Early afternoon I’m told it’s on. So we go down to the operating theatre where they have a handing over procedure, various questions etc.. First time around, I’m pretty nervous. Then another nurse comes in to tell us that I’d have to go back to my ward and wait because a more serious emergency had come through.

Now the first thing I learnt was that in hospital waiting can be a good sign, or at least a reminder that you’re not so bad after all. Second time around, I decided I was going to make a better job of it. If I had to do this, I was determined to have fun, so made merry until I blacked out, and then continued as soon as I regained consciousness.

But this isn’t the main reason for writing today.

I want to share some of my thoughts on the deeper recovery that this sort of experience requires, just from my current experience. I’m writing this especially for those of you who are finding this a challenging period.

The physical recovery is one thing. I had keyhole surgery, so the wounds are tiny, but the effect on my body has been huge. Walking down the street, or just doing low intensity things, has become exhausting. It’s tricky actually. I’ll feel fine at home, and then based on this, go out for a walk only to feel like a wreck after a short time of doing what seems like nothing. This was especially the case in the first week to ten days after surgery.  After a couple of walks, each one smaller and easier than the last, I found a distance that I could do without much trouble – to the end of my street and back, maybe 700 metres flat. Normally, not even a warm up. I have learnt to take it very easy, not to push myself yet. There will be a time for that. As much as I don’t want to lose my physical conditioning any more than I need to, it’s not worth pushing myself in a way that might jeopardise my long-term recovery.

The mental recovery is even more challenging. Days at home can become very long and lonely. I usually love to be around people, and very active, going from one meeting to the next. I thrive on interaction. For this period it’s very different. My wife is working, friends are working, I can’t ride my bike for at least 4 weeks and my wife needs the car to get to work. We usually commute together. So the isolation is one thing. Then there are the other pressures. Not working and not earning raises the financial pressure. Feeling like I’m not able to contribute and care for my family and help prepare for our child. While I’m able to do some things like planning, small tasks can quite easily feel overwhelming. This can be quite scary. I can do some things around the house, but not a great deal, so it’s easy to feel like I’m becoming a burden. But you know, there is one thing about these pressures, and that is that they are all being placed on me by me, not by anybody else. Therefore, I have the key to reducing the pressure and making the mental recovery easier for myself.

The thing is, there are some things that we can do during this recovery time, but many things simply have to wait. Everything has its time. Whilst I managed to reduce the significance of the surgery on the day, to make it fun even, the fact is that surgery and major illness is both physically and mentally extremely unsettling, and recovery requires moving through a gradual process of reorganisation and healing. This process goes on long after the wounds have closed over. Surgery, and especially the anaesthetic, is a real shock to the system, add to this the mental shock that comes with an emergency situation.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that I’m a big one for developing simple and effective strategies to get the most out of life. Well, this has been a great test for a lot of these. It’s too easy to focus or think of things that we cannot do during a time like this, so here are a few of the things that have helped me get through, and even enjoy, this period of recovery, in no particular order – in fact I’ve saved the best til last.

Learning Inventory – one of the first self-affirming things I did once I got home was to write a list of all the things that I’d learnt about myself through this experience. I’ll share some of them with you:

– I can be brave.

– I have a high tolerance for pain.

– I can be strong for others even when faced with a potentially scary situation.

– Getting stressed only creates more pain.

– At the point I was always afraid of (surgery) I actually had loads of fun by choosing to do so; my fears were all fictions.

– I can be great under pressure.

– I am loved and supported by my family and friends.

Vision board – I went back and started adding as much detail as I could. This was great because it really focussed my mind on the positive vision of my life and my dreams.

First Steps – From this I started to think about the simplest first step I could take to restart once I am healthy again.

With my long-term vision clear, and a first step in place, I started mapping out my strategic plan – one thing leads to the next. This is mainly about identify the main stages of growth in my enterprise.

I did an asset inventory. All the knowledge, skills, experience, and achievements that I often take for granted, beginning with things like driving, speaking and writing English, using money, reading maps, how to cook, wash a car well, write a book, pick great staff, etc, through to the more advanced stuff like developing and sustaining research, teaching and mentoring etc…

Gentle walks – gentle physical activity. Of course, this depends completely on your own situation.

People – Time with my mum and friends, in small doses. While I can’t drive, I am fit enough to walk to the train station without any trouble, so I also take the train to see my friends at their cafe in Diamond Creek, Piccolo Meccanico.

Reading – something different. Not the usual stuff. I’m reading the Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin.

House-keeping – nothing major, mainly the things that we normally skip when life is in full swing. Just a little here and there.

Laugh – watch some comedy, whatever works. I need to do more of this to be honest!

Relax – this is really the most important one. It’s a good time to just sit and be with myself, to appreciate the peace and quiet.

Love. Embracing my wife and talking to the little baby she’s carrying. More than anything else, this brings me back to the present in the simplest and most beautiful way, creating a calm and pure energy which we can all share.

Dealing with setbacks. Setbacks are a normal part of the recovery process. It’s common to experience some depression or down moods. I’ve had a few of these myself. This came up for me when I tried to do something that was really too much at the time, and later, as the process seems to drag on and the end, return to healthy and full functioning appears distant still. One of my tricks with down states, is to just allow myself to sit in them. This isn’t about wallowing in self-pity or anything like that. Rather it’s a about cultivating a state of mindful watchfulness. It’s about acknowledging the feeling rather than fighting it or beating myself up over it. It’s come up for a reason which may or may not be clear. Cultivating this mindset of acceptance is powerful because it actually disarms the state of its harmful negativity. When you fight the fact that it’s there in the first place it only becomes stronger.

As much as we want to get back to life again, climbing mountains, winning hearts and scoring goals, this is a time for recovery, first and foremost. It’s about being kind, caring and loving to ourselves, especially when for most of the day we are our own carers. We owe this to ourselves and to those who love us who want and need us to be well.

3 thoughts on “Mental Recovery After Surgery

  1. I liked that you talked about trying to be fun after waking up. I had open-heart surgery when I was 18. I was still groggy when I woke up and someone asked me how I felt, to which I replied in a stupefied state, “I feel like I can run a fucking marathon.” Comedy is definitely important in those kinds of situations.

  2. Pingback: Recovery after Surgery – Getting Back into Action | Beyond the Call

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