Healing is Tougher Than It Looks
Make no mistake, healing is hard work
Earlier this month, I had my right hip joint replaced.
The surgery, if you are unfamiliar with it, is proof that we live in an age of miracles. My amazing surgeon sliced me open, sawed off the top of my femur, inserted a cap into the socket, and inserted a new ball joint into the top of my femur. I was standing on the day of surgery. I was walking (with a walker) the day after surgery. And my surgeon does this operation three times a day, racking up hundreds of success stories like mine.
The miraculous nature of modern medicine aside, getting a major surgery like this necessitates learning a lesson about healing.
We live in a culture that tells us that whenever we have a setback or an injury or some other major event that might knock us out of the mainstream of life, that we're supposed to find a way to "bounce back." Your job doesn't want you to take a lot of sick days (if you even get sick days). If you have a baby, you're supposed to look like you were never pregnant as soon as possible. Popele want to know how long it will take for you to be "back to normal." The healing process is supposed to be as short as possible, with the objective purportedly being to make it as if whatever trauma occurred never even happened.
As witches, the connection we foster with the natural world teaches us a lot about harm and healing. There is, of course, the old (and much maligned) maxim, "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." Many have explained that this holdover from the time of Gerald Gardner is an incomplete view of the world, because (as another maxim states) "one must be able to harm in order to heal." A lot of folks have written on this topic, and it's something I regularly cover when I teach beginning witchcraft classes. That duality between harm and healing is another topic for another time.
Right now I want to focus more on the healing side of the equation.
How does healing work? What does it look like? How do we harness its power and bring healing energy to our life, our community, our world? Spending the better part of the last two weeks focusing almost exclusively on the process of healing has taught me a few things.
Healing takes time and energy.
A friend of mine had a surgical procedure -- minor, laproscopic (which means minimal incisions) -- and decided that she would be good to go back to work two days after the procedure. She vastly underestimated the amount of pain she would be in, the impact that her medications would have on her, and the amount of energy that her body would really need to engage in the healing process. She ended up having to drop out of things, and was a no-show during a period of time where her participation was expected. Her coworkers were disappointed, she was unhappy, everyone was unhappy.
The first week after my surgery I did nothing but do my physical therapy, knit, and watch bad tv. I didn't try to read too much or watch anything challenging because even that was too much effort. I needed all the energy I had just to heal. I went to bed at an insanely early hour. I had friends standing by to help do things like take care of my meals and do my dishes, because I needed to do as little as possible that wasn't directly germane to my healing.
I went back to my surgeon a week after my surgery and he was very satisfied with my progress. And I credit most of it to actually making a space for that healing to happen, and not trying to rush past the healing process in an effort to get "back to my normal life."
Healing demands a lot of us, more than we often are willing to acknowledge. You think you are just sitting in a chair twiddling your thumbs, but just below the surface, your body is hard at work knitting itself back together. As witches, we often work with energy that we raise. We feel it in our bodies and around us, even if those around us cannot see it. The idea that energy may work unseen is not something we need to be convinced of or made comfortable with. The idea that our body using energy in an unseen manner might make us as tired as if we are physically exerting ourselves is not new to us. We've all done that ritual where we scarcely moved or spoke but ended up exhausted and in bad need of grounding at the end of it.
And the truth is that need for energy and time exists whether your healing process is physical or mental. If there is one thing we've all learned during the pandemic, it is that mental trauma and stress can have significant impact on physical energy levels. Whatever type of healing you are trying to do, you're going to find that you need time and energy to do it. Do not apologize for taking that time. Make the space in your life to do the work of healing. Your mind and your body and your spirit need it.
Ask for Help
Surgery of any kind is traumatic for your body. There is pain. There is swelling. There is weakness, and being tired. You're worried about infection. Most of even the simplest tasks like going to the bathroom, cleaning your body, and even feeding yourself are going to be a lot more difficult. In the hospital, you have an army of nurses and other professionals who help with this. The hospital environment is filled with special equipment and staff whose job it is to help patients meet their needs while they heal.
But the goal is ultimately to get you home, where the real healing can begin. But given how things are today, often people are released to go home well before they are fully capable of taking care of themselves. When I went home from my hip surgery, I was still doped up on some heavy painkillers, could walk only barely with the help of my walker, and was in no condition to do much else but stare at a television. I needed someone to get me in and out of bed, to help me get to the toilet, to bring me meals and water and remember when I needed to take which pills.
If you're like me, you don't like being helpless. You like admitting you're helpless even less. Asking someone to be there for you 24-7 for a few days feels like you are asking for the moon. I was very fortunate to have a friend who very kindly agreed to stay at my house for more than 3 days until I was able to do things on my own.
I am sure I was a complete pain in the ass. My friend was caring and attentive and patient. I am deeply appreciative of her willingness to be there for me in this way. When you live in a society that lionizes self-sufficiency, the lesson that comes from needing help just to do the smallest things is priceless. We all need a helping hand sometimes. And there is no shame in asking for that help when you need it. In fact, having help is deeply necessary to healing. Having someone around to help enforce the space you are creating around yourself for healing, to do the things you can't so that you don't overexert yourself, is super important to creating the conditions around you that will best facilitate healing.
Don't be shy about asking for the help you need. Appreciate the help that you're given, but more importantly, pay it forward to others. Be part of a friendship circle that gives and supports each other and create that environment by being what you want to see in your world.
Accept the Limitations.
Getting a new hip joint meant that I had to accept a few limitations on how my leg can move while the ligaments and muscles and other things around the new artificial joint heal. I am not allowed to bend my hip joint too far for several weeks. I also can't allow my affected leg to cross the midline of my body, or allow the leg to twist inward.
This affects a lot of things that one might not expect. Getting in and out of bed is a complicated set of maneuvers involving a yoga strap, a stool and a pillow. Since I'm using a walker, carrying things like plates of food requires a tray that balances on top of the walker. I had to install a special toilet seat. I have to be very careful with stairs. It's gotten easier the more i do things and as the healing progresses. But I have to respect my limitations if I want the healing to be complete.
Sometimes when we are healing from something we are anxious to be back to "normal" as fast as we can. We want to make progress, and the idea that we might have to actually accept further limitations before we can heal seems unfair. We are taught by our culture that freedom and progress means that we accept no limitations. This can, of course, lead to some pretty extreme moments, as we have seen with people who, in the name of freedom, undertake behaviors that actually impinge on the well-being of others. If we’re making progress, that should naturally mean an increase in capacity, an increase in what we can do, what we can have, right?
But sometimes you do need to “go slow in order to go fast,” as the saying goes. Sometimes we must narrow our focus down, and simplify our life in order to sort through the things we need to in order to move forward. One of the reasons why “retreats” are often so beneficial when people are seeking inner healing and growth is because they shut out regular life. At a retreat you bring only what is necessary with you, do only that which is necessary to the work you’re doing. The focus is narrowed, your responsibilities are winnowed down to only that which is germane to the retreat itself. We need moments in life like this.
I admit that I resent the fact that the things I can't do with my body right now are keeping me from enjoying my new hip joint. But I also know that if I don't respect the limitations I am under, my joint won't properly heal, and I'll be back in the operating room.
This gets even more important as I start to improve. My surgeon was pretty specific with me -- sure, the movement restrictions are important, but the single biggest thing I need to not do is fall down. A fall could have disastrous consequences that would land me back in the hospital with a new operation to do the whole hip replacement all over again.
Not falling sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? Most of us manage to get through the day without falling. But right now my right leg is much weaker. It's been traumatized. I am sporting some new parts that I am still getting acclimated to. I am not nearly as fall-proof as I think I am. To heal properly, I have to walk a fine line (pun not intended) between challenging my body appropriately so that I can get my full range of motion back, and not being a hero because my body isn't quite ready to do all the things yet, even though I want to.
Be patient with yourself in your reduced capacity while you are in healing mode. It can be frustrating to want to do things and realize that you're not ready yet. And that's true not just for physical things like walking and swimming and hiking and dancing, but for emotional things like going out on dates again after losing a partner, or going back to a place where something traumatic happened to you. You won't be able to go "back to normal" right away. You might have to go an extended period where you are severely limited in who you can see, what you can do, or how you can do it. Realize that this is part of the work of healing, and don't let it get you down. This too shall pass.
Let go of "back to normal"
And while we're on the topic of "getting back to normal," my advice on this is -- don't bother with it.
What exactly IS “normal” anyway? I could probably write a whole other blog post about the problem with thinking about the world in the frame of “normal” vs. abnormal. But that’s another rant for another time.
The point I want to make here is that “back to normal” is a nostalgia that really doesn’t lend itself to healing because it relies on the impossible task of pretending you don’t know what you know now, and haven’t had the experiences you’ve had.
For better or for worse, time is a linear experience, and you can’t really go backwards and re-live anything from your past. Things happen, you have experiences, and you learn things. The hope is that these experiences teach you things. And part of healing is figuring out what you’ve learned from whatever experience you’ve had.
You are moving forward in time. To try and go “back” to anyplace is going to be swimming upstream into a lot of frustration. Because healing doesn’t leave things the same as they were before. Healing leaves scars. Healing may make a wound stop hurting or bleeding or whatever, but that healing is not the same thing as intact tissue that has never been marred or injured.
How do we know this? Consider the old malady of scurvy, the disease that famously afflicted trans-Atlantic voyagers until someone figured out that fresh fruits with Vitamin C would keep the disease at bay. If allowed to progress to its more dire stages, the lack of Vitamin C disrupts the production of collagen and other chemicals that heal wounds. And when that happens, wounds from years and years ago begin to reappear and reopen because the body’s healing chemistry has been disrupted. Put more simply, your body may appear to be intact, but just beneath that surface experience, your body is still working to conceal wounds from ages and ages ago. Whatever wounds that have been inflicted on you, you will carry the aftermath of that with you forever. Healing doesn’t make it like the wound never happened. Healing merely means your body has processed the wound enough that it no longer troubles you on the daily.
Whatever else I’m doing here with my hip, I’m not going “back to normal” — I’m headed for a new life where my mobility is better, my pain is eliminated, and I can do more things than I was doing before, and enjoy life more. That’s actually substantially better than the “normal” I was living before the operation. In the end, the point of healing as a process isn’t to get “back to normal” — it’s to move forward into something better than where you were, even if it doesn’t look like you expect it to or wish it was.
Given where we are with the pandemic and our economy and our body politic, we are all trying to have healing experiences of one kind or another. Some of us are physically healing from COVID. Some of us are healing from the mental stress of coping with the pandemic. Some of us are looking to heal after a long stretch of economic struggle. Some of us are looking to heal relationships that have been strained because of disagreements and life changes over the past few years. Healing is a rough process, but one that in the end leads to a better place — if you make the time and the space, are willing to accept help and limitations, and are committed to ultimately moving forward, not backward.
Happy healing, y’all!