In one of the many nights spent wide awake in discomfort, desperately trying to settle into a healing body that felt anything but my own, my mind spun. I just had a chunk of a tumor removed from my spine. The tumor had eroded my vertebrae, thus causing the neurosurgeon to essentially break my back, remove the crumbling bone, remove as much of the tumor he could without sacrificing my mobility and nerve functionality, and place hardware back inside to encourage bone regrowth and spinal stability. This happened after 2 months of going back and forth with surgeons who kept shoving my case under the rug out of the fear of the risks. But if the operation were placed on hold any longer, I was going to be wheelchair bound or worse. Friday, November 10th 2017, my right leg tingled like a foot does when it falls asleep. By Sunday, November 12th, I couldn’t walk on my own. My fiancé carried me into the ER of Orlando Regional Medical Center. 4 hours of waiting, an MRI and a debate with the attending ER doctor later, Physician Assistant Patrick came rushing down just in the nick of time to my ER room. He instructed me to stop eating and drinking immediately. He asked if we were in. We were very much in. Sobs of relief and numerous family flights later, my 25 year-old body was wide open on the operating table. To be rescued, but nonetheless, changed forever.
The word “whirlwind” is the first word that comes to mind when I look back on that day. And still, after 4 months of nothing but time on my hands to recover and reflect, it is the only word fitting enough to describe the experience. When going through anything, physical, mental, emotional…any kind of turmoil in need of healing, you are bound to feel crushingly lonely at times. Because this hurt is your own. No amount of explaining or venting can bring someone in it with you completely, because none of it can actually explain it enough for anyone else to really “get it”.
Healing is a lot like wearing two different sized shoes: one a size too big, and the other a size too small.
You adjust in differing ways. You long to untie the tangled mess in front of you to somehow “accomplish” what you’ve been handed until it fits perfectly back into the neat little box of your comfortable “normal” life. The life that you peer at wistfully through rose-colored glasses now. The shoes…the healing… it all feels clumsy. You feel sharp pangs of new pains at sudden unexpected moments. You feel a little unbalanced. You feel irritated. Frustrated. You hurt. You want to take the new painful normal on your feet off, chuck it away and run from it. Yet sometimes, you’re able to pull off this new strut so well that others think you’re perfectly fine. But all the while, the blisters rub deeper on one side. And on the other, your toes stretch and strain, achingly trying to fill the empty space and get a solid grip again.
One step with the too-tight shoe, you wince at the sudden memory of a lost loved one. One step with the too-loose shoe, the clumsiness of your raw emotion spills over and you breakdown at the sight of your dear friend: the vision of health…the enemy of comparison engufling you. You get your bearings and bite the side of your cheek long enough to glide through another weekly 3:00 meeting without tearing up about the disappointment you’re drowning in.
And then one day, you roll out of bed without wincing at the tug of the scar tissue. You catch yourself smirking at an old memory of that lost person. Slowly…surely…you find yourself regaining your footing. One step at a time. One day at a time.
You will want to go back to those old sparkly purple Skechers from the 2nd grade playground. The ones that glided on without even having to untie the shoelaces. The ones with bits of mulch still embedded into the crevices in the bottoms. But please, dear friend…please do not. This battle is your own. This awkward chapter you’re hobbling through is your own. But those blisters you’ll gain…the way your muscles, your heart, your mind will learn how to work through it all…there is brutal beauty in it. It is your very own chrysalis. Don’t come out too soon…don’t shed it to tuck it away somewhere dark pretending it all never happened. No. Be still.
I’m not saying wear the wrong sized shoes. That’s a terrible idea. Especially for those of us who trip over our own feet even when they’re bare. What I am saying is this: it’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to feel shaky and flustered in this new normal you may be walking in. Healing. Is. Hard. You don’t have to pretend, either. Don’t force yourself to strut through the mess. You can limp. You can stumble. And on the most overwhelming of days, you can even tearfully crawl. No one else can walk in these new, uncomfortable shoes you’re walking in. No one but you.
My pastor recently shared with me this nugget of wisdom I need to give to you:
“In the face of a storm, we have two options. We can either retreat and run from it, alone. Or we can lock arms and walk through it, together.”
So lock arms. Stop biting your cheek. Don’t bite your tongue. Lock arms in honesty with others. We were MADE for community. Speak. And loop your arm into the first person who receives it. And then the next. And the next. Little by little, you’ll have many who will walk next to you, all proudly gimping about in their own blistered, purple Skecher-less feet.