Time to Feel Human Again

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I have been thinking recently about the many...

I have been thinking recently about the many double binds mothers find themselves in today. If we stay home with our kids we are selling ourselves (and indeed, womankind!) short and regressing to an antiquated and misogynistic view of what it is to be female, yet if we go back to work we are bad mothers for abandoning our children. If we learn how to cook a chicken and make Family Dinner, we are abandoning our feminism by taking on traditional gender roles, yet if we slap chicken nuggets on the table we are poisoning our kids with chemicals (and supporting Big Ag!) by being too lazy and self-indulgent to nourish our children. If we watch our child's every move on the playground we are helicopter parenting and everyone gets nostalgic for the olden days when kids ran about unsupervised, but if we texts or email on the playground we are accused of being distracted and "missing out" on precious, fleeting moments. And if our skin, our muscles, our confidence, and our very self-image are shredded by the rigors and complications of pregnancy and childbirth, we are frowsy slobs who have "let ourselves go"and might as well buy a kilo of Mom Jeans and call it a day -- but if we elect to undergo surgical correction, we are laughably selfish, vain and hollow. We are constantly fighting against two extremes: frumpy, blundering and clueless, or Real Housewives, The pressure is unrelenting, and the criticism just another impossible trap to keep us trying, worrying, and ultimately failing.

I have struggled for 6 years with my stomach. By 2007, I had delivered three 9 lb. babies in 4 years. With each pregnancy I had hydramnios, which means my body produced excess amniotic fluid. The fluid increased with each baby, and when I had my third, I lost 25 lbs. on the delivery table. My abdomen was distended enough to appear to have twin humans growing inside of it -- I became accustomed to people joking, "Are you sure there's only one in there?" The jokes didn't bother me. They made me feel justified in feeling so stretched and so incredibly uncomfortable.

Six years later, I consider myself an athlete. Each week I cycle 50 - 100 miles, I run twice, I work with a personal trainer, and I practice Hatha yoga. I am at a good weight with a normal BMI. My diet is fantastic, healthy, sustainable, and reasonable. From the front I look fit, healthy and strong. My arms and legs are thin.

I never look at myself from the side. From the side, I truly look 6 months pregnant.

Every morning I go through the same battle over what to wear. How do I hide my belly? I can't wear loose clothing or, God forbid, an empire waist, because the drape over my belly looks like maternity clothes for sure. I can't wear a tight waistband, my abdomen bubbles over it all around and it hurts. So, I've learned to layer clothes. Layer upon layer upon layer of drapey, flowing fabric. My hope is that the layers disguise the stark contrast between my thin arms and the distended roundness of my middle.

Multiple layers are easy to wear in the winter, but the summer is a different story. I love to wear sundresses when it's hot. Every spring, as the weather warms and the sundresses resurface, so does The Question. The Question has come to define me. The question is asked of me, always by a woman (always a woman who should know better), always in public, always when I feel like my stomach might actually look pretty good today: "OH MY GOSH, SARAH, ARE YOU PREGNANT? I HAD NO IDEA!" The humiliation of that moment, that extreme impact as my pride hits the ground, is indescribable.

As I get older and the extreme muscle laxity in my abdominal muscles increases, so does the frequency of The Question. My husband knows to brace himself for what happens to me afterwards. Even if they aren't stupid enough to ask outright, at least once a day someone does a double take and wonder. I can't blame them. I would think I was pregnant too.

So. This is the year I decided to go against EVERY FEMINIST PRINCIPLE I HAVE EVER FELT DEEP DOWN IN MY VERY SOUL, and I elected a major surgical procedure for purely cosmetic reasons. Because I am vain. Because I am selfish. Because I am hollow.

No. Because I practically kill myself with sacrifice to give my children a good life and give myself a good body, and I have to live in this body every single day, and I actually feel hatred for a part of my body, and I do not want to go on feeling blindsided and humiliated every time I catch a glimpse of my profile, every time I go out with a friend, or every time I get The Question, forever. That's why.

Surgery is scheduled for July 30th at 1:00pm. PS says I have little abdominal fat so no lipo, but I'd like him to take some stubborn spots off my flanks as long as he's carving me up like a standing rib roast. DH is supportive but scared. My kids don't know. I will probably tell them it's a hernia because they are little and they will talk, and news will spread like wildfire around my small, tight-knit community. I don't want anyone to know. This is private, for me. My body. My life. My stomach. The down side to being so private is that I will have no support except for my beleaguered husband when this happens -- and hopefully from the RealSelf message board.

So, that's where I stand right now. I am trying to find ways to feel good about this, but really the only good thing is the idea of permanently putting it behind me. I can't imagine living in a body where I don't feel shame, where I don't have to tuck my beach ball into my pants every time I stand up. But that's what I'm going for, on a wing and a prayer. I don't know what lies ahead but I do know what's behind me, and I'm choosing to close this chapter and start a new one. One where I can wear a white t-shirt!

Thanks for reading this far. And good luck to everyone here.

1 Day Post-Op -- YIKES.

1 day post-op. Feeling like hell. PS says he reduced my waist by 15 cm -!! -- and lipo'd out a litre from my flanks. That’s the good news, but I look ghastly. Super swollen and lumpy, with a small waist and hard masses of swelling under my hips that are making me look like a bloated hunchback wearing a waist cincher corset. Hoping that’s not permanent! I'm trying to walk regularly and use my volumetric exerciser, but everything hurts. Percocet is my best friend, two every 3 hours. Also, my lungs are full of gunk and lord knows I can't cough. Just trying to make it through this part, minute by minute. Hoping tomorrow is a better day, but I’m guessing that my better days won’t come for a while. Oh well -- no one to blame but myself!

Before Photos, the night before TT

Here's why I was regularly asked if I was pregnant. Granted, in 2 of them I am letting it hang out (not pushing out, just relaxed). But even when I held it in, I still looked pregnant in clothes.

3 days post-op, 1st follow-up appt.

Had my Painbuster tube removed today and DH took some photos at my PS's office. I'm lying down, so it's hard to see, but PS is super pleased with my results so far. As for me, it's hard not to focus on all the crazy, unbelievable swelling in my hips -- gah!! But, I'm trying to stay positive and take it one step at a time. Right??

3 days post-op, standing up with binder

YIKES. I have Jessica Rabbit hips! The swelling on my haunches is absolutely blowing my mind. But these photos give me hope...I may feel like I'm in early stage labor all day long, but at least my pg-looking belly has left the building!


It’s a gorgeous, perfect day. It’s about 65 degrees, the sun is bright and high, the light outside is a warm white, there’s a breeze blowing through the hemlock branches. I can hear the ciadas whining in the trees. I can hear cardinals, jays, some birds I can’t identify, and a leafblower off in the distance.

If I were myself today, I’d go for a 40 mile bike ride up north, past woods and farmland, over bridges and railroad tracks. Or maybe I’d find somewhere new to take a long hike. I’d enjoy the gift of quiet time while my kids are in a full-day camp they love. These last few lazy, golden weeks of summer would be laid out in front of me, full of choices.

Instead, I’m in here. Still.

And, It’s only the beginning. I did this to myself, and I don’t regret my choice, so any complaining makes me feel like a big spoiled baby. But this convalescence is brutally hard on my mind, so I have to lay that out somewhere. I can’t talk to my husband about it, I can’t talk to anyone about it, so I will type it here instead.

For 6 days I have been utterly preoccupied with doing everything I am supposed to do in order to heal and recover well with out complications. I take meds on a schedule, with my phone playing a harpstring alarm at precise intervals between types of medications. I trade off between being on Percocet, which I am nearly out of and which I need a written prescription in order to refill, and Vicodin, which gives me a throbbing, drilling headache. I just dug up the Percocet I used for after-pains when my son was born, ironically, and plan on trying one of those in 34 minutes to see if they’re still good at nearly six years old. In addition to narcotics, I’m also taking Benadryl around the clock for the maddening, jumping-out-of- bed itching under my binder. I take sublingual Zofran every 8 hours as needed for nausea caused by anesthesia or narcotics (which I haven’t had to use that often, thankfully). I take Keflex four times daily to ward off infection from the 2 JP drains velcro’d to my belly and inserted through my pubic hair. I’m taking a probiotic twice daily to voodoo away the yeast infection that will inevitably set up shop anyway because of the Keflex. I’m taking Arnica and Bromelain three times daily for swelling and bruising, but who knows if that’s doing any good, and if in fact it’s not causing some other kind of harm. And, I’m taking my regular small assortment of vitamins and Synthroid to keep myself in good health.

Managing my pharmaceutical needs is a part-time job. I have to keep a log of everything I take, day and night. I also keep a log of how much fluid I squeeze out of my JP drains. That’s supposed to be every six hours, but I sort of do it whenever because I can’t possibly time one more thing. Several times daily I strip the drain tubes, pushing the oozing fluid through the tubes into the little balloons. It’s easier to do that with a wet wipe than with my fingers, which got raw from being dragged, pinching, over the sticky silicone.

Speaking of wet wipes, I have not taken a shower in 6 days. My husband has washed my hair in the kitchen sink twice, this morning and last Friday. This morning I cried when he aimed the hose right into my ear canal by mistake and soapy water poured across my mouth and down the front of my shirt. He has also sponged me down with wipes and a damp washcloth two times. I think I’ve been wearing the same underwear for 2 days, but I’m not sure.

I brush my teeth by leaning on my elbows on the bathroom. I wash my face in the same way, having discovered at age 43 that I can move my head instead of my hands and the soap can still get rubbed around my face that way. The hardest thing I have to do all day is rinse the soap off my face. This can’t be accomplished with only one hand, I can’t use my core, and my back is so seized from walking hunched over that it can only support me leaning over the sink for a couple of seconds at a time.

Leaning over. My shoulders are hunched, my knees are bent, my pelvis is tucked under, and my torso is rounded forward in an effort to protect the sutures across my belly, in my belly button, up my rectus abdominus muscules, and on both obliques. When my PS performed this surgery, he cut me open hip bone to hip bone, cut out my navel, pulled the skin back, sutured my abs together, cut off the excess skin to just below my navel, used that skin to pull and stitch my obliques together, performed liposuction on my love handles, pulled the remaining skin down to the incision line, cut a new hole for my belly button, sutured my skin back together. I have to protect these wounds as they heal with ferocious commitment, because I never, ever want to have to go through this again.

I have ups and downs. This morning was a down. It’s hard to feel good when the world is bursting with summer glory and life is flying along at a great clip right outside my window, and inside I’m a shut-in and time feels to be nearly at a standstill.

Writing. Gatorade. Meditations. Facebook. And I’m not a religious woman, but God bless the women of the RealSelf.com message board who are going with this through me. These are the things that pull me back up, and that keep me thinking, “Wow, I’ve made it through 6 days!!” instead of “Oh no, it’s only been 6 days.”

I’ve had sorrow and struggles before, and I know that time continues to pass and that there will be summers that include me in the future. For now, though, my job is to stay strong, and stay at peace with where I am right now.

POD 9 -- Drains OUT, swelling IN!

THURS. 8/8/13, POD 9: Drains are OUT, swelling is IN

PS took my 2 drains out yesterday, which totally shocked me because they were still cranking out a good amount -- 30 - 40 ccs/day per drain. He was totally blasé about it, and he said my numbers were right on the border. When I asked him if I was going to get a seroma, he replied, "Yeah, you could." I know he's a pro (given his credentials, that's an understatement). Still, it seems weird to me that this shocking process no big deal to this guy. It's like he's making a ham sandwich or something.

PS also said I have "a LOT of edema," aka swelling. He's so right. My whole belly, sides, hips, and lower back are full to bursting. The tightness in my abs comes in waves, like false labor. I wouldn't describe them as painful exactly, but they squeeeeeeze me so hard I can feel the blood drain from my face. The worst I've had were yesterday when I was feeling plucky and confident and took on a slow, unambitious shuffle around my block. I got about 100 yards before my belly contracted so tightly I feared I might implode and suck my entire neighborhood into a black hole. So much for getting out!

Regretted that for the rest of the day. The tightness came back whenever I took a few steps, and by bedtime I was miserable. So I tried to go to sleep – HA! I’m a side sleeper, and I’m weeks away from doing that again. I have to sleep partly sitting up, with my knees raised, and stay that way all night. My back aches, and I can’t stretch it or change positions. I can’t fall asleep, and I can’t stay asleep. Last night not even an Ativan put me out. It’s like trying to sleep on an airplane every night. Wrapped in duct tape.

From these photos (taken yesterday, POD 8), you can see the swelling. The redness is from my binder, which realized in horror is making not just marks but DENTS in the skin on my back, right above my love handle area. The stupid uncomfortable binder creases when it’s on me and digs into my skin. So today I struggled into some Spanx and a Stage II compression garment shaped like a modest one-piece bathing suit. I’m hoping the dents resolve over time, but I’m skeptical.

Today the idea is to rest, keep my feet up, take bromelain, and hydrate. Every day has been better in some way. Today I can breathe with no pain, and I’m off all painkillers during the day, including Advil. Being drain-free means I can shower. And I think I'm pretty happy with my BB. That’s something to celebrate – by putting my feet up, hydrating, and taking it easy.

POD 10. Spanx + Marena CG = Happy Mama!!

I think I've nailed this compression situation, at least for now. The binder was driving me cah-rayzee with the rolling and buckling and creasing and denting and riding up, etc. So now I'm wearing inside-out Spanx (so the seam isn't against my belly) and this legless support girdle made by Marena that got great reviews on Amazon. I'm sooooo much happier this way. The Marena is pricey, but it doesn't crease or buckle, and it stays in place. I took a photo before I put them on, a photo with them on, and a photo with them under clothes. Swelling is a tiny bit better already. Not sure if that's from the compression, the turmeric + bromelain, or just time healing all wounds, but I'll take it!! Finally I can feel things getting better -- YAY!!!!!

3 Weeks Post-Op: Roller Coaster Ride

Interesting thing about this point in my recovery is that I feel better physically, but I am still stuck in the muck mentally. I don't have much stamina, or much capacity to multitask. And that's required in my job as mom to 3 young children. The road ahead of me looks long and exceptionally overwhelming. But. I am putting one foot in front of the other, and I'm thinking about the big picture as much as I can. And when I feel depressed, I look at my waist in the mirror and it gives me a little burst of optimism. Part of the difficulty is that I don't know what to expect from one day to the next with symptoms, side effects, fatigue, tightness, etc. I look about the same as last week, minus the steri strips and some scabs, but I am not out of the woods visa vis infections, seromas, and other nasty surprises. Last night, I took off my cg to discover a raised red bump directly to the right of my incision, on my hip. It looks and feels like a very large infected pimple (ew.), and though the fluid in it is about the size of a dime, it's probably deeper than that. I went to PS's office today so he could check it out, and after I waited an hour (he squeezed me in), he confirmed that it wasn't an infection -- rather, a piece of suturing is irritating the tissue there, and might have dislodged and be working its way to he surface due to its dissolution. He said I might see sutures popping out through the surface of my skin now and then. He took a scalpel and excavated the little monster a little, which didn't hurt nearly as much as that just sounded like, but he couldn't get anything out. He said to leave it alone, which I have no problems doing, and that it would resolve on its own. WHEW, CERTAIN DEATH EVADED, AT LEAST FOR NOW. Here is a lovely photo of the lump, in anyone might want to use it as a reference for any similar issues. Apart from the news that I don't have MRSA, the other plus is that he wants me to start scar therapy. I wrestled with the sticky silicone strips he recommended from Biodermis, washed them, and plan on sticking them all over my incisions tonight. Will try to post a photo of that soon.

3 weeks, 2 days: Scar Therapy!

Thought I'd update with some shots of me modeling my loooovely new silicone strips from Biodermis.com! My PS swears by them, and I like them but they are super weird. Wrangling them as they stretch and stick all over themselves is an art form I haven't yet mastered. I'm sticking the strips across my horizontal incision, and I cut a smaller piece to put on my vertical scar where my old BB was, and I'm putting silicone gel on my BB. I'll be wearing this silicone stuff 24 hours/day for at least the next 12 weeks. I can feel hypertrophic scar formation all over my scars, so it's a good thing my scabs are gone so I can start using this stuff now. I'm also gingerly doing some massage on the worst collagen lumps, but it's a little scary to be handling my incision site in that way! PS says I have to, though, so I'm taking a leap of faith. Here I also added a couple of shots of me actually holding my abs in a little, like I will go back to doing in everyday life once I'm back to exercising. I'm still swollen and have no definition in my torso obviously, but I'll take it over the big pregnant-looking beach ball!

Me: the 2.0 version

Four weeks! Four weeks! In my first week post-op, I read updates from women here who had put 20+ days between themselves and their surgery and couldn’t imagine getting there. It was like thinking about what it would be like to be a high school junior while you’re still in fifth grade.

My recovery is going really, really well. By that I mean there have been no complications ***SO FAR, KNOCK WOOD***. I’ve had my share of paranoia-driven scares (Is that an infection? Is that a seroma? Is the binder making permanent dents? Did I just pop a stitch? Do I permanently look weird? Has the anesthesia given me a lobotomy? Oh no, don't sneeze!!!). But, none of them have amounted to actual problems. I’m still swollen, especially in my lower belly near my incision and my flanks, but it’s so much better. My scar is lumpy in places, but it’s flatter and more healed-looking all over. And best of all, in the mornings, when I first look in the mirror, I can see where my shape is headed in the next 5 – 11 months. I. Like. It.

I find myself daydreaming sometimes, wondering. What’s it like to show the my abdomen to the whole world, instead of constantly trying to cover it with folded arms, my handbag, my napkin, a raincoat, my child’s head, or a throw pillow? What’s it like not to burn with humiliation at my pregnant-looking reflection in the gym mirrors? What’s it like to get dressed by just putting on only 1 outfit instead of trying on 10, all of which end up as fabric carnage strewn across my bed except the one I’ve surrendered to wearing? What is like not to look down at the swinging pendulum of my crinkly hide when I lean over (or, in certain private moments, when I’m on all fours)? What’s it like to wear ruching because it looks good, not because I am forcing myself to swallow the lie that it downplays my un-downplayable roundness? What is it going to be like to have NO ONE ASK IF I AM PREGNANT EVER AGAIN, unless maybe they are blind or wasted? What is it going to be like to stop fighting a frustrating, rage-filled, tearful, loosing war with a part of my body, because the war is over? I am only beginning to answer those questions.

The first person who asked if I was pregnant did so on Valentine’s Day 2012. She was a mom an our preschool, very thin. I was wearing a belly-hiding fleece over my workout clothes, because I go to the gym every damn day. She put her hand on my arm and asked it in a hushed tone, just between us moms: “I never ask this, but it’s just so obvious: Are you pregnant?”

Happy Valentine’s Day to me.

Smash cut to present time. My 4 week post-op visit was yesterday. PS is thrilled. Because I asked, he gave me a printout of my OR photos, oh yes he did. They’re what you’d expect, featuring my abdominal flesh peeled back like a giant orange banana. There is blue ink drawn around the places on my muscle tissue where he sutured, including around the special bonus procedure wherein he used a piece of my own dermis to pull my obliques together. My favorite photo is the one in which I’m raised at a 30 degree angle and my skin is laying in its old position, before the incision was closed. Where my old belly button used to be, there is a cutout shaped like a little rounded doorway. It looks like a mouse hole in a cartoon. There is also a photo of the 800ccs he vacuumed out of my flanks.

The visuals are obsession-worthy. But I will spare you the OR photos because, let’s face it, not everyone wants to see that sh**.

PS told me he was able to take 10cm off my waist by closing my diastasis, and an additional 5cm by plicating my obliques via his dermal method. He said he made me tighter than 90% of his abdominoplasties. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to give me a waist. I guess there’s no waist on the planet Jupiter, and there wasn’t one on my big round belly either. Secondly, he said he wanted to try to ameliorate my acute lordosis (major sway-back). He showed me my Before photos, and I actually gasped. From the side, my old round belly is pulling my lower spine forward into a dramatic C shaped curve. No wonder I’ve had three SI joint injuries in five years! Whose spine could put up with that?? So I may have my PS to thank for helping my back as well as my front.

I’m still sporting a compression garment, this latest a little black number by Design Veronique. It wears like iron and I love it. It feels so much like a second skin that I’m just realizing while typing this that I haven’t washed it in 5 days. Sanitary! I’m faithfully using silicone epi-tape from Biodermis and silicone gel for scar therapy. It feels so incredibly, deeply good to be at the CG/scar treatment stage, rather than the “Gee I hope I live to see my kids tomorrow” stage. As huge lateral surgical scars go, mine looks pretty good. PS says I’m cleared to exercise, and even run, but I still can’t walk without feeling like I’m in labor so that’s not happening for a while. But to my amazement, today I walked in the woods for an hour, and I lived to tell about it! PS also cleared me for *special marital exercise*, though he said it couldn’t involve heavy lifting. ???? I don’t know, I’ll let your mind run with that.

I know my recover is far from over. I know the swelling and the scar will both get much worse before they get better. I may still end up with complications. And I am definitely still dealing with some emotional and cognitive issues following general anesthesia. But gosh darn it, I fried some awesome eggplant tonight, and I stood the hell straight up while I did it, and my belly is F-L-A-T under my dress. So it looks like mama CAN get her life back after all, including feeling human again.

I call it Me 2.0!

Mario Andretti called. He wants his spare tire back. (aka Post Op: 6 Weeks)

It’s not like I didn’t know there would be crazy swelling at 5/6 weeks. Jenfrogrn only said it like twelve hundred times, so I had lots of advance notice. I think it was Finestirish who said that we must EXPECT it and ACCEPT it, which is totally Zen and actually really helpful as a mantra. It’s not like it snuck up on me or anything. I have been lying in wait for it for weeks. But that doesn’t mean I have to love it! Below my new belly button, my abdomen is rock hard and shiny and makes me feel like I am wearing a smallish inner tube filled with lead and a few ball bearings. I still can only wear dresses and yoga pants, and sometimes both. It’s getting hard to come up with enough normal outfits to keep the other moms at school from thinking I am too lazy to do laundry or get dressed.

HOWEVER. To be clear, I am VERY happy with my results and VERY glad I did this. This surgery has had a positive impact on my quality of life every day since I had it, including the week I spent drugged beyond reason in a rented hospital bed. And my post-op abdomen, even with the swelling, is such an improvement from the humiliating horror show of my former pregnant-looking abdomen that I truly feel any complaints I have are in the “Minor: Questionable Use of My Time” category.

I think I know what’s happening with my brain: at this point in the extended recovery process, as excited as I am to now have six weeks behind me, my mind has the freedom to look with certain longing toward final results in 12 – 18 months. Here’s what that’s like: I would just so loooove to see my belly really flat…..I would love to get back the muscle definition in my arms and legs, much of which turned to jelly during this 6 week sedentary period……I would love to feel less **wide** through my torso and hips, which is how I look with all this flank swelling….I would love to be done washing and wrangling silicone scar tape, and see only a faded line where my purple scar is now….I would love to stop needing to massage the hard lumps in my belly button (ouch)…..And I would love for my lower back swelling to resolve, so I can see the real curve of my tush once again.

Basically, now that I’ve hit the 6 week landmark with precious few complications, I have the incredible luxury of imagining my results For Real. When I think about that, I feel like a cartoon image of Sylvester when he contemplates swallowing Tweetie, with my eyeballs going round and round like two eternal spirals. How lucky am I to have such a future? But the droolworthiness of that future can make it hard to feel patient in the present.

I remind myself that I am healthy and happy. I accomplish more all the time, like for example the 4-mile interval run I did yesterday without having to stop for muscle tightness. I even did a plank and was proud to hold it for 20 whole seconds!!

Along with feeling impatient about eventually closing this whole chapter of my life forever, I’m amazed and humbled that it has gone so well so far. I had no idea I could go through something like this, undergo this surgery, and be okay after. I had NO IDEA I could do this. I had no idea that my huge belly could actually go away, forever.

So! All that considered, I guess I should feel honored to sport the 6 week swelling. For now, I will EXPECT and ACCEPT Mario’s spare tire, just as much as I will appreciate watching it slowly, and permanently, deflate.
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