A few weeks ago, I turned 39 years old. Thirty-nine is kind of a weird age. On one hand, it’s just a number – it’s simply another year and another day. Every day is important, and every year presents a new opportunity. But on the other hand, it’s almost 40… which is one of those milestone birthdays—and one that for whatever reason, feels important. My life has changed significantly in the past few years, with tough changes in my health and relationship status – but undeniable growth in other areas. I’m mentally and emotionally stronger, and much clearer in my spirituality. But turning 39 has been interesting, because it’s challenged me to look at where I’ve been and think about where I’m going – and has brought a certain resolve to get some key factors figured out (to the best of my ability) before my next birthday.
One of the fundamental things I’ve been examining within myself is where I am at with my overall health, and the ways in which I am currently handling it. It’s extremely hard to type this sentence… but I am really unhappy with my body right now. It’s so uncomfortable to put that thought out there, because in my mind and in my heart, I know I shouldn’t feel this way… but I do. My weight and body shape have changed a bit in the past several years, even though by many standards, I understand that I look just fine. Please don’t send me a message about how I am being completely ridiculous about this… I fully realize that this opinion will not be shared by the people who are close to me. But here’s the deal. I have this personal policy – that I’m not allowed to complain or feel negatively about something if I’m not willing to make changes that will move me forward.
So, I have asked myself, “Why. What’s wrong with the way you look?” I’ve never been a girl who has been wrapped up in body image… I’m actually kind of a tomboy at heart. I wasn’t raised to focus on what I look like, and I am so thankful for that. Also, I really do have a generally healthy and very active lifestyle. I eat good quality food, and I lift weights avidly – 5 days a week.
So… what’s the problem, Am??
Like most things, the answer is multifaceted.
Even though I know I shouldn’t be, I’m angry at my brain for the surgeries that I continue to endure. When I saw my neurosurgeon this past week, we made the decision to schedule my next brain surgery – and we counted that this will be my 20th surgery related to my hydrocephalus in 6 years. It will be the 24th overall. The daily pain, the various medications, and the basic trauma of going through all of these episodes has taken a toll on my physical being. There’s just no getting around that part. The only way for me to not be angry about the situation is to believe and understand that God has a bigger purpose for my life, and that He will somehow use all of this pain and suffering in that purpose. If I didn’t believe that, I would be absolutely discouraged and devastated by these trials. I’m working every day to accept the challenge and live out my purpose, but it is so hard to process at times.
The second reason is that I’ve let myself be lazy about the food and drinks I put into my body. Like I said, I generally eat high quality food, and I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about nutrition over the years. I love to cook, so when I do, I prepare things that are good for me. However, the emotions and exhaustion resulting from the roller coaster of the past few years has made me much less diligent about making the right choices all the time. It’s safe to say that I often eat the wrong things at the wrong times – and sometimes when I don’t feel good, I don’t eat at all. If consistency is the key to forward progress, I’m failing in that department.
Lastly, I acknowledge that my exercise routine has changed significantly since the time when I feel like my body was where I wanted it to be. The frequency has not changed, but the type of training has. In 2012-2017 I worked out with a couple of different trainers and embraced more of a strength and conditioning style of programming. My exercise was much more varied, and I also worked out in a boxing gym off and on during that time. (Keep in mind that this was also about 15 brain surgeries ago!) In late 2017, I changed trainers to the strength coach I currently have and changed my programming to a strictly strength-based regimen. It was a huge shift, but I adore my coach and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. I love lifting weights, and the more brute strength I have, the more stable and balanced I feel. It’s also made a difference in my ability to sleep and heal from surgery. All of these things hold incredible value, so I don’t have any regrets. But there’s no question that the heavy lifting 5 days a week along with the lack of conditioning has changed the shape of my body. I’m strong, but I’m just not as thin as I was.
I’ve come to this conclusion. Mental discipline needs to be applied to this area of my thought life. The way I feel about my body is completely in my own control, and if I want it to change, I just need to make the decision to change it. How I feel about myself is a choice, and if I’m not happy with something, I am fully capable of taking the steps to modify what I’m doing. I also have the ability to make a clearer distinction between what I want and what is necessary – and separate the emotional part from the necessity. This involves asking myself some difficult questions, then facing the answers head-on and dealing with them.
Do I want to be super thin, or do I want to be incredibly strong?
Why do I feel like I don’t look good enough? Does it have to do with the fact that I’m single? And where does the treatment and recovery from my hydrocephalus fall in all of this?
Am I going to fight this condition from a proactive standpoint, like I encourage other people to do?
Here’s what I know. I am strong enough to face the feelings that I’m having and make choices that will change the game.
I am willing to stay in the arena and battle the demons that tell me I’m not good enough and not pretty enough.
And I’m resilient enough to start over when I have to.
“What are you thinking about, Am?”
I guess I must have gotten quiet, but the question brought me back to the present moment. Aron is one of the only people who has seen the day-to-day, week-to-week battle of the last year and a half. As my strength coach, he’s had to endure the past few brain surgeries and recoveries almost as if he was going through them himself—and it’s been a rocky road. And as one of my closest friends, he also knows that when I don’t say anything, I’m probably thinking about something.
The monkey mind rarely stops thinking.
So, I looked up at him (upside down) and answered. “I didn’t lose any strength.”
Those words are heavier than all the pounds of weight loaded on the barbell I just lifted. As I laid on my back and let my brain unwind, I thought about how hard it was to get back to this point.
The nights I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours.
The days when I could hardly move because of the pain.
The times we lifted weights with a giant ice pack ace bandaged to my torso.
Dose after dose of anti-nausea medication.
The many times I’ve passed out.
Rep after rep of weight lifted off the ground—a symbolic tribute to the promise that I will stay in the arena.
Day after day of stringing little victories together until we can declare that I am finally healed from the latest greatest trip to the operating room.
All of it is part of this crazy, excruciating, confusing, and beautiful lesson I’m learning… that I am living proof that you can find peace in the midst of chaos and catastrophe.
“No Am… you’re stronger than you were. We are stronger than we were.”
Aron, you’re right. We are stronger. I bury myself in this constant drive for progress, obsessing over all the little things and losing sight of the big picture. I need to zoom out and look at the journey through a different lens, recognizing that I’m making it. We’re making it.
As it always is, the physical recovery from the surgeries I had last year (May, September, and October 2018) has been a roller coaster. If you’ve ever had brain surgery, I know you understand this. But truly… if you’ve ever had ANY type of surgery – let alone back-to-back-to-back surgeries – you get it. The effects that the anesthesia alone leaves on your body can take months to correct. The biggest struggle I’ve experienced in this recovery period has been extreme nausea every morning. Naturally, we’ve assumed that this was an issue with the drainage of my shunt – either too much or too little. We’re about four months into figuring out a shunt setting and combination of anti-nausea medications to get this under control. My neurosurgeon has adjusted my shunt setting a few times, and my primary care doctor and pain management specialist are involved in finding the right combo of meds. It’s a constant work in progress – we rejoice on the days when it seems even a tiny bit better, and plough through the tough days when it feels like it will never end.
As my friend and fellow hydro warrior Bryant always reminds me, “Chin up, eyes forward.”
Mentally and emotionally, I am doing well. I have created a routine in which I can regularly have a peaceful couple of hours to myself in the morning, and it has helped me immensely. Between my career, my time in the gym, and the fact that I live with two of my siblings (which is amazing!) I am around people all day long. I decided about a year ago that I would get up earlier every day in order to have some quiet time and a routine time to study, pray, and write. I’ve grown to love this time, and it’s not hard to wake up early any more.
As we near the end of the first quarter of 2019, I’m excited about the plans and goals I have for this year. I’ve got some projects coming up that will stretch my comfort and challenge me mentally. Every day is a new opportunity to grow and learn, connect with people, and be influenced by the good things around me. God has truly blessed me and kept me safe through all the insanity swirling through my world the past few years—and I am prepared to move forward as called.
We’re only going to get stronger. We don’t go backwards.
It’s like riding a bicycle downhill without brakes. We can pedal backwards, but we keep rolling forward.
Let’s do that.
for Aron - Love, Monkey
Several years ago, a therapist suggested that I write messages to myself on post-it notes, and put them on my mirror. These photos have become a thread in the tapestry of my online life, but I have never shared what the notes mean to me. In this blog series, I will share a handful of those moments - in hopes that it will provide encouragement to someone out there.
Several years ago, I went through a really rough patch with my hydrocephalus, where I had a total of 4 brain surgeries in less than 6 months. It was a pivotal point in my understanding of what living with hydrocephalus was going to be. Suddenly there was a new reality, that these surgeries could come in clusters… and that no matter how healthy I was otherwise, the bottom line was simply whether or not my brain would decide to accept and heal from the shunt surgeries that are required to keep me alive.
It was during this time that I learned a valuable lesson. Even though I had zero control over how my brain was responding to the shunt, I found that I had complete control over my own reaction to these setbacks and repeated surgeries. Controlling my reaction really controlled my overall experience. Going forward from that point, I made a conscious decision to tell myself that this was just required maintenance. When the shunt needs to be repaired or replaced, I tell myself to “hit the reset button” and start over again. I’m not suggesting that I downplay the fact that this is brain surgery – believe me, it’s awful. But I do my best to keep it in perspective.
I have often explained to my friends and supporters that if I treat brain surgery like it’s a giant catastrophe, my life will feel like one giant catastrophe. For the last several years, I have had brain surgery again and again – and for now, there is no guarantee that this frequency will let up. So, when something goes wrong with my shunt, I do everything in my power to take it in stride mentally. Controlling my emotional reaction makes it easier to navigate the physical challenges that are inevitable.
This week I had my 22nd surgery related to hydrocephalus. This time it was a laparoscopic procedure to re-route my distal (abdominal) catheter, which was wrapped around my liver and rubbing on my diaphragm. As usual, it was a long and painful process to diagnose and work through this setback, and I’m relieved to once again be safely on the other side of surgery. It will take me a little while to get my energy and strength back to where I was pre-surgery, but I am ready to put in that work and move forward. Each day, I remind myself that the way I experience my own life is completely under my control.
I am strong.
I am healthy.
I am capable.
I am loved.
And I am in relentless pursuit of everything that’s important.
Hit the reset button.
In the late summer of 2003, a vicious forest fire ripped through central Oregon. When it was finally contained after 34 days of incredible battle, the B&B Complex fire had left a devastating mark on over 90,000 acres of pristine woodland. That summer, I spent a week teaching at a music camp in Sisters, Oregon. I’ll never forget the feeling of being so close to such a massive and powerful fire. The air was thick and smoky, and it felt like you could cut it with a knife. Large forest fires often create their own weather patterns, and the atmosphere felt volatile and unpredictable, as storms would rage through for several minutes at a time. The little mountain town that is usually crawling with tourists all summer long was dead, except for the thousands of woodland firefighters who were camped nearby.
Fifteen years later, the Santiam Pass still shows the deep scars of that fire. Since my medical team is in Bend, I drive that stretch of highway often, and in all seasons. With any long drive that you make repeatedly, you start to get the rhythm of the mile markers. I know exactly where the cell phone and satellite radio signal coverage cuts in and out, where all the passing lanes are, and the precise point at which you feel like you’ve left the Willamette Valley and officially made it to the mountains. The thing that I love the most about the drive from Salem to Bend is the way the terrain changes so much along the way. From the farm fields and orchards in the valley, to the lakes and huge evergreen trees in the mountains, no matter what time of year you make the drive the scenery always breathtaking. Then when you get up onto the pass, and you see the acres and acres of land still affected by that incredible fire, it’s shocking. Thousands of burned trees stand like charred scarecrows, with their arms stretched to the sky. In the winter months, when the snow is on the ground and the skies are gray, the 10 miles or so of skeleton trees seem more eerie.
Last weekend as I drove over to my neuro appointment, I suddenly noticed how much regrowth has started to happen in the pass. It has taken a long time, but the ground cover is vibrant and healthy… bright green against the blue sky, with summer wild flowers scattered among the trees. The mountains stand solid, strong, and unchanged, and the burned trees create a charcoal picture frame for all of this natural beauty. As I drove, it dawned on me that this regrowth is a perfect metaphor for life after challenges. I often speak about the power and peace that comes with accepting the fact that you are going to be different and changed on the other side of major life events – whether that is a new diagnosis, brain surgery, or a relationship change. Sometimes those events leave us feeling like this forest land – devastated and burned out. But faith is the confidence in things unseen-- the belief that eventually the landscape will grow and flourish again, if we simply keep standing tall – reaching for the sky with everything we have left.
Pain is going to change you.
You’re going to be different on the other side, and that’s ok.
We’re ok. We are HEALING.
The storms pass, and the wildfires die.
The soul remains, and the heart will stay strong if we will it to do so.
Find beauty in the broken.
In January of 2016, I wrote a blog post titled “When are they going to get this thing figured out??” I had just established my website the month before and I had no idea how much sharing that one piece of writing would change my life. At the time, I was recovering from back-to-back shunt surgeries, and I posted it primarily to answer the common questions about hydrocephalus that I received from my own family and friends. But it was also a bit of a personal rant… the things I needed to say, in my own plain-English, non-technical words, to help me process what I was going through. Perhaps, because of that rawness, it definitely hit a chord in the community – with literally hundreds of people contacting me and messaging me. And since that initial post, I have reposted it every time I have had another brain surgery. Over the past two years, it’s been shared all over the internet, and read more than 20,000 times total.
This week, I will be undergoing another shunt revision surgery – my 21st brain surgery. As shocking as that is for my family and friends, it’s not shocking for many people in the hydrocephalus community, who have walked a parallel path. While I am certainly hesitant and naturally apprehensive about going through this process again, I have complete confidence that my team has put incredible care into making this decision. And even though I’ve been really sick off and on all year and my pain is high, I’m physically and mentally strong right now, which I know will make a difference. I am well supported and we are focused.
That original blog post is still very applicable today and I’m still humbled that it has touched so many people around the world. But today, I decided to do an updated version with the same concept. These are the 10 most common questions I get regarding my condition and these are my own raw, unfiltered responses to these questions. More or less, I wanted to answer these questions as if we were sitting together and you were asking them. I hope that in some way, by sharing these experiences and thoughts, I can provide you with some comfort and information. Knowing that there are others out there who are going through similar experiences is one of the most incredible things that the internet has the power to provide. And when you can get some positive input in regards to a very negative experience, it can truly change your path. That being said, I have to remind you that I am not a doctor or any type of medical professional, and this is not intended to be educational at all. It is simply my own answers, about my own diagnosis and experiences.
As we move forward towards better answers for hydrocephalus, may we always remember that the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, willing to stay, and battle – even when he fails again and again. May we band together in solidarity and strength, carrying those who need support, and remembering every day that the only thing that truly matters is human connection and trust.
1. What is hydrocephalus? Hydrocephalus is defined as an abnormal accumulation of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) in the ventricles of the brain. When I explain it to people, I tell them that my brain does not drain spinal fluid properly. I developed obstructive hydrocephalus in my teens and was diagnosed at age 17. There is currently no cure for hydrocephalus and all treatment options include brain surgery. For more information, visit www.hydroassoc.org
2. Why have you had so many surgeries? The most common way to treat hydrocephalus is with a shunt, which is a valve and catheter system that diverts the fluid from the brain where it has built up and deposits it elsewhere in your body, where it can be absorbed. Hydrocephalus is shockingly common – even though many people have never heard of it. In the United States alone, there is a hydrocephalus related surgery every 15 minutes and it is the leading cause of pediatric brain surgeries.
While some patients are able to go many years without trouble with their shunt system, statistically, 50% of all shunts fail in the first two years. That being said, there are a lot of us that have a really hard time with our shunts – the only way to fix them or replace parts is brain surgery.
Click here for more information on my medical story.
3. Why don’t the surgeries work? Honestly, this is a frustrating mystery and I think every neurosurgeon in America would tell you that. Again, I am not qualified to answer this question, but there are many reasons a shunt (or ETV) will fail. They occlude (clog), the catheters get brittle and break, they come unhooked, etc. I have averaged 3-4 shunt surgeries a year for the past several years – until this last one, which lasted almost one year.
4. Who is involved in your care? I have been absolutely blessed and have put together an incredible team of physicians and therapists over the years. Of course I have a neurosurgeon, a primary care physician, and a pain management doctor. In addition to that, I have a strength coach that is very involved in my care, and a mental coach. When people ask me about how I manage my hydrocephalus, I tell them it takes a village. I have more information on the Resources page of my website, as well as the Hydro Treatments & Therapies page.
5. How do they decide to do another brain surgery? My neurosurgeon makes the decision to operate only when he feels like that is the only remaining option. He has been my surgeon for a number of years and he knows me very well. I feel like this has always been an advantage for me, because he knows what I function and look like when I’m doing well, versus when I am having serious issues. From time to time, he has consulted other neurosurgeons to look at my case and I always appreciate how thorough he has been. In my opinion, the most crucial decision you make is to establish care with a neurosurgeon who is a good fit for you. I personally travel 3 hours from where I live to see mine, because he is someone I trust and can communicate with. It has made all the difference in the world for me.
6. Is a shunt the only option for treatment? Some patients are candidates for a procedure called an Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy (or ETV). Whether or not a neurosurgeon may decide to go with this option rather than a shunt, has to do with the patient, the neurosurgeon, and primarily the cause of the hydrocephalus that they have. It’s not an option for certain types of hydrocephalus. I had this surgery when I was 19 years old and while it is still viable today, my brain also needs a shunt to keep up.
7. How do you prepare for brain surgery (assuming it’s not an emergency surgery)? I try my best to prepare for surgery by getting things organized to the best of my ability. This includes unplugging from my job as much as possible, getting some good food options prepped, and making sure I have someone to stay with me during the process. In addition, I work on mentally preparing myself for the process, using visualization, meditation, and affirmation. It’s incredibly important for me to go into surgery feeling relaxed and confident in my team. There is always uncertainty with brain surgery and staying mentally in control of my thoughts and emotions are very important.
8. What are the concerns and risks? As with all surgical procedures, there are risks involved. The concerns can also change from surgery to surgery and from patient to patient. But in my case, there has always been a high level of concern about the risk of infection and seizures. I have had a lot of trouble with my head wounds sealing up as well, so there are concerns with wound infection.
9. What is the projected or estimated recovery time from your shunt revision surgeries? The correct answer to this question is that it’s different for every patient and for every surgery. I have had many shunt revision surgeries that have had similar recovery timelines, but then I’ve had others that have been much easier or much harder. That being said, in my own experience, I would say that my average recovery time to get back to 100% strength and energy is about 6 weeks. I am very physically active and I do my best to return to activity as soon as possible. I usually am off of work for about 4-5 days, then slowly integrate back into daily life.
10. How does this process affect the people who are close to you? I am incredibly fortunate and have an amazing network of family and friends that support me. I know that it is frustrating and painful for them to watch me go through the repeated surgeries and the chronic pain issues that come along with them, but I am thankful beyond words that they choose to walk beside me on this path. In my life, I see that as one of the blessings I have received and that I never take for granted. As a family, as a tribe, and as a team, we go through all of this together. We win and we lose together. In my blogging, I often use the hashtag #we. This is because when I speak of my journey, I use the term “we” as an authentic representation of the fact that I don’t do this alone. I walk this road with the most brilliant and loyal humans, and I am grateful.
To my Loves:
We are ready.
We fight. We love.
We stay in the arena.
Here’s to the relentless pursuit of everything important.
Thank you for holding my head and my heart.
Towards the end of last summer, I was challenged by my neurosurgeon to dedicate 100 days to getting as strong as possible, physically & mentally. He hoped that during that time, I would be able to stay healthy, and I would go into the fall ready for what we already knew was an inevitable shunt surgery. So, along with a couple of my friends and my strength training team, I jumped into an incredible 100 day journey. I committed to posting once a day on my Instagram account— documenting, recognizing, and acknowledging the things I did every day to become stronger. It was really fun on some days, and really challenging on others.
Unfortunately, my brain didn't cooperate, and I had my 16th brain surgery on the 30th day. I took a few days off, then started up again— pressing myself to find the strength in the many tiny victories of recovery… and using my tears to fuel my drive for better days.
I finished my 100 days of strength on Thanksgiving Day. On that day, I reflected on the path I had followed for those three months. The nights in the gym, and the talks with my friends. The brain surgery, and the recovery that followed. The quotes that pushed me to keep going, and the daily battle to stay in the arena. I had finished the challenge, and I was stronger. In that moment of reflection, I was so thankful that I have people in my life who care enough about me to push me relentlessly, and who are never afraid to walk with me through the valley of the shadow of death. We do it together, and we come out stronger.
I’ve had an incredibly difficult year. I’m recovering again from surgery, and it’s been a difficult few weeks. But, today at lunch time, I was looking through the photos on my phone, and I stumbled upon the video montage of the 100 Instagram posts, that I had uploaded to YouTube. It made me feel a little emotional, because it was a reminder of something I have learned this year… That I may feel like I’m struggling right now, but I am in total control of myself, my thinking, and my actions. If I choose to be strong, I am strong. And I choose strength.
Today, I’m going to start a new #100daysofstrength — and this time, it’s different. Last time, Dr. Yundt challenged me, and this time, I am challenging myself. I’m not able to work out for another week or so, but every day I will honor the journey to more mental, emotional, spiritual, and then… physical strength.
Follow my #100daysofstrength on Instagram @stayinthearena
This week, I’ve been in the arena, battling my way towards recovery after my seventeenth trip to the operating room courtesy of hydrocephalus. I’m thankful, I’m happy, and I’m frankly relieved to be through the worse part of this process, yet again. The surgery was successful and smooth. All of the work that I put into preparing for it in the past few months has paid off, paving the way for what we hope is the best-case scenario in terms of recovery. I literally have flown through this surgery, and I’m looking forward to getting through the recovery as well.
I am never in this arena alone. I have my medical doctors, my rehabilitation and strength team, my mental coach, and of course my friends and family to thank… for standing by my side in all of this, and being relentless in their pursuit of better, always. Thank you. I’m a lucky girl, to have so many amazing hearts, minds, and souls in my corner. Not to mention the unbelievable and surreal support I receive via social media and the blog. This morning, my massage therapist and I realized that on the day that I had surgery last week, I received text messages from three countries, and Instagram messages from seven countries. That just blows my mind. The internet is an amazing thing, but nothing has done more to shrink our globe than social platforms like Instagram, where complete strangers can connect over common ground. Thank you.
Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with Pinterest.
I love it for the vast catalog of mindless entertainment, information and inspiration that it provides. Sometimes I hate it, when my clients bring all sorts of very impractical-and-not-real-life remodeling ideas to meetings. I try to visit the site at least a few times a week - not only to gather information and ideas, but to stay one step ahead of my clients… so I know what kinds of impractical-and-not-real-life remodeling ideas are trending in my future. It’s often during those “research expeditions” that I find that my true inspiration comes from the quotes that people share. I quickly transition from searching home design images, to searching quotes from all sources. I pin quotes from Bible verses to the Dalai Lama, and from Hemingway to Cheryl Strayed. Some are sentiments that make me think, and some make me smile. There are a few that I save to my phone, so I can send them to my friends. Others become journal entries, or inspiration for future blog posts.
Every time I have surgery, I try to come up with a theme for getting through the tough days right after the operation. It’s just something I do… sort of a mental strategy. This time, I decided that each day, I would jump on Pinterest, and pull a quote, and that would become the mantra for the day.
So, in honor of surgery/recovery #17, here are my first seven days of battle, in quotes.
Day #1 - (surgery day) I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me. (Unknown)
Day #2 - (home!!) Because when you stop and look around, this life is pretty amazing. (Unknown)
Day #3 - The moment that you change your perception, is the moment that you re-write the chemistry of your body. (Dr. Bruce Lipton)
Day #4 - Toss your hair in a bun, drink some coffee, put on some gansta rap, and handle it. (Unknown)
Day #5 - Chin up princess, or the crown slips. (Unknown)
Day #6 - (first partial day back to work) Let’s start by taking a smallish nap or two. (Winnie the Pooh)
Day #7 - In the end, only three things matter; how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you. (Buddha)
-My Instagram post from last night: Safely resting on the other side of #brainsurgery #15 ⚓️💙 it was a super long day, and I'm sore and tired, but the procedure brought almost instant relief from the pressure, and we are so thankful. 💙⚓️ we'll move onward tomorrow, but for tonight, I'm resting, breathing and listening to music... and no longer fighting back tears of exhaustion.
The surgery went as well as we had hoped; my shunt valve and anti siphon valve were both replaced, and I felt almost immediate relief from the pressure related pain. We are back home in Salem already, and since I'm so tired, it seems almost surreal that it even happened. But I'm thankful it's over, and we are heading back towards where I need to be physically.
I always trust the hands that hold my head.
This morning, the spring rain is falling here in Oregon, washing the landscape and cleansing my soul. It’s been an interesting couple of months. I’ve been retreating a little bit - pulling back, processing, and preparing myself mentally for the road ahead. After several months of spilling my thoughts and sharing my journey every week, I’ve needed this time to rest and remember who I am. In this period of stillness, I’ve had a chance to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I’m going.
One year ago, the focus of my treatment shifted, and my life changed forever. Under the guidance of my OT/PT, we began to address the current condition of my central nervous system (CNS), and the trauma that has resulted from over ten surgeries on my brain in just a few short years. Until that point, the sole focus of my medical team had been on my hydrocephalus, and my shunt. The shunt has always been the cause for the concern, the pain, and ultimately, all the brain surgeries. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the fact that my body needs a shunt, but hates it. At this point, I’m only averaging 3-6 months in between surgery episodes. So when my therapist told us that we would be treating my pain by working to soothe and heal my nervous system from the trauma of repeated surgery, it was a new way of thinking. In a nutshell, hydrocephalus can not be healed, but trauma can.
Trauma comes in many different forms- physical, psychological, and emotional. Brain surgery several times a year has put my nervous system through a firestorm of trauma - from the anesthesia, medications, and the physical wounds of surgery, to the emotional roller coaster and the mental exhaustion of simply trying to get through the episodes without complete system meltdown. The nerves and muscles in my face, my inner ear, and vestibular system have all been rocked and damaged. The physical symptoms of PTSD have also become more pronounced as each surgery passes. But most importantly, my CNS gets stuck in sympathetic response (commonly referred to as “fight or flight”). As my brain reels from trauma after trauma, my system is subconsciously guarding itself from further harm, at all times. This heightened state of awareness affects my sleep, breathing, and my ability to heal. The main focus of my therapy and rehabilitation this past year has been to assist my body in getting out of sympathetic response, and into parasympathetic response (rest and digest mode). Honestly, it’s very difficult. I had no idea that my brain was so damaged, and I was unprepared for how terrifying the process of unearthing all of the suppressed trauma would be. My brain only responds to certain people and in certain environments, and only lets go when I am safe, and completely fatigued, neurologically. I’m not sure if I will ever feel comfortable with this, but I know that I have a new respect for what I’m going through every time I have a shunt malfunction or surgery. After working on rehabilitation with this focus for just a year, I’ve realized that it is going to be one of the key factors in my success, for the rest of my life.
In 2015, I had a total of four surgeries. On paper, it was the worse year we’ve had with my brain to date, medically. However, by treating my CNS to heal the trauma after each surgery, we have been able to keep on track with the strategies that have historically allowed me to combat my hydrocephalus successfully. I’ve stayed active and strong, worked full time, and maintained the stability that I have strived so hard for in the past few years. While this has been one of the hardest years of my life, it’s also been one of the healthiest, and one of the happiest years. My mental perspective has also changed as my medical reality has evolved. I’ve always been a fighter, but now I know that I have to make an active choice to be well, and that only I can put in the work necessary to make that happen. It’s a daily challenge to to reach deep inside myself, choose to let go, and trust this painful and frightening process.
My current shunt is five months old. Sometime around the beginning of March, my pain spiked, and we began the all-too-familiar process of trying to right the ship to avoid the inevitable. We’ve tried everything.
I’ve rested, and I’ve pushed.
I’ve medicated, and I’ve detoxed.
We’ve adjusted, and we’ve waited.
I’ve got pages and pages of journaling and documentation of previous shunt failures, and treatments and tricks that have helped. In the past two months, I have poured myself into those logs - seeking anything that seems like a repeated pattern, and trying everything I know to do. And, in the end, we fought a good battle, and I’m proud of where I am. I’m strong, I’m at peace, and I’m ready. But there is nothing left to do, except to replace the shunt valves and start over.
I’m committed to finding the clearest path for my brain to travel, while it processes the trauma that I’m about to add to my system. This is about the physical aspects of recovery, but it’s also about mindset. It’s about being a fighter, but not fighting the process. It’s about trusting my team, and myself. And it’s about taking the shortest path through the shit, which is unfortunately straight through the shit. No detours.
There is no greater gift than for someone to care for you so much, that they are willing to get down in the trenches of life with you in your darkest hour and weakest moments. You look them in the eyes, let them see your pain, and are comforted by their presence in these moments of transparency. I’ve said this before, but I am unbelievably blessed by those who hold my heart. My family, my friends, and my community surround me, covering me in love, encouragement and prayers. I’m not alone, and together we stand in this battle. That's the truth.
Let’s do this again. We’ll hit the reset button, and show the world that we will be ok.
Surgery #15 - scheduled 5/25/16
Last month I had my #13 and #14th hydrocephalus related surgeries. Nine of these 14 surgeries have been since 2012, and every one of them have come with unique circumstances and challenges. Even though my husband and I have always tried to take them in stride, we make a vow to change or learn one thing each time that might make the process a little bit easier. Some of these things have been really practical, and other things are simply for comfort. We want to share some of our routines with you all, in hopes that they might help anyone else out there who is dealing with a lot of hospital stays and surgeries.
Live and love between the madness.
Here’s to the relentless pursuit of everything that’s important.
Stay strong, my warriors.
My name is Amy but friends and family call me Am. I am a lover of dogs, good whiskey, and strength training. I'm a brain surgery survivor (x23), a fiddle player, a construction designer, and a boxing enthusiast. I have six real siblings, and five fake brothers. I love deeply, and consider my close friends to be family.