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Learning to Love My Body 15 Years After Cerebral Palsy Surgery

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Fifteen years ago today, I was lying in a hospital bed, feeling angry, sad and completely alone.  At just 10 years old, I was in the throes of recovering from my third surgery, a “minor” orthopedic procedure on my cerebral palsy-affected foot.  But in all honesty, nothing about this surgery, which required me to use a wheelchair for six weeks and involved a few months of recovery, felt minor to me.

The lack of control I felt, both over my body and over my circumstances, was overwhelming.  I’d spent days trying to make my family forget about the surgery (or at least convince them to push it back so I’d still be able to walk on Thanksgiving).  But the surgery moved forward as planned, and with it came the feeling that I hadn’t consented to any of it.  I was old enough to understand exactly why I was having surgery, but I was still far too young to sign off on going under the knife.

I didn’t ask to have to learn to cope with a world that was no longer built for me.  I didn’t ask to feel violently ill after surgery or to have surgical scars permeating my foot or to feel like my sense of childhood was being ripped away from me.  I didn’t ask to hear an influx of comments about my recovering body.  And my anger at my perceived lack of control made me feel spiteful and bitter, not only towards my parents, but also towards my orthopedic surgeon.

For several years after my surgery, I seethed at my surgeon for permanently “marking” me with a scalpel, taking the body I could have learned to love and indelibly changing it. I lived in fear that my friends would ask me about the barely-visible scars lining my foot, so when I wore open-toed shoes, I was hyper-aware of my scars — and my discomfort surrounding them.  My scars were a reminder that no matter how hard I tried, I could never truly hide my CP, and I hated my surgeon for making my disability visible when I wanted more than anything to hide it from the world.

But every year on the anniversary of my surgery, I tried to tell myself a different narrative. On the first anniversary, I performed a self-choreographed dance, fully aware that without the surgery, I may not have been able to dance anymore. On the anniversaries following, I’d dress up in my favorite outfits or treat myself to something delicious out of respect for my body’s resilience in the face of adversity. I still spent the rest of the year ruminating about my scars and hating that orthopedic surgery was ever a part of my life, but surgery anniversary day was special — full of unconditional self-love and self-respect.

Five years ago, though, on the 10th anniversary of my surgery, I discovered that I no longer resent my surgeon for doing his job or my parents for insisting I have surgery. To celebrate 10 years post-surgery, I decided to hop as many times as I could on my affected foot — something doctors told me I’d never be able to do and something I couldn’t do at all until a few months post-surgery. As I stood alone in my apartment bedroom, giddily hopping my heart out, I thought about how I single-handedly defied a doctor’s prognosis — and realized I likely never would have pushed past my prognosis had I never had surgery.

It was in that moment of pure exhilaration that I realized how far I’d come. My friends still may not have known about my cerebral palsy, but I no longer obsessed over my scars or held malice in my heart for the surgeon who created them.  I fully understood that even though my surgery was grueling, unpleasant and othering, my parents believed it would lead me to a fulfilling life. And in that moment, as a college student living independently, taking a full courseload and approaching an early graduation, I’d never felt more content with the life I’d built myself — a life that would be far more challenging without having had surgery.

The past five years post-surgery may have been more low-key than the previous years, but they’ve been no less special.  I’ve opened up about my cerebral palsy and shared the emotions that came over me during and after surgery.  I’ve continued to treat myself to kind words and delicious food on my surgery anniversaries.  And I’ve found friends who understand how much my surgery anniversary means to me and who don’t judge me for celebrating it in any way I see fit.

I don’t know exactly how I’ll celebrate 15 years post-surgery today. I might bake a cake, blast upbeat music or dress in the most fabulous outfit possible. But no matter how I celebrate my surgery anniversary today, I’ll never forget why I celebrate. I celebrate my surgery anniversary as a reminder of the physical and emotional struggles I’ve overcome — and how they’ve led me to a life I truly love.

Getty image by Bro vector.

Originally published: November 18, 2020
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