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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

        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 May 21, 2019

          How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

          How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

          For all our social media bravado, we live in a society where communication is seen less as an art, and more as a perfunctory exercise. We spend so much time with people, yet we struggle with how to meaningfully communicate.

          If you believe you have mastered effective communication, scan the list below and see whether you can see yourself in any of the examples:

          Example 1

          You are uncomfortable with a person’s actions or comments, and rather than telling the individual immediately, you sidestep the issue and attempt to move on as though the offending behavior or comment never happened.

          You move on with the relationship and develop a pattern of not addressing challenging situations. Before long, the person with whom you are in relationship will say or do something that pushes you over the top and predictably, you explode or withdraw completely from the relationship.

          In this example, hard-to-speak truths become never- expressed truths that turn into resentment and anger.

          Example 2

          You communicate from the head and without emotion. While what you communicate makes perfect sense to you, it comes across as cold because it lacks emotion.

          People do not understand what motivates you to say what you say, and without sharing your feelings and emotions, others experience you as rude, cold or aggressive.

          You will know this is a problem if people shy away from you, ignore your contributions in meetings or tell you your words hurt. You can also know you struggle in this area if you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you have said.

          Example 3

          You have an issue with one person, but you communicate your problem to an entirely different person.

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          The person in whom you confide lacks the authority to resolve the matter troubling you, and while you have vented and expressed frustration, the underlying challenge is unresolved.

          Example 4

          You grew up in a family with destructive communication habits and those habits play out in your current relationships.

          Because you have never stopped to ask why you communicate the way you do and whether your communication style still works, you may lack understanding of how your words impact others and how to implement positive change.

          If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, this article is for you.

          Communication can build or decimate worlds and it is important we get it right. Regardless of your professional aspirations or personal goals, you can improve your communication skills if you:

          • Understand your own communication style
          • Tailor your style depending on the needs of the audience
          • Communicate with precision and care
          • Be mindful of your delivery, timing and messenger

          1. Understand Your Communication Style

          To communicate effectively, you must understand the communication legacy passed down from our parents, grandparents or caregivers. Each of us grew up with spoken and unspoken rules about communication.

          In some families, direct communication is practiced and honored. In other families, family members are encouraged to shy away from difficult conversations. Some families appreciate open and frank dialogue and others do not. Other families practice silence about substantive matters, that is, they seldom or rarely broach difficult conversations at all.

          Before you can appreciate the nuance required in communication, it helps to know the familial patterns you grew up with.

          2. Learn Others Communication Styles

          Communicating effectively requires you to take a step back, assess the intended recipient of your communication and think through how the individual prefers to be communicated with. Once you know this, you can tailor your message in a way that increases the likelihood of being heard. This also prevents you from assuming the way you communicate with one group is appropriate or right for all groups or people.

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          If you are unsure how to determine the styles of the groups or persons with whom you are interacting, you can always ask them:

          “How do you prefer to receive information?”

          This approach requires listening, both to what the individuals say as well as what is unspoken. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson noted that the best communicators are also great listeners.

          To communicate effectively from relationship to relationship and situation to situation, you must understand the communication needs of others.

          3. Exercise Precision and Care

          A recent engagement underscored for me the importance of exercising care when communicating.

          On a recent trip to Ohio, I decided to meet up with an old friend to go for a walk. As we strolled through the soccer park, my friend gently announced that he had something to talk about, he was upset with me. His introduction to the problem allowed me to mentally shift gears and prepare for the conversation.

          Shortly after introducing the shift in conversation, my friend asked me why I didn’t invite him to the launch party for my business. He lives in Ohio and I live in the D.C. area.

          I explained that the event snuck up on me, and I only started planning the invite list three weeks before the event. Due to the last-minute nature of the gathering, I opted to invite people in the DMV area versus my friends from outside the area – I didn’t want to be disrespectful by asking them to travel on such short notice.

          I also noted that I didn’t want to be disappointed if he and others declined to come to the event. So I played it safe in terms of inviting people who were local.

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          In the moment, I felt the conversation went very well. I also checked in with my friend a few days after our walk, affirmed my appreciation for his willingness to communicate his upset and our ability to work through it.

          The way this conversation unfolded exemplified effective communication. My friend approached me with grace and vulnerability. He approached me with a level of curiosity that didn’t put me on my heels — I was able to really listen to what he was saying, apologize for how my decision impacted him and vow that going forward, I would always ask rather than making decisions for him and others.

          Our relationship is intact, and I now have information that will help me become a better friend to him and others.

          4. Be Mindful of Delivery, Timing and Messenger

          Communicating effectively also requires thinking through the delivery of the message one intends to communicate as well as the appropriate time for the discussion.

          In an Entrepreneur.com column, VIP Contributor Deep Patel, noted that persons interested in communicating well need to master the art of timing. Patel noted,[1]

          “Great comedians, like all great communicators, are able to feel out their audience to determine when to move on to a new topic or when to reiterate an idea.”

          Communicating effectively also requires thoughtfulness about the messenger. A person prone to dramatic, angry outbursts should never be called upon to deliver constructive feedback, especially to people whom they do not know. The immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the ideal time to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment rights.

          Like everyone else, I must work to ensure my communication is layered with precision and care.

          It requires precision because words must be carefully tailored to the person with whom you are speaking.

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          It requires intentionality because before one communicates, one should think about the audience and what the audience needs in order to hear your message the way you intended it to be communicated.

          It requires active listening which is about hearing verbal and nonverbal messages.

          Even though we may be right in what we say, how we say it could derail the impact of the message and the other parties’ ability to hear the message.

          Communicating with care is also about saying things that the people in our life need to hear and doing so with love.

          The Bottom Line

          When I left the meeting with my dear friend, I wondered if I was replicating or modeling this level of openness and transparency in the rest of my relationships.

          I was intrigued and appreciative. He’d clearly thought about what he wanted to say to me, picked the appropriate time to share his feedback and then delivered it with care. He hit the ball out of the park and I’m hopeful we all do the same.

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          Featured photo credit: Kenan Buhic via unsplash.com

          Reference

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