On The Mend: Grappling With Resilience


I teach in a school where we take great pains to teach girls about the components of resilience; we encourage growth mindset; we celebrate risk-taking and mistakes. We encourage girls to remember that persistence and effort lead to improvement. How different it is to teach resilience than to live it.

Shoulder surgery has sidelined me for much of the summer. There was an inch-long tear in my biceps tendon, visible on the sonogram, even to my untrained eye, and after the every-three-month cortisone injections stopped working, it was time to fix it.

I imagined I would return to daily life bionic, ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or at least be permitted to swim again without holding onto a kick board. Instead, I only recently emerged from a frightening bout of self-pity. The surgery and my recovery have been an exercise in humility. Over the last six weeks, I have mused about the courage and fortitude people I know who suffer much less "fixable" conditions, who endure with grace wretched treatments, who retain a sense of humor and carry on, truly resilient. My own situation was temporary and I was a mess--not a pretty realization. I thought I was the poster-child for resilience.

English teacher that I am, some form of hubris must have deluded me into believing the surgery would be no big deal. And, in the great scheme of things, it wasn't. But in the small scheme of things, it was. The afternoon following surgery and the next day were a picnic. A wildly effective nerve block meant I didn't feel anything at all on my right side, so I thought to myself, "I've got this." It was strange to look down and see my hand, dangling, so numb that it didn't seem to belong to my body. But I didn't complain.

On the second morning after surgery, the nerve block wore off and pain--sore aching constant pain--began. Dutifully, I swallowed my prescription medication, careful to note the time for the next dose. I didn't expect the prescribed painkiller to be worse than the agony it sought to cure. Groggy, nauseated, teary, I felt barely human. No clear thoughts--just jumble--floated in my brain. A revolting bruise bloomed on my arm. Finally, a phone call with a sympathetic resident on the surgeon's service almost a week after the operation freed me. Permitted to graduate to a regimen of Tylenol and Aleve, I began to crawl back to human.

Ice became my best friend. I loved the cold, the numbness. Frankly, I couldn't believe how much better my fancy wrap-around ice pack--a soft blue mat I kept chilled in the freezer--made me feel.

Kind friends arrived with delicious food, but in the days following surgery, eating was beyond me. I mostly just licked rosemary crackers. One night, I craved raspberry sorbet, but I knew I was too weak to manage a flight of stairs, and I hated to wake my husband, who had spent the day trying to keep my spirits up and tending to my every need. I was not pregnant; I had no permission to indulge in cravings. I was cranky.

Before the operation, I assumed I'd be able to read, but it hurt to hold a book. It also hurt to sleep, to be awake, to move, to stay still. I remember thinking crossly, "And I chose this? Really?" My husband had warned me that recovery was always hard. I had not believed him. A few days post-surgery, I realized that a planned trip to Virginia could not happen. I could barely lift my head, let alone navigate an airport, one-armed. My surgeon said he thought I would be fine. I knew I wouldn't be.

Too quickly, I grew sick of my bed, sick of my Netflix binge watching of Grace and Frankie and Foyle's War. I did not like feeling weak and helpless.

I relished the idea of getting out of bed, until I swooned and staggered. Humbled once more, I realized I must eat and drink a little more and accept help going up and down the stairs.

One night, I struggled into clothes, and friends transported me to their house for supper. I lay on a lawn chaise, triumphant. But the next day, I felt like road-kill--"Too much too soon," others muttered knowingly.

My school's Assistant Head said, "You must feel really rotten; you're not even on email." She was correct. It hurt to type on a keyboard or on my phone. I did not fully realize how many days passed while I meandered in fog and pain.

I hadn't expected that simple self-care, cornerstone of resilience, would be so hard. Brushing my teeth felt Sisyphean. My long hair grew wild and tangled. I could not reach my right hand up high enough to do more than swat. My husband and young son both tried, but they were either too gentle and did not touch the knots or too hasty, so my scalp stung.

Cleared to drive ten days after surgery, I took my son for a haircut, dutifully putting my sling on as I got out of the car. Inside, I delivered him to Natalie. Plaintively, I inquired, "Might there be anyone who could wash my hair?" I gestured with my bad right arm.

"Certainly," the receptionist smiled. "We do this all the time for people like you." People in slings, I hope she meant.

I've never been a salon-goer. While I love to have my nails polished and enjoy pedicures, I rarely wear my hair loose; hence, I never sought styling. The young woman shampooed my hair, rinsing it with lovely smelling unguents. Then, she combed it painlessly and blew it out. I remembered my mother visiting the hairdresser each week--she called it "The Hair Saloon." Sometimes, when I was a little girl, I went with her, pressing buttons on a vending machine in the back to get instant chicken bouillon in a paper cup. Magic. As the warm air of the dryer blew against the back of my neck, I luxuriated in being cared for. "This is great," I said.

"Look at your silver streak," she exclaimed. "Who colors your hair?"

"Colors?" I giggled. "No one. Nature."

I explained, proudly, that my mother had had such a streak, her mother before her, my sister, too.

"Silver is the 'in' color this season. Just look at you," she grinned at my reflection in the mirror, my sling hidden beneath a smock.

She had blown my hair out so that the silver streak flowed down the right side of my head.

"Gorgeous," she announced.

An hour at a beauty parlor and I felt like myself again, better than myself. I liked seeing that silver streak, knowing that it was my own.

I went back three days later. After that, I healed faster. I think it was the blow dryer. It was a symbol for problem solving, discovering there was a way to cope--not an inexpensive way, but still a path out of helplessness.

My pain is fading now. Each day, I can reach a bit higher, stretch without wincing. The residue of helplessness feels like an aftertaste, but one I don't wish to forget entirely. To teach resilience, we must be resilient--there are lots of moments in our days to practice. Surgery gave me the chance to practice--over and over again. And to get better. And to appreciate how lucky we are when our bodies work, when we are supported by people who love us; when we can be creative enough to solve problems and persistent enough to keep trying when the first solution fails. School will begin again in a few weeks. I hope to remember what I've learned by being sidelined.