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It's OK If You Have a Conflicted Relationship With Your Surgery Anniversary

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If you have a health condition that requires surgery and are connected to others in the same community, you might see people sharing their surgery stories on their “surgery anniversaries” or posting about them on social media.  Many people use their “surgery anniversaries” to express gratitude for the ways their surgeries have improved their lives and celebrate how far they’ve come since their recovery.  But many others have a challenging relationship with their “surgery anniversaries” — those “special” days can also be painful reminders of medical trauma and the frustrations of living in a disabled body.

I’m one of the many who’s struggled on my surgery anniversary, although the image I portray on that day is often vastly different than the reality.  Throughout the years, I’ve celebrated my surgery anniversary with choreographed dances, dressy clothes, and one milestone year, a delicious cake.  But a social media photo of a cake marking 15 years since surgery can never convey just how difficult the process of coming to terms with my surgery and learning self-acceptance for my scarred body has been.

I had my most significant surgery as a child, so I was unable to consent to being temporarily sedated and having parts of my body cut into and rearranged.  At 10 years old, I was old enough to understand exactly what was happening to me and why I needed surgery, but I neither possessed the emotional maturity nor had the legal capacity to decide whether or not I truly wanted surgery. I fought hard against the decision, desperately hoping I could convince my parents to cancel the surgery, but at the end of the day, I didn’t have a choice — I was having surgery whether I wanted to or not.

Consequently, I spent years feeling angry at the doctor who performed a surgery I could never bring myself to appreciate.  I gradually realized that had I not had the surgery, I would have struggled physically in ways I had never before experienced, but I also knew that my post-surgery years spent grappling with disability “passing privilege” might never have been if not for my surgery.  Sometimes as I silently seethed at my orthopedic surgeon, I wondered if people would validate my physical pain or believe my diagnosis if I had never had surgery. Would I look more like a person with cerebral palsy “should” look?  Would my more apparent symptoms lend credence to my experiences as a woman with a disability?

My ongoing struggle with the lack of consent I faced when I had surgery as a child later manifested as depression, anxiety, and a years-long eating disorder from which I have yet to recover — and every “surgery anniversary,” I’m reminded of all I have yet to overcome.  The control I could never seem to gain over my own body and medical decisions bled into every other part of my life, so no matter how much I discuss my medical experiences in therapy or try to reframe what I’ve gone through, I can’t seem to let go of the notion that I need to be poised, perfect and in power in every aspect of my life.  My inability to relinquish control on account of my surgery experiences floods back every surgery anniversary — and no amount of stylish outfits or self-baked cakes can stop the unwanted memories from creeping back in.

Make no mistake — I’m proud of how far I’ve come physically and mentally in the 16 years since my last surgery.  I no longer despise the doctor who performed my surgery, and I don’t go out of my way to conceal my surgical scars anymore.  I’m actively working through the pain and fatigue I experience and am gradually becoming stronger and increasing my stamina.  My surgery shaped me into the woman I’ve become, and although I don’t love myself, I owe my empathetic, caring spirit to the moment I went under the knife — and the difficult years that followed.

But every “surgery anniversary,” I remember how helpless I felt at the hands of that surgeon, and I can’t help but feel a sense of bittersweet melancholy.  If there’s one thing I’ve discovered in the years since my surgery, though, it’s that having a complicated relationship with my “surgery anniversary” is completely OK.

If you struggle to reconcile your surgery experiences with your progress each “surgery anniversary,” I see you.  If you see joyful, reflective social media posts about recovery from surgery and wonder if anyone feels angry in the wake of their surgery, I can relate.  And if you have a conflicted relationship with your “surgery anniversary” — a sense of appreciation and bitterness intertwined — that’s perfectly fine.

You don’t need to love your surgery experiences or the person they shaped you into, and you don’t need to celebrate your “surgery anniversary” in ways that don’t resonate with you.  It’s OK if you have a conflicted relationship with your “surgery anniversary” — your feelings are real, and they’re completely valid.


Getty image by Joann Pate.

Originally published: November 6, 2021
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