by Michelle J. Fury, LPC, C-IAYT
I had a total hip replacement in January 2023. My surgeon told me it would be “a blip in the radar” of my full, active life. It hasn’t been. It’s been an ordeal. I thought the worst part would be the surgery itself. It wasn’t. It’s been the recovery.
This experience has been a shock to me: That I needed surgery (and a major one) at all, that the recovery would be this long and that I’d feel this helpless. There are far worse diagnoses I could have received: cancer, long covid, MS. I consider myself lucky that my diagnosis wasn’t chronic or potentially fatal.
Yet I don’t want to forget the challenge recovery has been for me. I’ve learned some powerful lessons about surrender, being present and vulnerability. This is ironic, since as a yoga therapist and meditator, I thought I was practicing these things. But illness and serious injury are advanced teachers, and they’ve taught me to use my yoga and mindfulness skills in ways I didn’t know about before.
My first lesson from this experience has been to let go and accept help. In the last month, I’ve had to drop everything—I asked for two weeks off work at a new job, and then I asked that my workload be cut in half, per doctor’s orders. In other words, I put my need to heal first, regardless of the inconvenience to others. As a therapist, I’m pretty identified with being a helper. Putting my needs first has been neither natural nor easy for me. I know I’m not alone in this. I talk to many therapists and mothers who struggle with the same identification. Regardless of age, gender or station in life, anyone who identifies with being, or is seen as, a helper probably deals with this struggle: We get the message from society, our loved ones, even ourselves that we always need to be “on” and available. But learning to let go and accept support has helped me remember that I’m human too. While this is a humbling lesson, and one that I’m sure I’ll need reminding about, I also welcome it. I don’t have to be the helper all the time, I too deserve help. Increasing my ability to accept support and embrace my own humanity will hopefully make me a better, more relatable therapist, colleague and friend.
Another incredible teacher has been pain. I haven’t experienced this level of pain before, and I had to practice my values in some new and uncomfortable ways. For instance, I’d vowed I’d only take the prescribed pain killers (opioids) sparingly. I hate the impact unethical dispensation of opioids has had on those who just wanted pain relief. I personally didn’t want to use them at all. But my medical providers wisely advised me to “stay ahead of the pain.” Enter my first lessons from pain: balance and trust in myself. Within hours of surgery, I heeded the medical advice and took the meds frequently at first. I noticed when I kept the pain at a manageable level, my energy, mood and outlook stayed more positive. As a result, I learned to take a more balanced, realistic approach to medication management. In addition, I realized I could trust myself to cut down on the pain medications when my body was ready. Learning to trust myself in this area that feels edgy and dangerous to me was confidence-boosting, and I’m sure helped my recovery further.
After a week, I started to wean myself off the meds, and got my next lesson from pain: how to stay present with it. In the dark at 2am one night I experienced pain that felt dangerous. I knew logically that I’d probably weaned myself too quickly, but I still felt terrified, alone and defeated. I took the Tramadol sitting in a little cup on my bedside and waited. Then pain taught me a third lesson—how to use meditation in a new way. About a month before the procedure, I’d started practicing a series of 12 healing meditations I’ve used countless times with clients. Since surgery, I hadn’t thought much about (and certainly hadn’t practiced) meditation, because I was so out of it. But here in the dark, I needed something to calm down my fear while I waited for the medication to take effect. I thought of the meditation on a single cell. I imagined a single cell in my forehead, filled with vibrant, healing energy and light. I focused and visualized on this for a while. I could feel light and healing energy, and to my surprise I realized I was smiling. I was smiling, despite being in pain. I don’t recall much after that because I drifted off to sleep.
The final lessons of my surgery arose from the shock of needing surgery at all. But before diving into the lessons, I’ll share the reasons why major surgery rocked me so much. There are two. When I was five I learned to ride a two-wheel bike. On one of my first bike rides sans training wheels with my mother and brother, my tire hit a rock and my bike did a 180 in the air. I’ll spare the details, but the result is that I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and came home with 18 stitches in my lip and a fake tooth. These days not even I can tell where the stitches were, and my fake tooth looks real. My body healed as if the accident never happened. But the body remembers, and this body was just five years old when that trauma occurred. The need for major surgery all these years later unearthed a dread I couldn’t shake.
Days before surgery, I met a friend for coffee, and burst into tears when she asked me how I was feeling about it. (She may have asked me if I was excited about it, as many people did. What?! Excited about surgery? Is that a thing?) It was humbling to feel like such a scaredy-cat. When I got emotional, though, my friend also teared up. She understood what I was going through. We are both highly independent, athletic, strong women. For me, the specter of surgery put me in touch with my own mortality, and I told her so. She nodded. She is also a yogi and a meditator. We talked about how hard it is to come to grips with what feels like weakness to us. Aging kicks your ass. As we agreed on that, our tears turned to laughter. Lesson learned: sharing my humanity with a true, compassionate friend is its own medicine.
The second reason surgery upset me has to do with my dad. My dad was very unhealthy: He smoked, drank, was overweight, and was abusive. When I was about 9 years old, he had a heart attack and was told he needed to stop smoking cigarettes. He replaced the cigarettes with cigars. To this day, I can barely stand the smell of a cigar. My dad’s bad habits mobilized me to live a healthy life. I adopted a yogic lifestyle at the age of 19, which meant I practiced asana (poses) regularly, I was a vegetarian for 9 years, and I learned to meditate.
I could leave the narrative at that. But there’s more. My dad cared for his family (my mother, brother, and me) the way he cared for himself, which is to say he didn’t. He was verbally and physically abusive to my mother and brother. I was the youngest and learned to stay out of the way. This served me well, to an extent. I avoided the bruises and bumps that my mom and brother endured. But as we now know thanks to the CDC’s ACEs study, I was also a victim of child abuse because I witnessed domestic violence.
I was so angry at my dad for so long. I rejected his lifestyle as much as possible—his bad eating habits, vices, career (he was a computer programmer), treatment of others. But my father endured a highly abusive childhood, too. I’m guessing he thought he’d start a family of his own and do better than his parents had done. But that’s not how it works, is it? In her book What Happened to You? (co-written with psychiatrist Bruce Perry), Oprah Winfrey requotes a friend who said something to the effect of “if we put a band aid over our unhealed wounds, they just bleed out.” My dad’s abusive behavior was his “bleeding out.” He hadn’t dealt with the initial wound, so he was bound to repeat history.
Paradoxically, it was through meditation, yoga, and yes therapy, that I came to forgive him. I began to see that he had been a child who needed love and support and didn’t get it. I could see the failed and awkward ways he tried to connect with me. I learned to have compassion for him for trying, and for me for being angry with him for so long. I went to visit him a few weeks before he died. The mean, overweight monster of my childhood had shrunken into a pale, scared, disoriented ghost in the hospital bed before me. My rage melted away.
That was over a decade ago. I thought I’d processed it completely. But my recent surgery has taught me something else about my dad, and my relationship to him. It has taught me how to be brave in new ways. When I visited my dad before he died, I learned to forgive, and forgiveness requires vulnerability. I had to admit that beneath my anger I was hurt by my father’s inability to be there for me. All that rejecting and raging I did in my youth was to try to drown out the truth. And the truth was I wanted my father’s love. Seeing that clearly now—that to forgive I had to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is brave—is a new lesson for me. But I had to drop my past armor of self-righteousness and anger to get that truth.
My final lesson … correction, my most current lesson, has occurred while writing this blog. It turns out that the act of writing this has been an exercise in vulnerability for me. See, I have spent my entire career adopting a professional persona in public. We’re talking nearly 20 years of writing articles on yoga’s efficacy in a professional, academic tone. There were reasons I adopted that strategy: Like other yogis out there, I wanted to help legitimize our new field. Proving yoga’s effectiveness through facts, figures and an academic tone truly was necessary early on in our field and in my career. But now, like my youthful anger and self-rightness, that professional tone would separate me from perhaps the most important lesson from this experience.
My current lesson from surgery is that being vulnerable is not only brave but freeing. I just had surgery and I didn’t die! Letting down my guard to be messy and personal in a blog? This is still new and uncomfortable terrain for me. Yet I didn’t spontaneously combust. My surgery truly was an ordeal. I experienced a lot of pain, I felt scared and alone and humbled. But it turns out that’s just part of being human. By allowing myself to really feel the vulnerability of this human form, I’ve also freed myself of the need to keep up appearance, put on a pretense, act like it’s all ok. I feel more connected to myself and others when I let all that go.
It's been a month since surgery, and I feel more like myself every day. Though it’s still a little too soon to tell, I believe the surgery worked. I believe I’m going to get my mobility back and live a fuller, more active life again. With all the lessons I’ve learned, it’s easy to forget that this was the point! But the true gift is that I get to live that fuller life not just physically but with my whole human being.