I’ve always been physically strong. If a neighborhood kid couldn’t climb a tree, I would. It didn’t matter how many cuts and scrapes I would get, I would climb as high as I could in that tree. It didn’t matter how many times in tumbling class I would fall on my face trying to land that full twist. I would push myself until I landed something that was good enough. If I could go back in time and give myself some advice, it would be to keep climbing those trees, because mental and spiritual and emotional and physical strength need to have balance and climbing those trees might just get me there.
After my surgery, I was broken. The painful walk down the hallway broke my spirit. I couldn’t even hold my seven-pound baby. I was a lump on a couch who had to drag my feet off the couch and to the floor, scoot all the way to the end of the couch and slowly move to my hands and knees to the floor, and then force my leg muscles to stand. I never imagined I would be 31 and trying to figure out what I could wear to cover up the catheter strapped to my leg.
It’s one thing to have pee inside your bladder. No one talks to you and thinks, I wonder how much fluid is in her bladder. But when your bladder is essentially strapped to the side of your leg for the whole world to see, it becomes a conversation: “Oh, I see you have a good six ounces in there. Good job staying hydrated!”
Being home wasn’t recovery. Having surgery to repair organs bonded together wasn’t progress; it was a starting point–learning to live all over. Learning to be a mother again, to be part of a family when I felt like crawling inside of a hole.
I don’t have many memories of those first few days home. It might’ve been the round the clock Percocet and sleeping most of the day, or my brain keeping me safe. I do remember sleeping on the couch in the dark, afraid my catheter bag would need emptied in the middle of the night.
The bag in the hospital that was attached to my bed had been so much bigger. Every night, I woke up, shined my cell phone light, slid to all fours, and slowly got up. There was no standing up straight. My body was too tired.
When I was a kid, I was jealous that boys could pee standing up. As women, we had to sit to pee, we had periods, and we had babies that literally grew inside of us for nine months, and then stretched our vaginas to 10cm–that’s about the size of a wiffle ball, people–and then pushed them out in utter exhaustion. I mean, the least we could have is the ability to stand to pee, right? And man, standing to pee would really come in handy when we went camping.
Now here I was, standing to pee in my own toilet. I was less than grateful for this new ability, lifting my nightgown over my catheter bag, pulling the teal cap off the bottom. FYI there’s a trick to catheter emptying. If you tilt the bottom of the catheter towards the ceiling and then pinch just above the drain, you could de-cap the catheter, point it to the toilet, and unpinch and you wouldn’t get any pee on your hands. So if you didn’t flush, you wouldn’t even need to wash your hands.
Peeing standing up was not nearly as fun as I ever thought it would be.
I had thought that I was a strong person. A person who could push forward. A person who loved challenges. But I never thought that peeing would become a challenge, that it would become unnatural. And worse, breathing wasn’t natural either. Suddenly, I felt lucky that I was still breathing and I focused on every single breath.
It took me two years to figure out whether or not I was lucky or cursed to be alive. Two years. And it wasn’t because I suddenly accepted where I was. It was because I wanted to show that doctor who told me that I wasn’t her problem that I was more than that. That despite what happened to me, I was strong. That I was stronger despite her rejection.
But here’s the thing: strength isn’t always what you think it is. For a long time, I thought it was physical strength. It was my first year of Squatober that felt like real progress. In Squatober, fitness classes devote the month to working on squatting heavy weights, making progress, and hitting a personal record at the end of the month.
Progress is hard. It can be so hard. I wanted my mind to cooperate, but it was stuck in quicksand. And it didn’t matter what the hell I did or who was there to support me, I was stuck. My mind was stuck. But my body was ready. And by the end of the month, I squatted 205 pounds, about 1.5x my body weight.
I needed that. I needed a clear win. And for nearly a year, I pushed and pushed and pushed because I wanted to see it. I wanted to feel strong. But then something happened. I met with my trainer, and he talked about the nervous system. For years, I had been living in fight or flight. If I’m being perfectly honest, I spent a lot of time in fight. A lot of time being terrified and ready to fight off the terror. A lot of time finding battles and wars in all of the tiniest details of my life–if I stopped, life would stop with me. It would catch up. I would realize who I was and be terrified all over again.
And here I was, in this room thinking we’d work on goals for lifting and swinging heavy weights, and we did do that, but he talked about journaling and stretching and being. And he said something that really stuck with me: Strength has to be balanced. What I had spent the last year doing was essentially trying to compensate for my emotional exhaustion and weakness. I had hit big and heavy goals, but you can’t just expect that adding more physical strength would balance the scales.
My emotional strength was depleted. And lifting heavy wasn’t going to fix that. I finally get that. And this October was a hard one. I couldn’t sleep or eat for half of it. The panic that I felt in the hospital after giving birth was right there, sitting heavy on my chest. Ready for something to tip it, and put me back on the couch, back where I couldn’t move.
It’s four years later, and that terror was back. And shame. Why was I back here again? Why wasn’t I strong enough?
I wasn’t strong enough because I forgot that community is what gets us through. That in those dark moments, we find our strengths in other places. That sometimes, those scars are deep and painful and it’s only the support that’s around them that allows us to keep going.
I am strong when I take a minute to take a deep breath. I am strong when I help my six year old with his reading. I am strong when I squat 215 pounds. I am strong when I cry. I am strong when I forgive. I am strong in my vulnerability. I am strong.