In Part I of my series on spine surgery recovery, I wrote about dealing with utter helplessness. In Part II, I examined the coinciding of my surgery and my sister-in-law’s death from breast cancer and the impact it has had on me. Here is Part III in which I share about the terrible isolation I felt and the saving grace of real friendship.
When we scheduled my spine surgery, we looked for a spot in the calendar during which I would have a break from appearances long enough to allow time for recovery before getting back on the road again. The best time seemed to be the third week of November – just before Thanksgiving and at the point we’d met our insurance deductible and out-of-pocket limits. The surgeon was confident that I’d be back on my feet within 4 to 6 weeks but that was before a string of setbacks that I’ll write about in future posts.
As so often happens, what we think in our own heads and what actually transpires can be two very different things. That’s certainly the case with my recovery. True, I wasn’t missing out on any speaking engagements and I was able to take a few weeks off from my other obligations. That was a blessing.
What I didn’t see coming was the terrible isolation I would feel during that time.
I wasn’t strong enough to go out much more than making my doctor appointments and I wasn’t physically up to social events. With the Midwest winter weather, I was really cooped up inside the house without opportunity to wander outside for sunshine, fresh air, or even just open a window. Alone in the house while everyone else was working made for long, lonely days.
Having the surgery four days before Thanksgiving allowed my husband to take less time off from work to help me out. I worked it out with the surgeon that I would be released from the hospital on Thanksgiving morning and go home to a loving family gathered for celebration. The family gathered, and there was a grand meal, love, and fun but I was too out of it to enjoy it. The only thing I remember is a plate of food being placed before me and random faces appearing before me. Basically, I missed Thanksgiving even though I’d insisted we celebrate despite my surgery.
The rest of the holiday season was more of the same, but for a different reason. We had to forgo concerts, parties, and shopping because it was just too tough for me to get out and around. I wasn’t even able to attend Sunday Mass for the first three weeks after surgery. That was a killer. I tried to compensate by playing Christmas carols and keeping my mind busy. My patient, devoted husband (I call him #herohusband) and Son #3 did an outstanding job putting up Christmas decorations and making the house look festive. Saints that they are, they decorated the tree exactly how I wanted, even to the point of hanging ornaments precisely where I pointed with my cane, just to pamper me. The decorations did boost my spirits and I got into the habit of keeping some of the lights on around the clock just because it made me feel better.
Yet the sadness and isolation kept creeping up on me.
It didn’t help that nothing was normal for me. My routines were shattered, and I couldn’t do things the way I was used to doing them. I needed to sleep downstairs in the recliner while the others slept upstairs and I hated it. I often would stay awake most of the night praying rosary after rosary after chaplet after chaplet for anybody who came to mind – anyone but me because it made me too sad to pray for myself.
I think I might have succumbed to real depression had it not been for the kindness and devotion of some close friends – three in particular – who stuck with me during those long, difficult weeks. After I’d scheduled the surgery, I asked a stable of friends and colleagues to pray for a successful surgery and recovery. Some never even responded to my request, and that really hurt. Some promised prayer but I never heard from them again after that. A handful, however, not only truly prayed for me, but also checked back with me here and there to see how I was doing. That meant a great deal to me. But these three remarkable friends began checking up on me frequently – sometimes daily – assuring me of their love and prayers, offering practical help like visits, housekeeping help, sending cards and flowers, and meals. When they asked how I was doing, I knew I could tell them how I really was doing and not give some polite answer. Despite my often glum responses, they never tired of asking and never gave up on me.
When working your way through suffering and isolation, it can be extremely difficult to reach out to others. At least it was for me. I began to feel as if I were a burden on others, like one of those chronic complainers that everyone avoids because the conversation always brings them down. My friends listened to my complaining, offered encouragement, and most importantly of all made sure I knew I was not being forgotten. Friendship like that is a real grace and I’m astonished at having been so abundantly blessed by it.
All of this has made me introspect about what kind of friend I am to others and what friendship really means. Before my surgery, I thought I was a pretty good friend, but I am reevaluating that after the example I’ve been given. Through this, God has shown me that I can do better than I’ve done and I need to change. That, too, is part of my recovery process.