Six weeks ago, I had surgery to repair my arthritic thumb joint, rendering my right hand temporarily unusable. While my pain has been more intense than anticipated and my recovery more slow (e.g., I can only move my thumb a tiny bit and cannot grasp a pencil or type), I have also learned some unexpected life lessons from this experience. Some are new and some are things that I knew cognitively before, but have now experienced at a more visceral and emotional level. Several are lessons that I hope to carry with me, long after my hand is healed.
• The world is not setup for disabled people: As just an example, one day I was carrying things with my left hand and needed to enter a building. I went to the door with the disabled sticker on it, only to find there was no automatic entrance. Apparently the sticker simply signified that once inside, the building was accessible. My problem was getting inside.
• Some strangers help, some look away nervously, and some stare and whisper: For the 10 days following surgery, my arm was wrapped in a way that it appeared as if part of my hand had been cut off. Some strangers made eye contact and offered tangible assistance (e.g., opening doors, helping me get paper towels to dry my hands in the bathroom). Some looked away nervously--making it clear that my disability made them quite uncomfortable. Others stared, turned to their friends and whispered, and then looked back and stared again.
• The importance of social support: A robust body of research in psychology confirms the important physical and mental health benefits of social support. According to the American Institute of Stress, one of the best definitions of a social support is that of psychiatrist Sidney Cobb, who describes social support as the subjective feeling of being cared for and loved, esteemed and valued. As stated on the Mayo Clinic website in an article that includes tips on cultivating social support, "A strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times, whether you've had a bad day at work or a year filled with loss or chronic illness." My experience confirms the research; thanks, friends and family!
• Pain is debilitating and exhausting: Although I grew up with a mother who suffered chronic pain, the psychology of pain has not been an area of expertise for me as it is for PT blogger Dr. Mark Borigini. Indeed, my knowledge in this area is limited to the fact that psychological factors play a role in pain and that psychological treatments can help people deal with pain. I have not read the many articles or books on psychology of chronic pain (just two of which are linked here). What I now know, however, is that that pain is debilitating and exhausting; I have increased empathy and respect for those dealing with chronic pain, including my own mother.
• Mindfulness meditation helps: In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts, igniting a proliferation of mindfulness practices in psychology and medicine. A growing body of research demonstrates that mindfulness-based interventions are effective for a variety of issues including stress, depression and substance abuse. Mindfulness has also proven effective in multiple studies for the relief of pain. My experience listening to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's tapes when in pain is that they work; my pain was reduced.
• Eating with my non-dominant hand: Mindfulness interventions have also been applied to eating issues. One oft-recommended technique for both mindful eating and for weight loss is eating with one's non-dominant hand. Being forced to do this has showed me the power of this technique. I eat more slowly and therefore perceive my fullness more quickly--before I over-eat. The bonus is I have lost those five pounds I have long wanted to lose. Also, perhaps because eating is difficult, I am more likely to eat for sustenance alone, rather than for emotional reasons such as stress or exhaustion. Instead, when stressed or tired, I simply take a break or rest.
• A Personality Shift
• A Personality Shift: Resting when tired is new for me, the kind of person that those who know me well would have previously described as "Type A." Now, I have learned to slow down and listen more to my body. Because I can't keyboard, my email signature currently says: "Sent by Voice Recognition Software; please excuse brevity and typos." Perhaps after my hand heals, I will edit it to say: "Sent by an Aspiring Type B person: please embrace the brevity and typos."
When telling a well-known rehabilitation psychologist colleague about the positive changes I have reaped from being temporarily disabled, I said, "I feel as if my brain has been re-wired." She surprised me by declaring that the rehabilitation literature supports my feeling; she said that using one's non-dominant hand can create new brain circuitry. Because I am less perfectionistic now, I have not yet done a literature search on this, but instead just share with you what she said.
Speaking of sharing, stay tuned for my next blog where I will reveal what I have learned about sex--my main area of writing and clinical work-- from being temporarily disabled.