It’s been quite a full decade for me. In ten years, I’ve lost my stomach, started college at 25, got married, spent six of those years without a working digestive system, launched a chocolate business, discovered a new-found passion for mixed media artwork, created a mental health program, and wrote a one-woman musical to chronicle it all.
Called both a “surgical disaster” and a “medical miracle,” I don’t have a body quite like I’d imagine everyone else’s to be — a feminine figure with smooth flesh, voluptuous curves, effortlessly flaunting tight mini-skirts, and throwing on a tee-shirt without worrying if certain medical additions are exposed. Or at least, that’s how I thought everyone felt about their body.
At 18 years old, I was sucked into an alternate universe of IVs and CT scans. I was cut apart and put back together. My body was manipulated like a medical marionette. Ten years later, it’s hard to remember what my body looked like before the scars, ostomy bags, and IVs became a mainstay in my physical life.
A Hit One-Woman Musical Doesn’t Mean You’re Invincible
After my one-woman musical, Gutless & Grateful, premiered in 2012, I felt like I was on top of the world. I finally closed the door on a coma, organ failure, and the PTSD that comes from years of medical instability. To celebrate such a huge big milestone, I got my first elective surgery, praying that a very “gutsy” surgeon would successfully reverse my ostomy.
Knowing how risky this surgery was for my already-compromised anatomy was further compounded when the surgeon actually bent over and whispered in my ear: “Are you SURE you really want to do this?”
I lifted up my head, and with my last ounce of strength, I said, “I just did a one woman show, I can do anything!”
Apparently, not anything, as three extra surgeries, a few catheters, and two months at Mt. Sinai later, I woke up with more problems than I came in with. The New York debut of Gutless & Grateful felt like the climactic ending to a near-death medical saga, and now here I was back at square one.
A Life-Changing Regret
My 27th surgery left me with complications that still haven’t been resolved. As years go by, I will have spent more of my life in my post-coma body than the one I remember as a teenager. I don’t remember what it felt like to sleep on my stomach, or to jump in the pool fearlessly. However; in exchange, I’ve learned things about my body — the vessel for the vitality that flows within me — that I will never forget.
These lessons have made me who I am.
Mostly, I’ve learned that through my body, I can experience the best of what life has to offer. Sticking with difficult times has allowed me to experience some of the most cherished moments in my life, like performing my one woman show across the country for the past four years, in spite of setbacks, disappointments, and surgical disasters.
Each surgery taught me some kind of lesson in the power of positive thinking.
Here is my dedication to all 27 of them.
Positive Thinking 101: 27 Lessons I Learned About Life After 27 Surgeries
1.) Life has many obstacles, many challenges, many blessings, and many triumphs — but you only have one body. If you want it to experience the good, you’ve also got to withstand the bad.
2.) Emotions are powerfully confusing animals. “Talking things through” or “thinking it out” isn’t always the answer. Some of the most powerful feelings only come to light when you can express them in creative ways, like drawing them, taking a walk, or finding a song that embodies what you’re feeling. Let your heart know that your mind doesn’t always have to run the show. Emotions are really just arrows in your life. Listen to them. They point you in the direction you need to go.
3.) As long as there is breath flowing through you, you are alive, so wake up. Throw some ice cold water in your face, scream at the top of your lungs, and give yourself a jolting reminder that you’ll never experience this moment again. Do you really want to miss it?
4.) Life is about moving on, but it is not about running away.
5.) You body needs every kind of nourishment — whole foods, a bit of pampering, and a daily open dialogue (body-talk, if you will) to make sure you give it exactly what it needs.
6.) You can’t live a full life if you don’t accept the good with the bad. Only when you can feel the depths of despair will you be able to feel the lightest of joys. I’d rather feel everything than nothing at all.
7.) The magical quick-fix solution to finding happiness wherever and whenever you are is gratitude. When I was stuck in the hospital for four months after a disastrous trio of surgeries, I forced myself to keep a gratitude list from A to Z. It wasn’t always easy to fill out, but by the time I reached “Z” every night, I always ended up feeling a bit better than when I started
8.) When you’ve been through a difficult and trying period in your life, a part of you becomes “wounded.” This wounded self will always be with you, even when the darkest times are over. If you are able to listen to this wounded part, honor its story, and learn from what it has endured, your life will be deeper and richer.
9.) Laugh — even in the roughest of circumstances. Laugh when the surgeons put your family on lockdown because your parents have unsuccessfully tried to sneak you out of the ICU to go shopping. (True story.)
10.) Things don’t happen for a reason, you make things happen for a reason.
11.) Reframing “Why Me” into “Why Not” has the power to change your perspective and open you up to the possibilities.
12.) It’s been said many times that it’s the journey that matters in life, not the destination. Actually, the more detours your journey takes (the bumps, hiccups, and setbacks), the more beautiful eye-candy you’ll spot along the way. Every little twist and turn in life has made me who I am today. On one level, I wish I never had to go through a decade of medical trauma, but on another level I wonder if I would ever have the same amazing people in my life, or be pushed to explore new ideas and try new things.
13.) You are not your life’s circumstances. Make your life bigger than your present situation. Things pass, but life will always be here.
14.) Life is filled with whatever amount of joy you choose to fill it with.
15.) Surround yourself with the people you love because they have the power to ignite.
16.) When you’re not sure of a choice to make, choose the decision that best supports your aliveness.
17.) Finding yourself is not an “event”, it is a moment-by-moment practice — a practice that has no endpoint.
18.) Children are the best teachers on the subject of “fearlessness”, “openness”, and “presence.” Soak in their lessons any chance you can.
19.) Every imperfection and quirk on your body is gorgeous and uniquely you. After my surgeries, I like to think of myself as a beautiful mosaic — broken apart, but put together again differently, yet still beautiful.
20.) To quote one of my favorite Broadway musicals, Sunday In The Park With George by Stephen Sondheim, “I chose and my world was shaken — so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. Just keep moving on.”
21.) Speaking of musicals,,, Stay true to who you are, follow your passion, and that will be your compass back to yourself when you’ve lost your way.
22.) Creativity is more than arts and crafts. Creativity is the willingness to view the world in a different way — to see the world anew. See the world with a bit of creativity and you’ll immediately spot the blessings in your life, no matter the circumstance.
23.) Food nourishes your body and invigorates your taste buds; but more importantly, food is a potent connection to your memories, emotions, and heart. Because of my surgeries, for six years out of the past decade I was unable to eat or drink. I didn’t realize until I had that first nibble of food once again, but just being able to savor, sip, and taste fills the body with rich sensations of being alive.
24.) Even when life feels terrible, there will be a time when you say, “Remember when I went through that? I thought things would never get better!” If you wait it out long enough, just as life changes, all things change. Make it a good change!
25.) Hope, faith, and trust are more than just pixie dust and whimsy, it is the medicine required for your soul to hold on until things get better. I came out of my coma to hear doctors tell me that I had no stomach, I couldn’t eat or drink, and nobody knew when (or if) I would ever be able to again. I was given no timelines whatsoever, but I made myself believe that “any day now” a miracle would happen and I would be eating. “Any day” turned out to be years later, but now that I can eat and drink freely, my “willing suspension of belief” was worth it.
26.) If you feel alone or disconnected, remember that you always belong to the universe. There are cells and molecules in your body, just as there are cells and molecules in every tree, dog, or person. Essentially, we are all one and the same. If you feel something, chances are someone else has felt it before. You are always a part of a larger whole.
27.) Since you’re a part of something larger, everything you do has meaning. Every word, step, thought, action, or feeling affects someone else — even if you can’t notice it right away. Keep living your best life, even when it seems there is “no” way to — because you matter.
All artwork was created by Amy. Learn about her mental health advocacy programs for students, and find out how to take part in the #LoveMyDetour movement, striving to create compassion through stories.
Featured Photo Credit: “Great Comebacks” Documentary by Howie Klausner via greatcomebacks.com.
Mixed Media Art Photographs by Amy Oestreicher via amyoes.com/galleries. “Gutless and Grateful” Photograph of Amy Oestreicher taken by Brandon Thetford via amyoes.com
Featured photo credit: Amy Oestreicher via amyoes.com