Over ten weeks ago I had a four-hour surgery to repair a bunion and two dislocated toes (dislocated to the point of traumatic joint capsule rupture). I hibernated in my house for eight weeks after my surgery, deliberately choosing rest and slowness. I enjoyed my own company as I could experience it from my bed or the couch with my cat, Lennie, continually by my side. I almost always had a red plaid fleece blanket on my lap as a cat trap. I watched the first season of Jane the Virgin (22 freaking episodes, people!). I painted rocks and worked on a latch hook pillow of a peacock. I read the Art of Gathering and No Bad Parts. I took baths with eucalyptus-scented Epsom salts. Friends called, zoomed, visited, and dropped off tasty treats. My awake times got longer, my sleep became less fitful, the pain subsided, and my mobility improved. That eight week hibernation period felt luxurious.
Six weeks after surgery, I started working remotely for two weeks. I acknowledge my privilege to have a job in which I can be flexible about my work schedule and location so I could prioritize continued rest and recovery. In those two weeks at the end of January, though, I experienced rude awakenings.
The surgeon removed the three rods from my two dislocated toes. The rods, protruding from the ends of my second and third toes, went through three bones and traversed two joints. Having those rods removed was an experience I hope to never have again. While it didn’t exactly hurt, it was memorable in a way that was far from pleasurable. Only in the absence of the rods did I realize the sense of security they provided; I’ve since felt frequent anxieties about doing something that would re-injure those toes.
Two days after the rods were removed, I joined my family on a quick trip to the grocery store. I had barely walked into the store when I was overwhelmed by everyday life. The brightness inside the store, the visual noise of stocked shelves and people, and the unforgiving cement floor felt like intrusions. I was helped back to the car, in tears from my unmanageable sensitivity and my disappointment at what felt like a set-back in my recovery. Thank goodness my hibernation den was always close by during that time.
Leaving the den too early
I returned to in-person work at the end of January, eight weeks after surgery. As I arrived at the office door, I was greeted by the huge smiles of three colleagues who each hugged me and helped me carry my things to my office. I promised myself that the first day I would work only a half-day in-person. Even that was a lot. The office lights were excruciatingly bright and the considerate, everyday noise of people in the office overwhelmed my sensory system. I retreated to my office “den” where I used desk lamps instead of the overhead lights and kept my door cracked or closed. The first time I walked to the restroom at work, I could feel myself panic as I walked over the linoleum tile. I was so aware of the new texture, terrified of how slippery it felt compared to the surfaces I had been on for the previous ten weeks: wood, carpet, pavement.
Emails, meetings, and tasks came at me as if I was flying through an asteroid belt in a starship with its alarm systems blaring. My nervous system was overwhelmed trying to moderate sensory information while my body was still in an energetically consuming recovery phase. For the three weeks since I’ve returned to in-person work, I have often come home mid-day to take a nap over lunch and then work remotely for the afternoon.
I have days where I push myself beyond my limit, borrow spoons, and then return to my den for an extended period. After I hosted an on-campus event I had spent months planning, I slept for an hour before dinner, ate, took another two hour nap and _still_ slept a normal night of sleep. I find myself extraordinarily sleepy on physical therapy days where we work on smoothing scar tissue, building toe muscles, practicing balance, and desensitizing over-responsive nerves in my foot.
Slightly bigger baby steps
The post I wrote on January 5 equated my experience of that first month of recovery to infancy. I’d say these past six weeks are the toddler phase. Just as new parents count the age of their newborns from hours old, to days, weeks, and then months, my own counting of my time since surgery is shifting from elapsed weeks into months. My explorations are longer and farther away from my hibernation den, but I am also easily overstimulated and need naps. My white-soled black sneakers are my fashion footwear for all occasions for now. I have far less pain than I have had in almost nine months. I am able to walk a mile or two outside, and I even walk in the woods some as long as it’s relatively flat and even terrain.
I have agonized over writing this post. It’s been so long since I posted and I feel embarrassed by the inconsistency. It is taking some vulnerability and courage to resume writing publicly. I’ve wanted to have a big a-ha to share, a monumental epiphany and awakening that would account for the six week gap in posting. Maybe recounting the journey thus far is acceptable and sufficient. A whole bunch of other stories with a-has are also waiting to be told and they’re all clamoring for access to the keyboard. I want to be known as more than the saga of my toes. There’s a lot of ambivalence, impatience, and performing to perfectionist standards in my mental attic.
The tab on this surgery is over $75K as well as six weeks of sick and vacation days I have banked. So far. It is a privilege in the US to have a job with paid leave time and health insurance that covers much of that cost. I have stable income and household costs. I am able to do much of my job remotely. I am surrounded by friends and relations who have spent time with me and have driven me to appointments. I have assembled a team of paid professionals – doctors, nurses, therapists – who believe my complaints of physical and psychological pain and are on target with my goals for resuming an active, affirming lifestyle. This phase of disability is presumably temporary. These are all things that make this chapter and struggle easier than many people’s journeys while giving me an empathetic glimpse into how hard it is to be a human in an ableist culture.