by Mary Yoke ~
I’ve decided to write about something this time that is rather personal: the physical challenges I’ve faced in my life and my struggles to overcome them. I don’t know if anyone reading this has endured similar difficulties. If so, perhaps my words will help.
I consider myself to be a thriver, even though I’ve had a great number of physical issues. It always has seemed to me I’ve had an unfair amount of suffering and pain. In fact, I spent a large portion of my life feeling sorry for myself as it always seemed no one else has had to endure as much pain and disfigurement as I have. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that everyone has to go through some pain in life. It just seems as if, for some, those trials don’t show up until much later.
My pain started at age 2, when my parents discovered I had a genetic defect. Odd reddish blots began appearing on my right leg, which eventually were diagnosed as a cavernous hemangioma, or blood tumor. I had my first surgery at age 2, followed by another at age 4, then age 6, and then three more surgeries before I was 21.
At first, my doctors weren’t sure whether the tumor was a malignant cancer, so apparently, for the surgery at age 4, I was prepped for an amputation of my leg. My mother has told me how overjoyed she was when the surgeon appeared in the waiting room after the operation and said they hadn’t had to amputate my leg. However, my leg remained in a full old-fashioned cast for several weeks, and I remained in the hospital.
Sadly, the hospital climate in the 1950s was not what it is today. Parents and visitors were allowed only 30 minutes per day to see their children. That meant I was alone for 23½ hours per day — for several weeks at a time over the course of each of my six surgeries.
Later, in my 40s, I was diagnosed with medical Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as I tried to come to grips with the pain and suffering and feelings of abandonment in my life. Many physicians, nurses and other medical personnel in the 1950s and ‘60s often were cruel, unsympathetic and impatient with the cries and demands of small children.
I had a number of traumatic experiences that involved medical personnel yelling at me, cutting me and telling me I was a baby and should not be crying.
Speaking of being a baby, a different type of scarring occurred in elementary school since I was forced to wear “baby shoes.” In those days, baby shoes were white, lace-up, ankle-high affairs — worn only by babies. I had to wear these shoes all the way through 4th grade. Plus, I had a limp.
I know we’ve all heard about the cruelty of children to each other, and I was a recipient of that meanness all through elementary school. No one wanted to be my friend; I was not invited to any parties. I was cruelly ostracized at recess; after all, I couldn’t play kickball (the most popular game) or any other physical activity enjoyed by my peers. I literally had NO childhood friends.
Luckily for me though, in 7th grade my small country school had to reorganize and become part of a larger school system, so I was bused 15 miles away to a new middle school with all new peers. By this time my limp had more-or-less disappeared, and I was no longer wearing baby shoes, so I was accepted and actually invited to some parties — and a modest social life amazingly evolved!
As I went through adolescence and young adulthood I still had some negative experiences related to my leg: I was never permitted to take gym class, and people pointed and stared at me on the street.
Once, when I had had it with the insensitivity of strangers, a woman in a clothing boutique saw me from across the room and very loudly exclaimed, “OMG, what happened to you?” causing everyone in the store to stare. I gathered the courage to reply loudly, “I was born with a birth defect, okay?”
As an adult I’ve learned to dress in such a way that my leg is always covered (pants, high boots, long skirts, etc.). But naturally, since my leg is seriously disfigured, it always has been a source of embarrassment at the beach and when starting a romantic relationship, and I have to say this aspect still persists today.
Every single day of my life I had woken up in pain (which usually went away after I got up and moving) until recently. Five years ago I had two pulmonary embolisms (potentially fatal blood clots in the lungs) that were determined to have come from my leg. I found a new doctor, who immediately put me on Coumadin, a blood thinner, which dissolved the clots. I now will be on Coumadin for the rest of my life. The good news is that my leg pain is, for the first time in my life, almost entirely gone.
Unfortunately, I have had many other physical challenges aside from my leg. I was in a car accident when I was 21 where my face smashed into the steering wheel (this was before seat belts had shoulder straps). One of my cheekbones and the bone under one eye were broken, so I had to have plastic surgery on my face.
I had a tonsillectomy and then a separate adenoidectomy at ages 27 and 28; these were attempts to help solve the problem of my vocal hoarseness (as I was then a successful young opera singer).
Then I had a number of surgeries around reproductive issues: a C-section at age 38, followed by an ectopic pregnancy at age 40, four miscarriages, and a laparoscopy on my fallopian tubes that did not turn out well (my physician accidentally nicked an artery). This was a very painful time, both psychologically and physically, as I was unable to have the two biological children I wanted.
And, as if that weren’t enough …
In 2005 I was attacked by two dogs, who punctured one of my lungs and took a large bit of flesh out of one side of my torso. In 2007, I had a near-fatal ski accident on the top of a mountain in New York. I crashed into a steel snow-blowing gun and ruptured my spleen. That resulted in a prolonged emergency surgery and a week in intensive care followed by another week in a regular hospital room. Suffice it to say I have many, many scars of all types!
So, what have I learned? Well, this lengthy history and my attempts to deal with it all caused me to seek therapy. Fortunately, I found a wonderful woman in New York who was immensely helpful for more than 10 years. I will be forever grateful to her.
I also found yoga and meditation, and these practices have pulled me through many dark times and helped me have some compassion for myself. In essence, that is the journey: to move from self-hate (I aggressively hated my leg) to self-compassion.
Although I’ve had many major physical issues, on a day-to-day basis I’ve always been robustly healthy — almost never sick in any way. I tell myself I’m never going to have surgery again, but obviously there are unknowns.
Being in my 60s now, I am aware of joint pain and bottom-of-the-foot pain (in both feet) that seem to be rather normal for people my age. However, as a former exercise physiologist and current health behavior academic, I am determined to stay fit for the long run.
My leg has taught me to be resilient. Suffering and pain are transient; there is always a strengthening of the pain, and then a lessening. It almost always passes, and we must let it go.
And it’s important to let go of how you think the world should be. In my case I needed to let go of the idea that life was unfair, that I somehow had gotten a bad deal, and that my body and childhood experiences were not as good as everyone else’s. This caused me to be flooded with self-pity and to feel like a victim for many years.
Is there value in suffering? Well, I think the long view is that it’s important to be compassionate, and my own challenges have helped me be more understanding of the difficulties of others. When we have pain, we have two choices: we can either bemoan our condition (this is where I was stuck), or we can accept it and use it as a vehicle for transformation and personal growth.
I have long loved the following poem by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
What a radical idea — perhaps accepting the brokenness and imperfections of our physical condition, the brokenness of our past experiences — perhaps that is how we can be filled with light and move forward and upward to full thriving.