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27 Lessons I Learned After 27 surgeries: A Test in Positive Thinking

27 Lessons I Learned  After 27 surgeries: A Test in Positive Thinking

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.

Breath
    Mixed Media Art by Amy Oestreicher via amyoes.com

    Welcome To Me

    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.

    Gutless Performance
      Amy Oestreicher in “Gutless & Grateful” (Photo Credit: Brandon Thetford) via amyoes.com

      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.

      Singing Tree Revisited Original Artwork
        Mixed Media Art by Amy Oestreicher via amyoes.com

        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.

        Free MixedMedia Original Art
          Mixed Media Art by Amy Oestreicher via amyoes.com

          Amy is currently touring Gutless & Grateful (her one woman musical) to theatres, colleges, conferences, and organizations nationwide. See where she’ll be next, and learn how to bring her show to you.   

          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

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          Last Updated on January 24, 2021

          How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often

          How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often

          Do you say yes so often that you no longer feel that your own needs are being met? Are you wondering how to say no to people?

          For years, I was a serial people pleaser[1]. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time, especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

          But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

          It took a long while, but I learned the art of saying no. Saying no meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. When that happened, I became a lot happier.

          And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

          The Importance of Saying No

          When you learn the art of saying no, you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

          In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

          Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey, considered one of the most successful women in the world, confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything.

          Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

          Warren Buffett views “no” as essential to his success. He said:

          “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

          When I made “no” a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success, focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

          How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

          It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say no.

          From an early age, we are conditioned to say yes. We said yes probably hundreds of times in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work, to get a promotion, to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

          We say yes because we feel good when we help someone, because it can seem like the right thing to do, because we think that is key to success, and because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist.

          And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

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          At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we are feeling bad that we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

          The message, no matter where we turn, is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

          How Do You Say No Without Feeling Guilty?

          Deciding to add the word “no” to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say no, but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of no that you could finally create more time for things you care about.

          But let’s be honest, using the word “no” doesn’t come easily for many people.

          3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

          1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

          Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time, especially you haven’t done it much in the past, will feel awkward. Your comfort zone is “yes,” so it’s time to challenge that and step outside that.

          If you need help getting out of your comfort zone, check out this article.

          2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

          When you want to learn how to say no, remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it: who else knows about all of the demands in your life? No one.

          Only you are at the center of all of these requests. You are the only one that understands what time you really have.

          3. Saying No Means Saying Yes to Something That Matters

          When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else that we may care more about. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

          6 Ways to Start Saying No

          Incorporating that little word “no” into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

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          1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

          One of the biggest challenges to saying no is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no will reflect poorly on you?

          Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

          2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

          Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because of FOMO, even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

          Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better[2].

          3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say No

          Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say yes because we worry about how others will respond or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose their respect. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

          Keep in mind that saying no can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way.

          You might disappoint someone initially, but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to. And it will often help others have more respect for you and your boundaries, not less.

          4. When the Request Comes in, Sit on It

          Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

          Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say no. There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

          5. Communicate Your “No” with Transparency and Kindness

          When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest[3] to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

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          How do you say no? 9 Healthy Ways to Say “No”

            Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

            Clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

            6. Consider How to Use a Modified No

            If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” as this will give you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

            Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task, but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

            Final Thoughts

            Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

            Use the request as a way to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself.

            Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project, but not by working all weekend. You’ll find yourself much happier.

            More Tips on How to Say No

            Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

            Reference

            [1] Science of People: 11 Expert Tips to Stop Being a People Pleaser and Start Doing You
            [2] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Tips to Get Over Your FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out
            [3] Cooks Hill Counseling: 9 Healthy Ways to Say “No”

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