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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 November 11, 2019

          Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

          Can a Dysfunctional Family Become Functional?

          A dysfunctional family is more than disagreement or constant arguments. Anything from plain neglect, to abuse and even verbal and physical violence is the everyday experience of those who are part of a dysfunctional family.

          You know how this looks:

          • Parents constantly comparing children.
          • Siblings in conflict because of tolerated bullying.
          • Domestic violence.
          • Adultery…
          • And many others.

          For all the members, this will mean emotional pain and even trauma; which, in case it doesn’t get resolved, will have a detrimental effect on the individual’s personality and development.

          Needless to say, the younger members are the most vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean the parents are out of danger, as most commonly the parents play the roles of abuser-codependent, and in some cases, both parts inflicting pain on one another.

          Most like to think these problems stem from deep-seated issues, and that therefore it’s pretty much impossible to deal with them.

          This is only true for families not willing to do what it takes, for if only a single member is determined and knows how to do it, the whole family can do a lot of progress.

          In this article, I’ll break down for you the basic steps of fixing a dysfunctional family. Although it may seem hopeless, it is possible to turn things around.

          If you have ever felt in this position, or if you know somebody who is, this article is for you.

          How to fix a dysfunctional family

          In a few words the solution for a dysfunctional family lies in dropping the ego, focusing on the solution, switching blame for responsibility and doing the work as a unity, for the good of the whole family.

          And this will accomplish things you once only saw as a dream.

          Dropping the ego? Switching blame for responsibility? Doing the work? What does all this mean?

          It’s simple. In a nutshell, it’s that which will allow you to turn a dysfunctional family into a functional one.

          Let’s take a look at how exactly this can be done. And near the end we will also talk about what you can do in a dysfunctional family with cynical traits.

          Dysfunctional families where not only problems are well-known, but also nobody seems to want a fix or openly decide to perpetuate the harmful behaviors. Such as the case of abuse and physical violence.

          There is also a solution for these, it’s just not what you are expecting…

          Dysfunctional… Or just average?

          Most families are dysfunctional, though at varying degrees of dysfunctionality.

          The milder cases, are just marked by “typical” comically-shrouded bullying or lack of interest in other members’ development or wellbeing.

          You can know a family is dysfunctional if their interactions are anything different than cooperation, solidarity, care and support. But let’s get more specific…

          A dysfunctional family is one in which members directly or indirectly suffer emotional and/or physical harm inflicted by other members of their family. Most commonly, perpetrated by the parents.

          Even harmful actions as “passive” as neglect, which is inflicted by inaction rather than action, signifies a dysfunction within the family.

          Dysfunctional families have conflicts such as:

          • Unrealistic expectations
          • Lack of interest and time spent together
          • Sexism
          • Utilitarianism
          • Lack of empathy
          • Unequal or unfair treatment
          • Disrespect towards boundaries
          • Control Issues
          • Jealousy
          • Verbal and physical abuse
          • Violence and even sexual misconduct or abuse

          You may think a dysfunctional family has very little or nothing to do with personal productivity, but you would be wrong in thinking this way…

          If a person is not emotionally well, she will not be able to perform as desired, as the emotional harm that has been inflicted will hinder everyday performance in the way of inability to concentrate, lack of mental clarity and low levels of inspiration, motivation and discipline.

          Having a functional family does exactly the opposite: It creates productive members with no emotional baggage.

          How to turn it around

          When you’re part of a dysfunctional family you know it. You can quickly identify in other members the behaviors and conflicts that create the dysfunction.

          But just in case you’re having trouble telling functional from dysfunctional I will tell you the following:

          One of the easiest ways you can recognize if you are in a dysfunctional family is to survey your won feelings.

          We often overlook this, but have you stopped to ask yourself how you feel?

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          As cheesy as it may sound it really sheds a lot of light on the subject.

          What behaviors, actions and attitudes in your family you wish were better?

          Do you think certain behaviors and actions from your family marked you in the past?

          Sadly, we cannot go back to the past to correct it. But we can do a lot in the present…

          Correction is possible

          In order to fix a dysfunctional family, you must start by putting an end to the behaviors and actions that are affecting you.

          Verbalize it.

          All members of the dysfunctional family have one issue in common: They don’t put a stop to the harm.

          Whenever you feel your boundaries being overstepped there is just one single word you have to remember: STOP.

          This is the door to a better, more functional family, because after this, comes the fix.

          But first you have to identify and make others know where exactly lies the problem.

          So go ahead and fearlessly start with “Stop”, followed by your expression of dissatisfaction.

          Putting it to work in real life

          In real life it would be something like this:

          “OK, stop! Every time you belittle me I feel you don’t care. I need attention and respect, and it is your responsibility as my family to provide them to me”

          Or:

          “Stop. When you compare me with my cousin it hurts, I feel like I don’t matter and that’s not ok. I ask you to stop doing it.

          Or:

          “Please stop. When you start yelling all respect is lost and it turns into a battle of who can do it louder. Don’t raise your voice and let’s work this out the way humans do”.

          As you can see, here you start by putting a stop to the toxic behavior when it arises. And afterwards you verbalize why it’s wrong and what needs of you need to be fulfilled.

          This is what you have to remember:

          1-Stop.

          2-Why it’s wrong?

          3-What you need.

          And this will also work well in case you need to do it for another family member.

          It’s a family thing

          A dysfunctional family cannot be fixed by one member alone.

          Yes, a single member can initiate progress and be the leader of the change. But in order to completely become functional all members must contribute to the solution.

          In other words, you will need cooperation…

          So don’t be afraid of asking for it!

          Approach your family member and ask to be listened.

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          We sometimes feel our needs are “not that important” or we simply believe they won’t listen. But thinking like this would be like being defeated at an unfought battle.

          You will be amazed by how much people listen when you voice your needs, especially if it implies showing yourself open, vulnerable and in need.

          It’s not a free-for-all battle

          In order to get your family to cooperate, first you must fix your individual relationships with every member of the family. Remember: Relationships are always between two people, and two people only.

          No matter how complex, the quality of a multi-member relationship (like a family) will always depend on the quality of the individual relationships.

          Once you have straightened the relationship with every member of the dysfunctional family you will be able to better communicate with other members and help in the betterment of their individual relationship.

          And this is where we will talk about the fix itself. The one I mentioned in the introduction…

          The method

          1. Drop the ego

          Wherever there is conflict there is ego.

          You cannot fix a relationship where there is ego, because the ego will want to win. Always. Yours and the other person.

          Ego craves control and satisfaction, and in many cases, to establish dominance.

          What does this have to do with a dysfunctional family? Everything. Ego will interfere with every plan you have to fix it.

          It will make people suborn and defensive. And it will also make them drop responsibility. This is why, the first step is to drop the ego.

          After you make sure you are not going to allow your ego to interfere you must work to make the other person do the same. How? By speaking from the heart…

          Tell the other person how important all this is to you.

          Tell the other person that it’s not a matter of arguing, but just working things out together.

          Point out how it is not possible for you to do it alone.

          And ask for sincere attention without any desire of opposition, because what you are doing is by no means in the hopes of harming the other person, but just to better the relationship and stop the damage being dealt to you.

          You will have to point out the mistakes you need corrected, that’s for sure. And that leads me to the next point…

          2. Not blame, but responsibility

          When talking about others’ mistakes we often use an accusatory tone. And that’s natural, it’s what things should be like if ego was not present.

          But since we are all creatures of ego, this immediately brings the shields up. And then unsheathes the swords…

          When we blame others they automatically enter a defensive state, and this only leads to a failed negotiation.

          What you need to do is to shift from blame to responsibility. And even that will have to be done carefully!

          Instead of telling them off or demanding change or complaining, calmly point what the problem with their behavior is.

          As much as this feels contradictory, also make them feel understood. You know how difficult it is to accept a mistake, so just make them feel it’s no big fuzz… which does not mean it’s ok, but it takes tension off.

          You will do something like this:

          “Hello dad. Can I talk with you for a minute? I really need to tell you something.

          I have been feeling pretty sad lately and I know this is something you do care about.

          You see, whenever I talk about my accomplishments you mention something else that makes my achievement pale in comparison.

          I know you don’t do this intentionally and I know you might have not realized this until now, but I want to let you know this really brings me down.

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          It would mean a lot to me if you could stop doing it, and it would help better our relationship, because this has already forced me to distance myself from you. And I don’t want that, I want a good, healthy relationship with you”

          What happened here?

          We started off with making it something important, something that needs both time and attention. Then we openly show ourselves vulnerable, just as we are.

          We also mention why he should listen, and shove our feelings there again, because they are important.

          We describe the issue with no attachment and with no hostile intention. It’s just a description.

          And then we take the blame off. Just before we assign responsibility without actually saying it.

          You are not blaming him directly, but you are pointing out the inevitable fact that his actions are causing a dysfunctionality. He is now responsible for changing.

          This is what “switching blame for responsibility” means. What comes next? Doing the work!

          3. Doing the work

          What would any of this mean if, in the end, nothing changes? Exactly, nothing!

          This is why you must follow up with every change that needs to be done.

          Do so in a manner that is not hostile. Bring it up in a casual manner, and emphasizing how you both reached an agreement and how that is important to the family.

          If the person doesn’t follow up don’t hesitate to bring it up again, and tell them you feel disappointed that your honest try at it was not listened.

          It may even be a subject in itself, and therefore the need for another conversation.

          “When you go back to old habits it shows that you didn’t really care about what I said. But back in real life you just reinforce how much contempt you show towards me and my feelings.

          I talk with you because I care. Because although it would be easier for me to just distance myself from you I rather do my part in nurturing this relationship.

          But there is just so much I can do, if you refuse to do your part I can do nothing else.”

          You need very clear and positive communication in order to make this work.

          Love is all you need

          You must remember that in order for a dysfunctional family to become functional, all the work needs to stem from love.

          That is the single one requirement for all this to work: Love.

          And what happens if it simply is not there?

          What happens if, nobody is willing to do what it takes?

          What happens if a member of the family refuses to change and is happy with the harm he or she is dealing?

          There is only one thing you can do:

          To break away.

          Let’s be honest, people, especially adults, are very difficult to change.

          There is a Jewish proverb that I love, which sums it up like this:

          “We spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn what we learned before we were 7”

          If you find it very hard to change the very traits that make your family dysfunctional or if it’s simply impossible, you still have a card up your sleeve…

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          Although nobody likes to beak away from family members, we must remember we have a responsibility with ourselves as individuals, before any relationship with anyone.

          You have the responsibility of making yourself happy and free. Because you matter as an individual, regardless of any relationships you have, be it family, friendship or romantic.

          Putting distance

          So in case you are dealing with a family member who is simply unwilling to change take both physical and emotional distance.

          What do I mean?

          Learn, first, to take their damage in a detached manner.

          Don’t let it hurt you further. Instead take a deep breath and distance yourself emotionally.

          Don’t be attached to feelings such as “Why doesn’t she love me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “If he wasn’t like that my life would be perfect”.

          Simply refuse to keep participating in the emotional downward spiral and accept, even if it’s painful” that there is nothing you can do. Accept that even without that relationship you are whole, you are worthy of love and respect.

          They are their responsibility and you are yours. So decide what is best for you.

          Realize it only comes down to two possibilities:

          I keep the relationship and therefore accept the abuse. Or…

          I choose my peace of mind.

          And don’t let your mind fool you. We often think that since we all are imperfect, we must take the good and the bad behaviors of people. And we are especially forgiving towards our family…

          Well, guess what? We are also responsible adults who are aware and must own to their acts. Never excuse abuse or violence or transgression towards you or anybody else.

          Choose your happiness and if possible, also distance yourself physically, as it will increase your peace of mind tenfold.

          How to prevent it

          There are two key concepts you must bear in mind in order to prevent the dysfunctionality of a family:

          • To be completely aware of one’s own mistakes and not allow them to impact others and…
          • To make sure our SO’s are also on the same channel before creating a family (i.e. having children)

          Dysfunctional families are the product of irresponsible paternity, for the decades-long unresolved emotional conflict ends up surfacing in the family inevitably, and it will for sure harm those who least deserve it: Innocent children.

          You may notice we went from talking about family, to talking about individual relationships, to talking about you. We went from “them” to “us” to “me”.

          Why? Because in the end you have the power to fix a dysfunctional family. To correct the mistakes you have in yours and to prevent dysfunctionalities if you don’t have a family but plan to create one.

          Priorities and clear thought

          You may be part of a dysfunctional family, but that does not mean you are powerless or that you have to suffer the consequences.

          You learned today how it’s all a matter of priorities and thinking clearly.

          You learned that, if love exists, everything is possible. You learned that even when there is no love and no fix for your dysfunctional family, there are still things you can do. It’s a matter of choosing your peace, because you deserve it.

          Everything will be better if you apply this knowledge. If you talk to that problematic family member. If you help them see the harm they are doing. If you make sure they do change and treat you the way you need to be treated…

          If you choose yourself over that toxic family member. If you refuse to justify the harm that others can do to yourself. If you realize the most important relationship you have is with yourself.

          And lastly, that you also have to be aware of your actions and be open to criticism. Because we might be unknowingly harming others. And that would be us creating a dysfunctionality. Don’t allow it to happen.

          Dysfunctional families are not impossible to fix. It just takes love, cooperation and responsibility.

          But if you tried and those elements are not present, just choose yourself instead.

          Featured photo credit: Xavier Mouton Photographie via unsplash.com

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