For Lent I decided to give up harboring negative thoughts about myself and my body, since God made me and trashing his work seemed a poor plan. When I embarked on this noble journey of self-love and acceptance, I didn’t know I would be having major surgery.
Before my doctor recommended surgery, I was already struggling to push out negative feelings I’ve had for most of my life and re-learn a more positive way to think about myself and my body. Yes, I have an incurable and unpredictable disease, but I also carried three healthy babies to term. True, the effects of carrying those babies have left a lasting mark on me, but as the number of women who die in childbirth continues to climb, I’m grateful to have a mostly normal existence after leaving the hospital.
The surgery brought new challenges. In a way, I’m glad it happened during Lent, when I was already coaching myself to focus on the positive and enjoy my body for what it was. The road to recovery has been a dark one, but it would have been darker still had I not already been in a healing state of mind.
As most of you know, I have Crohn’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. My immune system is a tad confused and attacks my own organs, so the system is working overtime, all the time. In order to combat the symptoms, I take an injection of Humira every other week. Humira works to tame my over-active immune system and keep my body from trying to tear apart my guts. It does this by weakening my immune system, so if I have a chest cold, infection, or open wound, I can’t take my medication because I might have trouble healing. To prepare for surgery, I had to stop my medication.
Before I had my third baby, I could forget my shot for a few days, maybe a week, before realizing my mistake. After Mary, I know about three days prior to injection day that I need my medication, and my symptoms start to ramp up before I’m due and in the day or two afterward (it doesn’t work instantly). Going off my medication was scary because I know how long it takes to recover from a flare, and I just want to live my life. I want to be with my kids and not worry about pain or trips to the hospital to be treated for an obstruction.
With every pain, every cramp, every wave of fatigue, I experience and intense surge of dread. This is it, I’m going to have a flare. That pain means I’ll have to go to the hospital tonight or tomorrow, and my husband will have to leave work to take care of the kids because I will be useless. This will be the flare that forces me to have surgery on my guts, and that recovery is measured in months, not weeks.
Fear of time away from my kids, of burdening my family, of the exorbitant cost (which is
total BS – people shouldn’t need to worry about going into debt when our health unexpectedly fails), all contributes to my stress level and sends me into a spiral of depression.
And then there was the surgery I did have to fix my kattywampus organs after childbirth spun them all akimbo. Laying around all day trying not to undo the hours of tedious stitches my doctor painstakingly used to fasten all my bits back where they belonged, save for my uterus which he took as collateral — if I’d had another baby, his repairs would have been completely undone. If you are a parent who has been told not to lift anything, you know that advice is accepted with an iceberg-sized grain of salt. My kids need to be cared for, and most of the time they need to be lifted — out of bed, into their car seats, off the floor when they fall and get hurt. Kids have no understanding of surgery or recovery. They only understand that Mommy won’t pick them up.
As I attempted to rest without sneezing, coughing, or laughing for fear my organs would break loose and shoot out of my hidey-hole, I became terribly angry. When I was recovering from the birth of my first child, I bought sweet nursing nightgowns and kept all my unsightly recovery supplies (giant pads, squirt bottle, numbing spray) in a cutesy makeup bag in the bathroom so no one would be offended by my disgusting healing process. This time, as the anesthesia wore off and I became aware of what was now my fourth episiotomy, I decided I was done with that shit.
I hobbled back and forth to the bathroom in the hospital, where I was asked to collect anything I passed in a bucket (charming), and when my doting husband got up to use the bathroom I told him to go find a different bathroom because this one was mine. I didn’t have the energy to call the nurse and ask her to please tally up my milliliters of pee before my husband should be traumatized, so “if you don’t want to see the slasher movie that is taking place in the bathroom, go use the one in the lobby.” I didn’t wait for him to leave the room, or ask the nurse my questions in a hushed voice to he wouldn’t hear when she came to check on me: “why is there so much blood? I don’t have a freaking uterus.”
Birth is messy. Life is messy. I shouldn’t have to hide or apologize for anything that happens to my body before, during, or after giving birth. As I struggled to return to my normal life and still work on my Lenten commitment, I got angrier. Before church one morning I was stuffing myself into a dress and deciding I should probably wear Spanx because my belly button was really visible on my protruding, soft stomach (not from surgery, from life). I got so mad at myself for even thinking such a ridiculous thing; I should hide my bellybutton? Every human has a bellybutton. Why should (women especially) try to look smooth like a plastic doll? We all know I have a bellybutton. I’ve seen it turned completely inside-out three times. It’s roomier than when I was in high school, and a different shape after my gallbladder was yanked out through it’s divot and then sewn back together, but it’s still a normal human body part.
I decided to walk out the door without looking at myself in the mirror because I was comfortable in the soft dress, and we were going to be late, and you know what my husband said when I came down the stairs, bellybutton first? “You look nice! Guys, doesn’t Mommy look pretty?”
My husband was not at all surprised to discover I had a soft belly, equipped with button. He is a good man, and though I was supposed to be mentally healing myself and riding high on empowering thoughts, I really needed his warm smile and kind words. Undoing decades of negative thinking is going to take much longer than one Lenten season, but just in case you need to hear it: do the work. If you don’t want to wear Spanx, then don’t. Who decided we all need to have bodies smoothed into the same shape as our peers? We are not all the same. That’s what makes us awesome. This padding I wear has kept me from having much more difficult recoveries after my flares. I have plenty of surface area to give myself injections, and if my health takes a dive and I lose thirty pounds, I will be okay. I won’t need a feeding tube and a wheelchair.
I’m still angry. And sometimes sad. But taking a step back and examining my thoughts has helped me delete some of that garbage for good. I should cover this armpit bulge…wait what? Society says I need to have big boobs, but when I do I have too much extra fluff that’s not okay? Utter bullshit. These breasts spent 39 months producing milk to feed my children and they come as a package deal with the armpit bulge.
Do not apologize for having a body, no matter what you’re wearing or what shape or size that body comes in. You and your body are unique and wonderful, and you should exist in this world without feeling like you take up too much space, or that the way your body looks might bother someone else.
Also, go listen to Lizzo’s album Cuz I Love You, and read The Fuck It Diet by Caroline Dooner. They will set you straight.