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Going With the Flow of the River: Facing My Fears Before Brain Surgery

I can’t sleep.

It has been a rough day. I feel like I have been drowning, gasping for air – just so many tears. A river of sadness, and fear.

This brain surgery project is proving to be much harder the second time around.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, which I’m now realizing is part of the problem.

See, this time around, I’ve been hospitalized. There is a lot of time in the hospital. Too much time. Endless time – minutes, hours, even days. So much time. And when you are drowning in fear of poor outcomes, it can feel so very hard to breathe.

The last time I was up for brain surgery, for my first cavernoma resection in 2016, I had no restrictions prior to the procedure. I was trail running every morning – out in the fresh air, under the fading starlight and getting daily glimpses of the sunrise. Breathtaking. I was spending time with my friends – enjoying dinner and a glass of wine together. I was working – social justice, advocacy, feeling inspired and committed to social and structural change. I was cuddling with my three beautiful children, inhaling their sweet scent each night as we put them to bed. I was committed to weekly date nights with my husband, the man who makes me feel so very safe and loved – my very best friend.

The last time I had brain surgery, of course I felt fear. But I also felt strong and healthy, courageous and empowered.

This time around feels so different.

Multiple emergency room visits. ICU. An ambulance ride – so very unexpected. Terrifying, really. Multiple hemorrhagic strokes. Seizure medications. More hospitalizations. Immediate pending surgery – the resection of another cavernoma, this time on my left parietal lobe.

There were no neatly scheduled visits to the neurosurgery clinic this time. There was no time for a second or third opinion. This was not a measured choice, an option or a well-researched and carefully considered decision.

This was a necessity. And it is so very soon. Tomorrow, in fact.

It is 12:04 a.m. here in the hospital. Time stretches endlessly here.

I’ve allowed myself a few days to grieve. I’ve learned over the years that tears are cleansing, cathartic and necessary. But oh, the tears.

I worry about everything. Not making it. Leaving my kids. Permanent disability. Losing my ability to speak, facial droop, loss of motor skills on my right side.

I’ve been crying for three days straight. I cry as I wait to get the PICC line placed. I blink back tears as my children and friends visit me in the hospital. Silent tears leak out of the corners of my eyes as the kind night nurses do my vitals and blood draws; they discreetly notice my tears and worry that my headaches are too painful.

But it is my fear that is causing me the most pain. “Are you OK?” they ask. “Would you like an ice pack? You can have some more pain meds in 30 minutes.” And then: “How would you rate your pain on a scale from one to 10?”

My head pain is a five. I’m used to pain – I’m a pro at pain.

But my fear? It is beyond a 10. I have jumped into it fully, committed and I am truly drowning.

I am laying in my hospital bed, in the dark. “Get some sleep,” the nurses tell me. “Your next neuro check will be at 12:30 a.m. and you’ll have a blood draw at 4:30 a.m.”

I toss and turn. I think about my fear. I struggle. I literally cannot breathe.

And that’s when it hits me: I am swimming the wrong way up this goddamn river. No wonder I am struggling against this massive, overwhelming current. No wonder I am weary, crushed by anxiety and literally drowning.

I am flailing. And I am failing, swimming upstream.

And I realize – I am done with the fear. It is serving no purpose. I am clearly drowning.

I sigh deeply in the dark. I am all alone, in the dark, in a hospital bed.

I will be OK, I say to myself, so very quietly. I don’t really trust it at all. I am testing it out.

I will be OK. Again.

I will be fine. I repeat this to myself, stronger, at least 20 times. Tears slide slowly down my cheeks. Only this time, they are tears of release, not the struggling sobs of fear.

I trust my surgeon. A mantra. Mantras are healing.

I can feel my body beginning to relax.

I trust the outcome. The waters of release are slowly beginning to wash over my weary mind and soul.

I am grateful there is a solution to this problem. I am choosing to fix a problem.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I will be OK.

The metaphor of the river soothes me. All of this time, I have been struggling upstream. Fighting. Unable to breathe. Panicking and flailing. Drowning.

Courage, I realize, is embracing the river. Embracing the current, the rocks, the unforeseen rapids. The flow.

I can fight and struggle and be in that fear and that is normal, healthy and OK. For a time.

I have to feel those big fears. I cannot simply pretend this isn’t scary and there aren’t far too many unknowns.

But at some point – for my sanity and well-being – I have to face that fear. I turn around. Slowly. I hold my loved ones close – my life preserver. I embrace the river. I lay down, in the current, and notice the sky above me for the first time.

I can breathe again.

I will be OK.

This might not be what I expected. Nothing ever is. I look down into the river, and my eyes rest on the bright smooth stones, perfect for skipping. For the first time in a long time, I feel a new sensation.

A tiny ripple of hope.

I can breathe again. I will be OK. I am choosing to be in the river and flow. Strength for the journey.

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