The countdown has begun, and my body knows it. In a few days, I’ll be going into the hospital for a major spinal surgery, and probably won’t be home again for several weeks. When I do get home, after hospitalization and rehabilitation, my body will not be the same; it will not be this body. Not only will I have nine fused vertebrae and a permanently straight spine, but I’ll also have a different stance relative to the world around me, other people, and myself. I will have to stand, sit, and lie down differently. I won’t be able to move in familiar ways, and I might be able to move in new ways, or in ways that I haven’t moved in years. Putting on my socks, washing my hair, feeding the cats, reading a book, hugging Holly and my friends, walking, eating, sleeping, maybe even dreaming… everything will be different.
While my mind is trying to tell me that this is just a medical procedure, a repair job, no big deal—my body knows better. As soon as the surgery date was finally set after months of waiting, my body figured out what was about to happen and, like a dog who gets wind of the fact that she is about to be taken to the vet, my body reacted with visceral, physical fear—shivering, glancing around furtively for a place to hide, losing appetite and concentration, flinching at small sounds. While my mind tries to calm me down, my body remembers past surgeries and injuries. She knows what’s coming.
It is impossible to separate myself from this body, and I wouldn’t want to. The body has a kind of clarity that is expressed in her instant response to cues in her environment. I depend upon the way she breathes and lives without the mind’s conscious guidance, the way she feels truths from the inside, the way she moves into action on my behalf, her courage and cowardice, her competence and clumsiness, her compassion and raw vulnerability. These qualities are the body’s language, and also fundamental aspects of the person I believe myself to be. So, no matter what my mind tries to tell me, when my body is changed by this surgery, there is going to be an essential change in who I am.
Posture and stance and gait make us recognizable to others, almost as much as facial features do. When I had extensive radiation treatments for cancer in my thirties, the molecular disruption began to work on my body gradually, over so many years that the physical changes were not much different from the ordinary changes of aging. Slowly, my muscles got weaker, my heart had to work harder to keep up, my shoulders slumped, and my neck eased into a curve. Then, three years ago, the changes sped up. My posture deteriorated noticeably, and I began to develop ways of moving to compensate for the wasting muscles in my upper body. Finally, about three months ago, the cascading changes became an avalanche. Within these few months, I’ve become someone who cannot hold up her head for more than a few moments at a time. I slouch, stumble (because the weight of my head throws me off balance), and peer up at people from an awkward angle, my head dangling or propped on my hand. I’m in pain most of the time, and exhausted all the time.
Physical symptoms can be communications from our deepest selves in much the same way as dreams. If a character in your dream is slumped and “cannot hold up her head,” this character will evoke certain instinctive responses and assumptions: She could be lazy, or embarrassed, or hiding something. Maybe she represents a part of me, or another person or situation, that can’t stand up and face the world. Similarly, I notice that the more my body’s posture crumbles, the more uncertain and insecure I feel. There’s even a strong sense of shame, humiliation.
I’m seeing this punishing dissolution of my physical confidence as a difficult challenge, but also trying to see its positive, transformative potential as well. Just as I might ask “Why am I having this particular dream at this particular time?” I might also ask “Why is this happening to my body? Why is this happening now?” The immediate answer comes from my body herself. There’s the predictable but apt image of a chrysalis. The confident caterpillar must go into her private cocoon and completely disintegrate before becoming any kind of butterfly or moth. My body recognizes the metaphors of metamorphosis, and understands the imperative of letting go.
I’ve been on the threshold of big personal change for a long time, contentedly occupying my larval identity as well as I can. Although I’ve been learning and growing through many metamorphoses over the course of my lifetime so far, this one could be the most irrevocable (short of death). Physically as well as developmentally, I’ve reached the limits of my old posture, my stance, myself. I’m not sustainable anymore. There’s no more adapting to be done—my body will not, cannot, cooperate. So, along with all of the physical changes, I must lose or release my plans for myself—my ambitions, my certainties, my habits, my resistances, my needs, my resentments, my strong stride and my adroit rationalizations. Maybe some of this stuff will be returned to me in another form, maybe not. Metaphorically and literally, my stance is changing; my posture is changing; my gait is changing. My relationships with others are changing because, although my care for them is consistent, I don’t know (or care so much) how I appear to them. My slumped posture reflects a genuine desire to humble myself, to step back into the shadows, into the secret chrysalis where the deepest possible metamorphosis can happen.
These are the last few days for my body to be as it is: in a state of flux and confusion. For years when I was younger, I dreamed of initiations. Then, for many more years, I dreamed of graduations. Now, the graduation dreams have stopped. Have I graduated? What happens next? Post-surgery, I’ll have a new body with a straight spine. Will I recognize myself in this new body? Will other see me differently when my body is upright, stiff and strange, when I can’t tilt my head back to watch the geese fly over, when I can’t dance fluidly or even sway to music, when I can’t bend down to look at a friend’s snapdragons, or wrestle and play with a puppy? Will my rigid posture make me a more rigid person? Or will I stand tall, with the grace and flexibility of a tree, spreading my branches in the sun?
I’m going into this surgery not knowing what the outcome will be. I might have less pain and more mobility than I do now. Or, there might be more pain, more disability. The unknown stuns me. For now, I’m allowing myself to come apart, piece by piece, trusting the process, open to the possibilities, afraid and excited.
Human beings have always had rites of passage for big, transformative life events, and I find that I’m instinctively following some ancient rituals of preparation. Yesterday, I got my hair cut very short so that it will be easier to wash it when I’m recovering—a practical motive, but one that recalls the ceremonies of initiates entering a monastery, or recruits going into the army. Cutting the hair is preparation for sacrifice—giving up the old stance, the old appearance, the old self, before the new one can come into being. When I was about to start chemotherapy 24 years ago, I had my head shaved (anticipating that it would all fall out anyway). Just before walking the Camino de Santiago three years ago, I got a short haircut like the one I’ve got now. I make my posture consistent with my experience: the shorn hair symbolizing vulnerability, humility, a kind of self-erasure.
The night before surgery and the morning of surgery, I’ll shower with antibacterial soap, erasing my own familiar smell. When I’m leaving for the hospital, I will remove my necklace, my wedding ring. I will empty my pockets. I will carry nothing. I will say good-bye to Holly before I’m taken into the operating room. Under anesthesia, I will become nothing for a while. And, I will trust in my own restoration, in a new form, a new body.
It’s no coincidence that my largest scar will be on my back, where I will never see it directly. This kind of deep change is not my business—at least not the business of my busy self-defining self. Big change happens behind my back. My body will know it, though. And I think my soul knows it already. When I come out of surgery, there will be more space in me—more spaciousness because I will not be able to confine myself to what I was before. I will be emptier, and there will be more room for life itself to expand whoever I am. Going through such an experience does not make me special or important, but it makes me feel that I am precious. My whole life is precious, and includes every possible posture, every way of walking, every stance, every opening. I’m nothing but infinite transformation, infinite dissolution, infinite manifestation, infinite mystery.
This is true for you, too—whatever you think of yourself will change, and every change is a chance to expand and include. You are not what you think you are, yet somehow you know yourself. When you see me next, I will be different and so will you—yet somehow we will recognize each other.
[Note: Kirsten had her surgery on May 1st. This post was written a few days before. If you’d like to follow her recovery, you can go to the Caring Bridge website, enter “Kirsten Backstrom,” and you will find journal entries and updates from Kirsten and Holly there.]