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

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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 July 20, 2021

          How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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          How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

          You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

          Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

          Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

          Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

          1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

          According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

          “Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

          Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

          Warming up

          If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

          If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

          Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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          1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
          2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
          3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

          Stay hydrated

          Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

          To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

          Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

          Meditate

          Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

          Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

          Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

          Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

          2. Focus on your goal

          One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

          Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

          Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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          Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

          If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

          3. Convert negativity to positivity

          There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

          ‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

          It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

          Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

          Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

          Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

          4. Understand your content

          Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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          However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

          “No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

          Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

          Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

          One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

          5. Practice makes perfect

          Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

          In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

          Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

          6. Be authentic

          There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

          Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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          Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

          To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

          With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

          Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

          7. Post speech evaluation

          Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

          Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

          We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

          You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

          Improve your next speech

          As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

          Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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          • How did I do?
          • Are there any areas for improvement?
          • Did I sound or look stressed?
          • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
          • Was I saying “um” too often?
          • How was the flow of the speech?

          Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

          If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

          Reference

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