(Caution: In a few paragraphs there will be a picture of my actual colon. If you get queasy, you may want to scroll quickly)
I am in so much pain.
Not because I had my entire colon removed three months ago, but rather because we joined a local gym and I’ve been “working out”. My quads are so sore. I put “working out” in quotations because I am ridiculously weak so at this point I consider it “just building up endurance”.
March 1st marked three months since I had over 4 ft. of large intestine (or colon) removed from my abdomen through three small laparoscopic incisions and one large incision on top of my C-section scar. It was my 23rd surgery.
( picture of my completely empty colon, upon immediate removal of my abdomen… it’s a little insane that all 7 lbs of THAT came out of me! )
The surgery went smoothly and I am thankful to have it behind me. There is always a risk of significant blood loss due to the vascular nature of this organ, but thankfully that risk never materialized. I was in the hospital for four days and had a few very significant events happen during that time (but those will come in another post).
Four weeks after my surgery (which has a six to eight week recovery time) we drove to MI to spend Christmas with my family. At the end of January, I started teaching Fashion Illustration II at Mount Mary University at the start of our Spring 2017 semester. Life’s brisk pace has continued as our family recently completed the necessary requirements of becoming foster and adoptive parents in Milwaukee County (a journey we started in October of 2016…also for another blog post) and Chris and I took a trip to Maui, HI to celebrate our belated 10 year wedding anniversary that occurred in September.
Life is finally starting to return to “normal” and by that I mean “manageable” and every morning I find myself staring into my bathroom mirror at a body I don’t even recognize.
There are new scars where scalpels and metal probes have pierced. There is skin that used to be supported by ribs and is now a helpless victim to gravity. There is still swelling (or built up scar tissue, I’m not sure which) at the incision site where they removed Promise from my body over eight years ago. And of course, there’s the flesh colored 3″x3″ sticker that covers up the portion of small intestine that will forever protrude from my abdomen and connect to my ileostomy bag … something that will now (at the age of 32) be a permanent fixture on my body.
It used to be that I only had the surgical manipulations of my body working against me. Now I have those and the natural process of aging.
If you add all of these changes to the deformities in my legs that I’ve lived with since Junior High School, the sight I see staring back at me in the mirror can be a little discouraging. I may look thin in clothes but I don’t feel strong or toned.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog entry revealing my insecurities about my “post-23 surgeries” body. Frankly, it’s because in the eternal-scheme of things this body will crumble away and there are more significant things to write about. But it is something I struggle with and have struggled with since my early teenage years.
I know that I looked for a woman living with a disability that could have been a sounding board for me at those vulnerable ages and seasons of life, so maybe I can be that for someone else.
One mental exercise that I do regularly is silently listing in my mind, all the reasons that my body is awesome. (cue the “Everything is Awesome” song from the Lego Movie). It sounds a bit silly but it helps! Instead of seeing legs that look underdeveloped and strange, I re-inforce to myself that I see legs and feet that have endured over 13 surgeries, three years of walking in Chicago, and carrying my (now eight year old) child to term for nine months. That is just one example. I take each body part that I’m feeling insecure about and do that same mental practice to it.
Am I completely satisfied with my body? No way. Am I thankful for what it’s overcome? Absolutely.
With all of that said, there is always room for improvement and I believe that our bodies (no matter how beat up) are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are told this in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and so we need to take care of them.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)
This verse encompasses much more than simply the physical health and appearance of our bodies, but I do believe that it is a key element.
This is a new(er) way of thinking for me. Before correctly diagnosing my major depression and starting the medication that has aided in the healing of my mental health, my views towards my physical body ranged from compulsive and obsessive (i.e. my legs are so skinny due to my lack of calf muscles so I need to keep the rest of my body equally as skinny, even if that means barely eating, in order to stay proportionate) to indifferent and apathetic (i.e. if I don’t take care of my body, the quicker it will deteriorate and I can leave it behind through death). These feelings aren’t easy to admit, but they have been true at different seasons of my life.
I am thankful for the healthier view I now have about my physical body. I truly want to be as strong and healthy as possible in order to continue to climb the stairs in my house, foster children, watch Promise grow up, be an active and fun life partner to Chris, etc.. I know that being a good steward of the body God has given me, includes doing what I can (I emphasize this because I KNOW how limiting chronic illness can be and only you can truly know what your body is capable of) to keep it functioning at the healthiest level it can.
I know it’s ultimately a losing battle (it is for all of us, isn’t it?) but I want to “go down swing’n”.
The gym has the keen ability to push every insecurity that I have about my body to its highest threshold. I have to adapt almost every exercise that is shown to me, which immediately sets me apart from everyone. My legs from my knees down are simply dead weight that are void of sensation and movement, making them cumbersome at best. If I decide to swim, I am put in the “injured and elderly” water aerobics class and struggle to walk to the pool without my leg braces on, knowing that immediately after the class I’ll need to change my ileostomy bag because the adhesive will be soggy. I understand that people stare because they are curious and I honestly hold no grudge or ill-will against those that do, but it still hurts every time I see the direction of their gaze.
Essentially, the gym is a constant reminder that this place and this body are not my home.
I am thankful for a husband who loves me, a daughter who looks up to me, and friends who come alongside me to my pilates classes even if I’m bound to stand out a bit.
If you’re living with chronic pain and struggling with your self-image, I want to tell you that that is normal. Even though I don’t talk about it often, it’s often on my mind. I believe that it is another way God uses our suffering to transform our minds more and more into his perfect and unblemished likeness.
Give yourself space and time to grieve the physical appearance you hoped to have, but you must get up and keep pushing on, knowing that this in not your final home. Take care of it but don’t become obsessed by it. View it in humor and not in despair.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” – James 1:2-4