The gift of receiving

Is this National Chronic Pain Month? I’ve been battling deep pain in my right hip — 14 years after it was replaced — and several of my friends are recovering from surgery or dealing with other painful health issues. With that in mind, I’m posting an earlier essay I wrote after my last hip replacement surgery. . . .

THE GIFT OF RECEIVING

August 29, 2002
A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, I read everything I could find about coping with chronic pain and illness. I was amazed at how often Id stumble on a paragraph that advised patients to “look for the gift in your pain.”

Pain is a gift? Thanks, but no thanks, Id mutter to myself. I had just turned 44 and hadnt planned on slowing down so soon. I still had miles to travel with my journalism career — and a family that included a very active teenager. If pain was my gift, well, where was the return policy?

IMG_2790Within a year of my diagnosis, the disease progressed so quickly that total hip replacement surgery was my only option. By that time, I was unable to walk without assistive devices. Even on a good day, it hurt so much to crawl out of bed that I refused to unplug my heating pad and leave the house. Suddenly I was disabled – and even qualified for a “handicapped” parking permit.

Having been fit and active most of my adult life, I was way too proud to let others watch me struggle on a walker. I hated to appear needy. I started canceling lunch dates and appointments, and tried to hide behind a steely mask of self-sufficiency.

But my closest friends and family didnt buy any of it. And it was through their patience and love that I finally discovered the “gift” in chronic pain: It slowly unravels your pride and opens you to the boundless generosity of other people.

“Surrender is no small feat in a culture that applauds the strong, the independent, and the self-sufficient,” writes Victorian Moran in Creating A Charmed Life: Sensible Spiritual Secrets Every Busy Woman Should Know (HarperSanFrancisco). “That heroic stuff is fine when the problem is something we can handle through our own self-sufficiency. But nobody climbs a mountain alone.”

Of course, stubborn self-reliance isnt the sole province of the disabled.

Most women I know pride themselves on being nurturers, fixers, problem-solvers, givers. Well supply all the brownies for the bake sale at school after weve organized the rummage sale at church. Well rearrange our schedules to baby-sit other peoples kids. Just ask, and well triple our workload at the office and still make it to the evening PTA meeting. Yet some of us would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled than ask somebody else for a favor when we need it. As a girlfriend told me recently, “Its my job to be the glue that holds everyone and everything together. I cant ask for help.”

The truth is, people who care about us really do want to help — if only wed drop the mask of total self-sufficiency and admit that were not all-powerful all the time.

Discussing the aftermath of September 11 and the clean-up at Ground Zero, a talk show host suggested that if anything positive rose from the ashes of the tragedy, it was that America quickly evolved from a “Me” nation into a “We” nation. As she explained it, even the most self-absorbed among us realized that we cannot function as loners or islands. We need each other.

It was a good lesson for me to review immediately after my first hip replacement surgery. Strapped to a hospital bed and hooked up to several intravenous tubes, I was hit with the sobering reality that I wasnt going anywhere by myself.

And during the early weeks of my recovery, I had no choice but to graciously accept support from my family and friends. When my husband processed mountains of laundry at home, I tried not to feel guilty. When our neighbors sent casseroles or offered to drive my carpool shift to school, I swallowed my pride and allowed their care to work like a healing balm. And it did.

As hard as it was to surrender, I discovered theres real strength in vulnerability.

Deep down, I still believe its more blessed to give than to receive. And I still believe that putting the needs of others first isnt such a bad precept to live by — unless it renders you incapable of accepting a favor or asking for help when you really need it.

Nobody climbs her mountain alone.

— This essay is excerpted from my book of published columns and essays, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books; 2005). It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul (Healthy Living Series) and reprinted in Catholic Digest, April 2007. It was also featured on Sirius Catholic Radio.

In praise of scars

By the time you become Real, most of your hair has been loved off. Your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

 

Earlier this week, my friend Alice posted this empowering Caitlin Crosby video on her Facebook wall and I was moved to share it with everyone. The video reminded me of an essay I wrote, published in a metro-Detroit women’s magazine three years ago. Here it is:

How scars make us real

Once the anesthesia wore off and I could wiggle my toes again, my first concern was the new incision running down my left side. Ten inches long and an angry shade of red, it marked the place where my hip had been removed, packed with a bone graft, and totally rebuilt with a prosthetic implant. A long row of tiny staples closed the wound, making it look as if Dr. Frankenstein had sewn a zipper into my birthday suit.

Still woozy in the post-operative station, I imagined how awful the scar would look after it healed. And I wondered: Would I ever find the courage to wear a bathing suit in public again? Would my husband think my body was less attractive?

Coming to my senses the next morning, I tried to focus on my blessings. Those blessings included the skilled orthopedic surgeon who had agreed to perform the complicated three-hour surgery. Most orthopedic surgeons, including mine, prefer to reserve total hip replacement for elderly patients because they are less likely to need revision surgeries in the future.

I was only in my forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. But this sympathetic doctor understood that the quality of my daily life was “seriously impacted” by my disability, as he put it. Practically immobile, I’d already qualified for a handicap parking permit, and couldn’t even stand at the kitchen counter long enough to open a can of cat food or prepare a simple family meal. I’d been missing band concerts and mothers’ club meetings at my son’s middle school because I couldn’t climb the steps to the building. I’d started turning down lunch dates with friends, preferring to nurse my pain in bed at home.

I needed surgical intervention.

Of course, I knew I’d have several weeks of physical therapy and rehab during recovery. But I could also look forward to walking pain-free without canes or crutches again. So why did I let vanity dampen my hard-won victory?

Facing up to flaws

Scars of any kind are a challenge to recovering perfectionists. For years, I was one of those worried women who followed the advice given in beauty and fashion magazines. I invested ridiculous amounts of energy trying to conceal every personal flaw and foible. To expose my weak spots — or admit that I was ever damaged in any way — was too frightening to imagine. No matter how many skin-perfecting creams I bought, or how many self-improvement books I devoured, I couldn’t stop believing that I didn’t quite measure up.

Ironically, I’ve always admired quirks in other people and in most of the stuff I own. One of the early practitioners of shabby chic, I can list several rooms in my home that are furnished entirely with faded flea-market treasures and garage sale rejects. Overgrown cottage gardens, non-pedigree pets, freckles, rusty tools, crow’s feet, and crooked smiles intrigue me. I’ve cherished childhood toys covered in stains and stitches, and I’m partial to an old leather jacket burnished by seasons of wear.

Scars and wrinkles are the emblems of a richly textured life — a survivor’s life. They document our personal histories and bear witness to how far we’ve traveled. Our scars and wrinkles prove we’ve survived childbirth, car accidents, skin cancer, military combat, messy divorces, failed business opportunities, and lost loves.

My long recovery from hip replacement surgery gave me a lot of extra time to think about these things.

Practicing my physical therapy, I was reminded that becoming real requires bumping up against adversity — and sometimes falling apart. It’s a deconstruction process. Whether you’re nursing a shattered limb, a bruised ego, or a wounded heart, it can take time to reassemble and repair the broken parts. But ultimately you heal and, hopefully, grow more interesting. You tighten the loose seams in your character along the way.

Five months after my first hip replacement, I returned to the hospital for the same surgery on my other damaged hip. And today, six years later, I’m sporting a beautifully matched set of titanium joints that have given me back my mobility — and identical scars on each side. Over time, the scars have faded considerably, though you can still spot them several yards away on the beach.

Now I celebrate them — these two ten-inch valleys marking the surgeries that gave me a miraculous second chance. I have earned them, and they have made me real. — Cindy La Ferle

— In photo: collage detail from “On Beauty” (an altered book page) by Cindy La Ferle —