Baby steps

A white cat sleeping on a bed spread with pastel boxes of color.

What’s it like being a baby? We were all babies once, though I have no cognitive memory of those experiences. Twelve years ago, my son was a baby. I saw his behaviors, and my interpretations of his experiences, through my rational adult view of the world. To be honest, my responses to his sleeplessness were usually based on my own reactions to _my_ exhaustion (“why won’t you just go to sleep already?”).

In the last four weeks, I’ve been on an embodied, memorable journey through the phases of early infant development. I am becoming (re)embodied as I regain awareness of how it feels to be in my body. I’m witnessing neuroplasticity as my brain makes sense of the new connections in and with my foot. And I’m learning how to listen and respond appropriately to what my body needs.

For the first 48 hours after surgery, all I did was sleep and eat. I had no sense of time, day or night, minutes or hours. The pressure and warmth from piles of blankets felt wonderfully soothing. I just wanted to cocoon, lay in bed, and look out the window at the changing light.

Discomforts started setting in by around day three. Sensations which I had long ago adapted to and learned to manage subconsciously were now very consciously noticed new sensations. I felt really overstimulated and mentally exhausted. And cranky and impatient. Of course, there were the aches of bone repair and the prickles of new nerve connections that would permeate through the pain medication around 3hr30min after a dose. One of the first new sensations I experienced was that of my foot making new capillary beds on the top of my foot. It felt like someone had put a cold pack there (which is impossible with the thickness of bandages at the time). A friend explained that the cold sensation comes from my body and brain learning to communicate and properly coordinate the regulation of heat exchange in these new capillaries.

By about day five, I started to learn my own body and sensation patterns and predict better when pain or sleep was nearing. My awake/sleep patterns stabilized into three-to-four hour blocks, day and night. I was able to find reliably comfortable sleeping positions. I knew when I needed to elevate my foot and by how much. I knew what kind of light activity would feel comforting and manageable. I watched Derry Girls in the middle of the night, I received visits from friends most days for an hour before I got tired. 

in the foreground, a blue plate with pizza on it. It rests on the lap of someone with a red fleece blanket. Their right foot is extended beyond the blanket; there's a black boot on their foot.

The next major sensation hurdle came with my post-operative appointments. The bandage “swaddling” was first changed two weeks after surgery when I had stitches removed and x-rays taken. It was wildly distressing to have my foot “out there,” unswaddled, and not held in. (Dear reader: I passed out a couple times.) I now resonate with the newborn experience now, going from held in tightly to all loosy-goosy. While I can’t quite describe what felt off or wrong, I felt immediately better and calm when a new wrap was tightened around my foot. 

I’ve been struck by the extraordinary sensitivity of the skin of my foot right now. Having it wrapped up tightly for so long, there haven’t been a whole lot of skin sensations to process. Today, however, I washed my foot for the first time , and I could barely stand the sensation of a few small drops of water landing on it, a washcloth gently wiping soapy water, and my hand tenderly exploring the new contours of my foot. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t ticklish. It was just overwhelmingly sensitive, like a mild electrical shock.

The absolute weirdest part of the past four weeks is associating this reconstructed foot as MY FOOT. I’ve never had a “typical” foot. The foot on the end of my right ankle now doesn’t look like the one I had for over 40 years. It just doesn’t look like mine. And with my scrambled and progressively unscrambling neural pathways, my brain is still learning to register the sensations as mine. They are often sensations happening “over there, to that foot” but not sensations happening in MY FOOT.

My early experiences with my feet were never great. I wasn’t able to continue in ballet in middle school because of my bunions. I was told it was extraordinary that I ran at all with my bunions. Shoes rarely ever fit well or truly comfortably, except sneakers and Mary Janes. I was always self-conscious of my feet, rarely wore sandals, and never went barefoot even around close people. In the last six months, I had miserable experiences with my feet where successive appointments with one clinic incurred additional problems, until two toes dislocated. My feet have been things I found annoying, burdensome, ugly, and unlovable. And definitely not a part of me that could be a source of loving and therapeutic connection.

I have some body horror because currently my foot is a bit gruesome to look at. The name Frankenstein has crossed my mind. While I watched Andor today from my bed, I gently massaged my foot, to learn what it feels like to touch it gently and lovingly, to get used to the feel of my touch, and to learn the new contours of my foot. It seems similar to when babies explore their toes and feet; if they had language, it would sound like, “I have this thing called a foot?! This is MINE?! This is attached to ME?!?” (To note, I’m over 40 now, I don’t think I can get my toes in my mouth now, nor do I feel the need to).

It’s an odd and amazing thing to be more fully aware of and compassionate toward the infant stage of life when the brain is trying to organize and make sense of new neuron information.  As a person who has excelled at dissociation through cPTSD, I recognize the extraordinary achievement that it is for me to notice these sensations, to name them, to validate them as part of the expected experience of this kind of surgery, and to make compassionate physiological and psychological sense of them. 

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