Compassionate Witness

I’m writing outside on my stoop while listening to a chainsaw at 7am, drinking my tea (White Cab from Short and Stout). One of my neighbors is cutting an enormous cottonwood. There are several trucks and the one guy is in a bucket high, high up, sawing away branches. Someone I know is recovering from open heart surgery. Doctors have to saw through the breast bone to get inside. Hearing the metallic whir on those branches right now makes me wince.

On Monday I’ll be going in for another surgery. It’s minor, an epigastric hernia. My belly is always sore, so I’m getting it fixed now before it gets any bigger. Years ago when it first came to my doctor’s attention, he said it would be “in and out” procedure. Well, twenty years later, it’s big enough to require general anetheisia and three more holes in my abdomen.

(On a side note, I got the original hernia after being pregnant with my son. As I get it fixed, he’s going off to college.)

This morning I awoke with a dusting of fear, remembering my surgery for Cushing’s last October: going into shock in the recovery room, how incredibly painful those first few days and nights were, how I caught mono right away and spent months recovering from that while going through withdrawl from the cortisol. I know it’s not the same, but I also know it’s gunna hurt. Lying on my bed, noticing my pulse quicken, my skin became hot, and I worried I might have a panic attack. I turned on my Insight Timer app and scrolled through the Meditations for Anxiety section, choosing one on dealing with trauma by Christina Sian McMahon. It was helpful.

She talked about trauma as being an overwhelming experience because you have no outer and inner resources to cope. Outer resources being someone or someway to save you at the time. Inner being able to deal with it in a healthy way in the moment. There are two kinds of trauma: big, sudden events and smaller build-up events of similar nature. I guess my trauma is both: the adrenalectomy was the big one, and the after effects were all related but smaller. Either way, the memory is blowing this upcoming minor procedure waaaaay out of proportion.

After the brief talk, she led a meditation exercise to bring up a minor trauma “to start with.” I chose the moment when I came out of surgery and went into shock. Maybe that wasn’t the littlest one, but that was the one that was causing me the most trouble. I went back into that moment:

I was wheeled into the recovery room completely out of it, drugged up and unable to process everything around me, people poking and prodding, everything hurt, my belly felt odd. And then I watched the nurse put medication into my IV: a huge dose of cortisol. I needed it because my body doesn’t produce it myself. And then… “I feel really weird,” I mumbled.  My husband and father were there with me and started getting upset, pointing to my vitals and telling the nurse “her vitals are dropping!” I closed my eyes and heard some chaos, then a strong voice commanding me, “Rebecca, open your eyes.” So I did. The nurse starting asking me questions but I couldn’t speak. In that moment I was completely helpless and felt even worse than before.

I recovered pretty quickly, but the memory has stayed. I could barely move or think and then the world dropped out from under me. After my upcoming minor procedure is done, I will be given the same huge dose of cortisol because I’m still not making enough on my own to survive that kind of physical stress. My fears are founded. But I don’t want the psychological trauma.

In the meditation exercise, I went back to that memory, my emotional place of terror, and became a “compassionate witness”, observing my emotions and validating them. I pictured myself holding the head of memory-me, forehead to forehead, and saying soothing words, “It’s okay to feel this way. You can be afraid. Everything you are feeling is just right. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”

The point of the whole thing is to practice with this “compassionate witness” so that when something traumatic happens in real life, it jumps on stage, noticing what is happening and soothes in the moment. Building my inner resources so I can deal with stress. Going into my upcoming surgery, I will keep my inner help in the wings, ready.

We’ll see.

Rise untethered.
Move with intention.
Be grand.

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