My latest ANA Ambassador contribution about facing disability is now up at
Here it is directly:
I had been told to expect a few miserable days after brain surgery, but it would get better. When I woke, all my energy was immediately sucked up by survival and pain management. It was a full time effort to keep my sanity (which is still up for debate) as I dealt with pain, new single sided deafness, a face that was half immobile, an eye that wouldn’t close without assistance, and balance that required a cane and supervision on stairs. Brain surgery recovery, for me, was much more than I had allowed myself to anticipate.
What I learned, when my body veered sharply from the expected and ideal recovery path, is that I had to become my own advocate. It was only I who could speak up for what I needed. Nobody was there to tell me how I felt. Nobody could tell me when I would feel better. Only I could determine what my body was capable of.
I had arranged to take three months off from work. The doctors had predicted that I could return to work part time after six weeks, but I pushed for a longer recovery because I had a job that required weekly travel and 120% presence. I was relieved when the doctor agreed on 3 months. I felt that I would feel normal in six weeks, and have six more to really heal and feel rested and healthy before returning to work.
My surgery was November 3, 2008. I spent 8 days in the hospital and then had family living with me for a few weeks. I was self-conscious of my half paralyzed face, but knew that I would find the inner strength to get past interacting with people. In my home, single sided deafness was reasonable until my first trip out in public where I learned about the challenges of SSD in a noisy setting.
The most challenging issue was my head. Day and night I had excruciating head pain. At two months out, I had put all of my energy into healing. I had rested for ridiculous lengths of time. However, I had to acknowledge I was not following the predicted timeline. I was still struggling to survive. I was not able to get through even one day without total exhaustion. I was not going to be able to return to work. Just acknowledging that fact to myself was difficult. Initially, it was like holding in a secret that was inevitably going to explode if I didn’t speak up. It was not enough to follow familiar patterns of the past by pushing past obstacles to get what I wanted. If I were to deny that I could work, it would be painful and embarrassing. I had failed to fulfil my supporters’ predictions of success!
As I pondered, felt sorry for myself, and tried to work around the biggest obstacle I had ever faced, I realized that I could not will it to happen. I could not force my body to return to normal nor think my headaches away. With physical pain, exhaustion and depression, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to focus on work and successfully return to my career.
So I started to say it out loud to family, friends, and then my colleagues. It was difficult to say the words, “I am not going to be able to return to work.” I had to lift my hands and admit defeat. That was not who I was. I met my deadlines regardless of what it took. Now, for the first time in my life I was having to admit that I wasn’t able to overcome an obstacle.
I told myself I wasn’t giving up, but just taking some extra time. I filed for long term disability, believing I merely needed a few additional months to allow my body to rest and heal. One of the disability company’s requirements was that I file for social security disability, which I laughed at. There was NO way that I was THAT disabled. I compliantly followed the process, convinced that it was going to be wasted effort because by the time my application was processed and rejected I would be back to normal.
There was something in my heart that cracked the day that I found out I was disabled enough to qualify. My application was approved the first time, which I had heard was rare. I had to find the energy to demonstrate disability when I was having trouble fighting to get through each day. Head pain is hard to prove, but it is also hard to disprove. It is an unmeasurable and miserable state. I dug deep and did what I had to do to take care of myself.
Well, months turned into years and I am still dealing with head pain. However, somewhere along the way, I found peace with the new me. I feel compassion that I didn’t know before. I have been given insights and respect for living in chronic pain while staying pleasant and present. While searching for meaning for all of this, I discovered I could still contribute to the world – just in a different way. I could write about my experiences, feelings, and hope. I could connect with people who felt misunderstood. I could express myself in painting where it didn’t matter if my hand has a tremor, or if I had to quit mid-project for a nap. I could find joy in my connection with others.
It all started with knowing my body and being my own advocate. Only we can take care of our precious selves. Only we can speak up for what we need.