Post-Op Post-Mortem

Recovery: A Self Portrait

Why wasn’t I excited? This was something I’d wanted for more than six years. I knew that I wanted it before I knew so many other things about myself. Six years.

And yet — there I was. Months, weeks, and then days away. I’d rescheduled it once because I didn’t feel ready — I couldn’t do that again. I just wanted it over with.

People kept saying how excited they were for me and I would thank them, but guilt consumed me. To the folks closer to me I’d say, “I’m glad someone is.”

It’s still scary to name it. There is so much shame that I carry. I’m afraid I’ll get called selfish, ungrateful, or that I squandered the privilege.

I’m a trans person who received top surgery on November 11, 2015. I was assigned female-at-birth and knew that I wanted to have a flat chest since I was 19 (I’m 25 now).

Recently, Oregon’s health plan started covering trans health care — including many gender affirming surgeries. This meant that I could receive surgery for free instead of shelling out $10,000 I didn’t have.

After getting my necessary letters (a total of 3), I was able to schedule my surgery for September 25, 2015.

As that date crept closer, the fear was starting to seep in and I realized I wasn’t ready. So I rescheduled. The new date was November 11, 2015 — this felt better but still, I dreaded it.

I’d never had any kind of major surgery before. I could not conceptualize what it would be like afterward. Who was I going to be? What was I going to be like? How would I feel? Not knowing terrified me.

I never had any doubt about going through with it. This confused me sometimes, but I also knew that I just wanted to make it to the other side and see how I survived this event.

I began to internalize a lot. I felt isolated and lonely. I quit smoking and drinking alcohol three weeks before surgery. I had a lot of smoothies. Journaled almost every day. Tried to feel normal. I longed for reassuring human contact. I wished that I enjoyed cuddling my friends.

It felt like everyone disappeared on me and in some ways, this was actually true. The person I’d wanted to care for me after surgery wasn’t going to be able to. Coping with this was difficult, especially because I already felt so alone.

I had no idea how to coordinate my post-care. My anxiety was at an all-time high and it was an overwhelming task. It was a big relief when my friend/platonic life partner Nicky took the reins.

The night before, I tried to stay busy. I’d been running errands all day, pacing around my house, and wishing I had a buddy. I didn’t know how to calm down. My heart wouldn’t stop racing.

And then it was surgery day.

Many folks sent me texts of love and support. I drove to the hospital with Nicky and my mom.

I remember shaking the entire time — they gave me medication for that and it kind of helped. Nicky held my hand. My friend Serena showed up just before they wheeled me away. They put me on the operating table and I got sleepy.

I woke up alone and unable to see anything but blurry shapes. They gave me my glasses, I looked at the clock — it was like I time traveled.

They took me to the recovery room. I was still alone — after 30 minutes I asked if my mom and friends could come see me.

Most of that night was a drug-induced haze but I know I felt pretty sick when I’d try to stand up. That I have the unfortunate memory of knowing what a catheter feels like. That the nurses thought I was cute because I had my teddy bear with me. That I was jealous of my friends getting margaritas while I was in surgery.

I got to see my chest the next day — much sooner than I expected. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt confused because it wasn’t weird at all. It looked normal and right. Nicky started crying as she watched me look at my chest for the first time.

Much of the following week I slept or watched TV. The day that I decided to only take pain medication at night was excruciating. The crushing weight of reality started to sink in.

I had been staying with my parents but made the decision to return home. In hindsight, that was a terrible choice and I made many mistakes in my recovery. There was one night that I got too drunk and walked home in the cold. I also blew through my money because I didn’t know how to ask for help and had food delivered to me almost every night.

The loneliness manifested again.

I’d been aware that post-surgical depression was a possibility. In fact, I assumed that I would deal with it because I’m predisposed to it.

I wasn’t prepared for my depression to be so generalized. Everything I’d read or watched talked about it in a body-focused way. The most common experience seemed to be about unhappiness with the results or adjusting to a new body.

It came as a shock that mine wasn’t like that. I didn’t want to get out of my bed. I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I didn’t want to eat. I cried more in that first month than I did in the last year. I felt like I was existing in darkness (and it didn’t help that the sun went down so early).

And then I got broken up with (the second time in a two months) and spiraled even further. I wondered if it was because I was trans — if it was because I had surgery. Regardless if this was true or not, I felt so unlovable and unworthy. I didn’t want to exist. I wondered what the point was. I felt like a shell of a person. I began to wonder if I was still under anesthesia and this was all a bad dream.

When my living situation started become untenable, I found relief at my parents house. I took a lot of baths. I watched a lot of TV. I took a lot of selfies. I later moved back in with my family so I could find my balance again.

I still don’t know how to talk about how dark of a time that was. It feels like I’ve spent months saving face — not talking about how I fucked up I felt. I didn’t want to bum anyone out. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

It’s been a little over three months since I had surgery and I’m returning to a more stable state of mind. I want to exist. I am more capable of doing things again. I am grateful for my body and love how my chest turned out. I feel like a person about 98% of the time now. I have more good days now than I did. I even feel happy for entire days sometimes.

I guess I’m writing this for myself because there’s so much I still need to heal from. But I’m also writing this for anyone who’s experiencing similar feelings. There are few validating resources about this and it’s necessary that they exist.

If I could, I’d tell my past-self that my feelings are valid. That it was okay that I wasn’t excited. That I didn’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. That it was okay that I was so depressed. To be more gentle with myself.

So I want to extend that invitation to you if you’re experiencing those feelings. They’re valid. You’re valid. Be gentle with yourself.

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