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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 August 12, 2020

          When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

          When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

          Learning how to trust your gut, otherwise known as your intuition, can keep you safe. Your gut can guide you and help you build your confidence and resilience. My own gut instinct has saved me on more than one occasion. It has also guided me into making sound career choices and other exciting, big decisions. I’m also aware of the times when I’ve gone against my instincts and really regretted it later, wondering why I didn’t tune in to that valuable internal voice that we all have within us.

          In this article, we’re going to explore why and how you should listen to your gut, as well as some concrete tips on how to make sure you’re making the most out of your gut instincts.

          How to Listen to Your Gut

          The key when making any big decision is to always take a minute to listen well to yourself and your inner compass. If you hear your actual voice saying yes while inside you’re silently screaming no, my advice is to ask for some time to think, or simply take a breath and pause before the yes or no escapes your mouth.

          Use that moment to breathe, check in with yourself, and give the answer that feels congruent with who you are and what you want, not the one that always involves following the herd. Trusting your gut means having the courage to not simply go with the majority. It can be about holding your own. Here’s how to hone that skill for yourself and reap the rewards.

          1. Tune Into Your Body

          Your body gives you clues when you’re faced with a big decision. There are many visible and obvious symptoms that we feel in uncomfortable situations. Our body’s reaction is often something that we might try to hide, for example, blushing, being lost for words, or shaking. There are things we might do to try and hide that physical reaction, whether it’s wearing makeup, having a glass of wine or coffee to perk us up a bit, or learning to control our nerves.

          However, paying attention to your body when you experience these feelings of anxiety can teach you so much and help you to make sound choices. Some people will experience an actual “gut” feeling of stomach ache or indigestion in an uncomfortable situation.

          Ask yourself what’s really going on here, and explore what is happening behind your body’s response to the situation. What can your reaction or instinct teach you? Understanding that can be a clue and can help you either learn something about yourself, the situation, or other people. The answers are often within us.

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          Sometimes we’ll get this “something’s not right here” feeling and cannot quite put our finger on it or explain it. That can still be incredibly useful and really guide us away from danger, even if we don’t know the reason.

          In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell also argues this, making the point that sometimes our subconscious is better at processing the answer we need, and that we don’t necessarily need to take time to collect hours and hours of information to come to a reliable conclusion[1].

          2. Ensure Your Head Is Clear Before Making a Decision

          Energy, sleep, and good nutrition are so vital to nourishing our minds, as well as our bodies. There are times when your instinct could lead you astray, and one of these is when you are hungry, “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry!), tired, or anxious. If this is the case–and it may sound obvious–do consider sleeping or eating on it before making an important choice.

          There is, in fact, a connection between our gut and our brain[2], which is where terms like “butterflies in the stomach” and “gut-wrenching” originate from. Stress and emotions can cause physical feelings, and ignoring them might do more harm than good.

          3. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think and Feel

          Listening to your gut and really paying attention to it might involve standing up and being counted, calling something out, or taking a stand. As someone who works for myself, I’ve become used to following the less-travelled road, and that’s given me the chance to strike out on my own in other ways, too.

          As they tell you in the planes, “put your own oxygen mask on first,” and part of that self-reliance is knowing what you really want and like and what is safe and good for you, including what resonates with your personal and business values. Making good decisions with this in mind means making choices that do not go against your own beliefs, even when it may mean taking a stand. This is part of trusting yourself and trusting your instincts.

          This does not always mean taking the “safe” option, although keeping ourselves safe is an important part of the process. This is how we learn and grow, by following our own inner compass. When you do take risks, go outside of your comfort zone, or choose the less popular option, spending some time researching the facts can stand us in good stead, too.

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          4. Do Your Research If Something Feels Off

          As well as listening to our instincts, we can also back up the evidence for our chosen course of action before taking the leap. I had a gut feeling about the need for a learning and development network when I noticed my clients getting stuck with the same problems. I set up and now run such a network, but instead of simply going for it, without evidence, I followed up on my instinct with research.

          Having confidence in your gut instinct through these kinds of tests can help to minimize your risks, as well as spur you on. It will encourage you to trust your gut again in the future and trust that you are an expert with foresight and experience. You are!

          5. Challenge Your Assumptions

          When you look at the assumptions your making, this could be the clue to mistakes you are making.

          In order to check that our instincts are wise, we need to ask ourselves what blanks we might be filling in, either consciously or unconsciously. This is true not just when it comes to our own decision-making. It’s also true when we are listening to someone explain a problem or situation, and we’re about to jump in and give some advice. If we can learn to be aware of our own assumptions, we can become better listeners and better decision makers, too.

          A useful tool to become more aware of your assumptions before making a final decision is simply to ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about this situation or person?”

          6. Educate Yourself on Unconscious Bias

          Unconscious bias is something we all have, and it can trip us up big time!

          There is a vital caveat to bear in mind when wondering about whether you can trust your gut and the feelings your body gives you, and that’s having an awareness of your unconscious bias. Understanding your own bias–which is hard to do because it literally does happen in our subconscious–can help you to make stronger, better, decisions instead of re-confirming your view of the world over and over again.

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          Bias exists, and it’s part of the human condition. All of us have it, and it colors our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realizing.

          Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level in our brains. Our subconscious brain processes information so much faster than our conscious brain. Quick decisions we make in our subconscious are based on both our societal conditioning and how our families raised us.

          Our brains process hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily. We unconsciously categorize and format that information into patterns that feel familiar to us. Aspects such as gender, disability, class, sexuality, body shape and size, ethnicity, and what someone does for a job can all quickly influence decisions we make about people and the relationships we choose to form. Our unconscious bias can be very subtle and go unnoticed..

          We naturally tend to gravitate towards people similar to ourselves, favoring people who we see as belonging to the same “group” as us. Being able to make a quick decision about whether someone is part of your group and distinguish friend from foe was what helped early humans to survive. Conversely, we don’t automatically favor people who we don’t immediately relate to or easily connect with.

          The downside of that human instinct to seek out similar people is the potential for prejudice, which seems to be hard-wired into human cognition, no matter how open-minded we believe ourselves to be. And these stereotypes we create can be wrong. If we only spend our time with and employ people similar to ourselves, it can create prejudices, as well as stifle fresh thinking and innovation.

          We may feel more natural or comfortable working with other people who share our own background and/or opinions than collaborating with people who don’t look, talk, or think like us. However, diversity is not just morally right; having a mix of different people and perspectives that can be genuinely heard is also a valuable way to counter groupthink. Diversity stretches us to think more critically and creatively.

          7. Trust Yourself

          It is possible to learn how to truly trust yourself[3]. Like any talent or skill, practicing trusting your gut is the best way to get really good at it. When people talk about having great intuition or being good decision-makers, it’s because they’ve worked at honing those skills, made mistakes, learned from them, and tried again.

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          Looking back at decisions you’ve made, what you did, what the outcome was, and what you’ve learned can help you become a stronger decision maker and develop solid self-trust and resilience. Making a mistake does not mean you are not great at decision-making; it’s a chance to grow and learn, and the only mistake is to ignore the lesson in that experience.

          If you are in the habit of asking others for their input, then the trick here is to choose your inner circle wisely. Having a sounding board of people who have your best interests at heart is a valuable asset, and, combined with your own excellent instincts, can make you a champion decision maker.

          The Bottom Line

          The above tips are all actionable and easy to start immediately. It’s simply about switching your thinking around, slowing down, and taking great care of this amazing machine that is your body and mind!

          Learning how to trust your gut is one of the most fundamental ways to make decisions that will help you lead the life you want and need. Tune into what your body is telling you and start making good decisions today.

          More Tips on How to Trust Your Gut

          Featured photo credit: Acy Varlan via unsplash.com

          Reference

          [1] Science of People: Learn to Trust Your Gut Instincts: The Science Behind Thin-slicing
          [2] Harvard Health Publishing: The gut-brain connection
          [3] Psych Central: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Trust

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