I am having a curious experience that is perplexing and a challenge to describe. I go about my activities of daily living somewhat more slowly and certainly with far more watchfulness than I did before my surgery. I pay more attention to the movements and their consequences. Prior to the surgery, pain was my primary feedback loop as to whether I could or could not perform a given activity. That feedback loop was eliminated with the new hip and now I am getting re-acquainted with other sensations. But it seems as if I am disconnected and, rather than being the one who is walking, talking, eating, and exercising, I am watching myself do this.
Now I am not talking about multiple personality here. I am talking about something all of us have – our internal observer. Those of you familiar with meditation will instantly recognize this. I have meditated for many years, so this part of me is familiar. What is different is what is being observed. Any of you who have gone through major surgery may have experienced this. Before my surgery, my body was wrapped in a hermetically sealed container called skin. Yes, there were times when that container was punctured, scraped, and sometimes sliced, but for the most part, it remained intact.
Now that container has been opened, pulled apart, old parts removed, new parts installed and the whole thing zipped back up. The event is clear in my mind. This intentional surgical rending of my body and exposure of my inside workings to strangers is the first and only time so far that I have experienced such vulnerability. This is not how our bodies were designed. They were designed to stay hermetically sealed. That this procedure was accomplished so effortlessly and with such minor side-effects is mind-blowing.
The amazement of what has happened still lingers and leaves me astonished and not quite fully re-integrated yet. The stitches are dissolved, the sutures holding, but my ethereal self (whatever that is) still is re-connecting and adjusting to this new state of being.
Today, for the first time in years, I put on my walking shoes. This benchmark heralds a new world of freedom for me. I have not been able to walk any distance without pain in almost seven years. I am blessed in living in a neighborhood that is conducive to meandering. I am not yet up for power walking, but strolling is within reach. I have wonderful paths to stroll on and incredible views to look at. This kind of rehabilitation heals my body and soul and helps me re-construct how I view myself. That gap between being “disabled” and being “able-bodied” is decreasing.
I have been struck by how many of my friends and providers are “amazed” at how well I am doing. It makes me pause and wonder whether I really am above the norm in my rehab or whether there is a skewed picture of what can be achieved. My friends who are physical therapists have certainly seen a broad array of people who are getting back their lives after a hip replacement. I assume that their comments on my recovery levels reflect a more accurate measure of accomplishment than people who are friends who are just saying nice things about me.
For so many aging adults, myself included, there is a gap between how we are seen by others in terms of functioning and how we see ourselves in terms of what we are able to do or have been able to do in the past. A definitive line is crossed when you go from “person” to ”patient”. Re-claiming that personhood is essential for rehabilitation. Putting my walking shoes on today is one way I am my reclaiming my personhood. I am no longer a hip replacement patient. I am someone who has a new hip.
How I am perceived by others also reflects the reality of the extent of ageism in our culture. This runs from the newly minted MD or nurse who may assume I am unfamiliar with technology and forget to look up from their screen and make eye contact with me to the seasoned caregiver who assumes I am more limited than I actually am because they don’t know me and are lumping me in with their “other” clients.
I think this is also reflected in my experience of myself post-op. I have a clear image of being vigorous, healthy, and being able to work a full day, go out in the evening, and get up early the next day and start all over again. But this is not reality! I need extra sleep, a nap, and I need to conserve energy wisely. While it is essential that I keep that old image alive for inspiration and motivation, it is equally essential that I attend to the new signals my body now sends me and re-learn the capacities of my newly reconstructed hip.
I find I need to gently push myself sometimes, as I have vivid memories of both pain and functional impairment that resulted from my lifestyle choices. These included not exercising enough, being overweight, not getting enough sleep and indulging in food that wasn’t always nutritionally in my best interest. But I am not beating myself up for this. Just accepting the consequences and re-negotiating how I can now manage my life in a way to avoid a similar result. This shift is powerful.
Because of it, the likelihood of my returning to that ideal of vigor and functioning is within the realm of possibility. It will take commitment on my part. It will take changing routines and attitudes. But it can (and will!) be done.
Inhabiting my new body will take some getting used to. My observing mind now has a new landscape with which to familiarize itself. I am looking forward to getting to know my new self and keeping company with my old self. As I integrate these two, I will be creating a new pathway for my own aging.