True confession: I started writing this post on August 6th and have struggled to finish it; rarely am I at a loss for words.
During a recent conversation, with friend and colleague registered dietitian Lauren Anton, it came to my attention that the delay was rooted in fear. I have been scared to share that negative body image thoughts came back to haunt me.
Who wants to hear this from a therapist? Shouldn't we have our shit together? How the hell can we help someone if we are struggling with something?
Well, dear reader, even with my education and training, negative body image thoughts can resurface. How could they not? We live in a society that over values appearance; we are inundated with messages about what our bodies should look like. It can take time to repair our relationship with our bodies; even then, we can still be visited, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, by negative thoughts about our body.
It started in May. Right after the Emerald Ball; a 3-day dance competition. I knew something was wrong; I hoped it wasn't what I suspected. I rested for a few days. I continued to take dance lessons. I took breaks and wore sneakers to practice. Dancing in sneakers is not ideal; your ability to turn is limited and there is the possibility of twisting your ankle. I kept pushing through the discomfort and pain.... until I couldn't tolerate it anymore.
I gave in and made an appointment with my podiatrist, Dr. Noreen Oswell. Two x-rays and intensely painful manipulation confirmed what I already knew; I had dislocated a toe. Seems minor, right? Nothing to be upset about, right? It could be worse, right? The pain from this little, dislocated joint reverberated through my body and soul like the aftershock of an earthquake.
As a pre-emptive strategy, I asked my doctor if the injury was caused by my weight. Many medical professionals link body weight as the root cause of symptomology, injury, and disease (please consider causation versus correlation - consider, if weight was the cause, how come people in thinner bodies can be impacted, too). Many also prescribe weight loss without assessing for eating disorders, asking about a patient's physical activities, or nutrition practices...and never tending to the symptoms at hand. My doctor assured me that my injury was caused by the mechanics of my foot; genetics (Thanks, Mom & Dad!). She even brought out a skeleton foot to show me.
I hobbled to the car in one sneaker and one not-so-fashionable Velcro, orthopedic shoe (left foot in a soft cast). I donned my sunnies, put on my Stevie Nicks playlist, and cried my eyes out. Thoughts ran through my brain like the SCMAGLEV...….Would a physical injury create disconnection in my body? Would I, to cope, return to old patterns? Would I gain weight? What would people think had happened? Would anyone ask me if I needed help? Would I need to ask for help from others? If I asked for help would people think me weak...would anyone help me?
It was an emotional afternoon. I felt guilty for obtaining a temporary Disabled Person Parking Placard; thoughts of taking up too much space and the privilege of living in an able body surfaced. Only one of my close friends asked if I needed anything; I supposed that was to be expected when one has the "curse of competence". I experienced a few (ok, more than a few) negative thoughts about my body. AND... I felt alone.
Additionally, I would not be able to wear cute shoes (I love my shoe collection - some have jokingly said it rivals that of Imelda Marcos - I can assure it does not). I could not dance for 6-8 weeks and I could not take my dogs on walks. I had a laundry list of all the things I could not do. I was miserable. But, not being one to wallow in my self-pity (for too long), I allowed myself a 24-hour pity party.
The next day, I got busy planning for the 6-8-week recovery. I had negotiated with my doctor to let me do Pilates in a chair; she approved if I promised to ice it often and stay off the foot as much as possible. I agreed to her terms. Whew! As someone who is relatively new to "being in my body", my movement practice is sacred.
For years, I had lived from the neck up; always in my head. I was cut-off from bodily sensations (like hunger and satiety); I didn't fully inhabit my body. Now, I am so attuned to my body that I can feel when I activate the latissimus and rhomboid muscles as I practice arm styling for dance... I geek out by learning the names of muscles and feeling the sensations as they function within my body. I am very aware of my posture and the way that I move through the world....and I like it! I like having this connection, errr, re-connection to my body. The Velcro shoe on the left and sneaker on the right foot skews my posture and causes misalignment; I am, quite literally, lopsided. This wonky posture amplified the negative body thoughts.
I reached out to my Pilates and Burlesque teacher. Ginger was on board to help me create a chair Pilates movement practice. I felt self-conscious hobbling through the building to our studio; cue more negative body thoughts. Ginger met me with her usual "let's do this" attitude. We chatted about how I was feeling emotionally (down) and physically (crooked and uncomfortable). We started with prolonged breath work; the injury HAD caused me to feel disconnected from my body. We focused on arms and back; creating a gentle flow with movement and breathe. She could tell I was frustrated and reminded me that it was an experiment; be an observer. By the end of the session, I was doing a seated Burlesque combination to Darling Nikki; I ended up laughing at the contradiction of being sultry whilst wearing an orthopedic shoe....reminiscent of something you might see on Mama's Family.
I approach the remaining 3 weeks (yes, I am doing a Casey Kasem Countdown for when I get to wear REAL shoes and dance again) a "To Do" list of (seated) tasks. I am also grateful for this experience. It has reminded me that I am fortunate to live in an able body. It has deepened my vulnerability with my friends; I shared that I felt alone and was hurt that only one person asked if I needed anything. It has strengthened my ability to turn the volume down on negative thoughts about my body. More than just my foot has been healed during this time.
Since beginning this post, I have had several follow-up appointments to have the soft cast changed; every two weeks. While she was recasting my foot, Dr. Oswell and I chatted about the impact of physical injury on body image. That discussion resulted in the following draft....
5 Ways to Navigate Recovery from Physical Injury or Surgery: Managing Negative Body Image
5. Collaborate with your physician to find out what you CAN do during your recovery.
Physicians will provide you with a list of limitations to help you heal and avoid reinjury. This can be challenging for those who lead active lifestyles. Ask how you can modify activities or for alternate exercise or movements. Focusing on what you can do can lessen negative thoughts about your body.
4. Allow yourself to feel the array of emotions that may occur.
Recovering from an injury or surgery can bring about strong emotions as you come to terms with the loss of your abilities; being able-bodied can be taken for granted. Realizing the loss can bring up feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, frustration, and helplessness. These are all normal reactions.
3. Be gentle with yourself; trust the wisdom of your body as it heals.
It is important to follow your physicians’ guidelines for recovery. As you heal, you may be tempted to push yourself to be more active. Pushing yourself can lead to re-injury or a prolonged recovery. Tune in to the wisdom of your body; take breaks, rest, acknowledge and communicate unexpected or unusual pain to your physician.
2. Seek moments of calm, peace, and joy.
Create a plan to engage in things you enjoy while you recover. Engaging in activities that make you feel good can make more challenging emotions easier to tolerate. Incorporating moments of calm and peace can help alleviate anxious thoughts about your body.
1. Reach out for help if you need support during this time.
Develop a support team for your recovery; let friends and family know how they can help you. You can also seek out the services of helping professionals; registered dietitians, physical therapists, and psychotherapists. You aren't alone; you don't have to do it all on your own.
How have YOU navigated your recovery from physical injury or surgery? What would have been helpful to your recovery? Please feel free to email me your thoughts and ideas.