Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not an easy task. In fact, I believe it is human instinct to run from situations where we’re feeling wide open to hurt, abuse, or victimization. No one wants to feel helpless and at someone’s mercy. We all want to feel like we are in control of our lives. But sometimes helplessness can be a bridge to finding deeper meaning in life and of peace within. I recently had an experience that changed my life as it dropped me into a place of helplessness and surrender. As a result of what I went through, I learned how much energy it takes to attempt to maintain control over life. Having to be in control exacts a huge price from us and we generally pay by abdicating our peace and serenity.
On June 22, 2010, I helplessly lay on an operating room table while they cut my chest open, sawed my sternum in two, stopped my heart, and a stranger stuck his hands into my chest and performed bypass surgery on my heart. During that entire experience, from the day I was diagnosed with blocked arteries, to today, the words “surrender” and “helplessness” have become my experience and my reality. I’ve learned what it means to know helplessness and to surrender to that feeling.
You could have knocked me over with a sponge when I was told I needed open heart surgery. I was one of the healthiest people I knew, or so I thought. I walked five days a week and I ate healthy food which was mostly organic and cooked from scratch. My diet was loaded with fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Besides that, I lived a healthy lifestyle. My thoughts were mostly positive, I believed in something far greater than I, I meditated on a daily basis, and my life was filled with love from my husband, my girlfriends, and my family.
When I was told that I had high cholesterol and blocked arteries, I said to the doctor, “But, how can this be?” I then rattled off all of the above to help him understand that he’d obviously made a mistake. The only explanation he could give me was that my condition was genetic. For the next five days, while waiting to have my surgery, I lived in what felt like no mans land. I vacillated between feeling out-of-body, like I was watching my life unfold, to being filled with dread, fear, and disbelief. Finally, I reached a state of clarity where I knew that I needed to surrender and to trust that all was working on my behalf. This helped me to peacefully give in to the process and open myself to the opportunity for healing and learning.
My surgery was on Tuesday and by Wednesday mid-day I was taken out of ICU and brought to my own room. When I wasn’t sleeping, I lay in my hospital bed feeling empty and hollow. It’s like I was in a state of suspended animation, waiting for nothing. I seemed to be gone. I couldn’t find the person I was before they cut me open. Nothing seemed to matter, nothing was of interest.
Early Thursday afternoon they told me since I was doing so well they’d let me go home the next day. About 6:00 PM, as I lay quietly waiting for my husband to come, I felt like my heart jumped out of my body and started bouncing off the walls. I immediately heard feet running down the hall and my nurse came bursting into my room asking, “do you feel what’s going on with your heart?” I said, “Yes, it’s bouncing off of the walls.” She informed me I was in atrial fibrillation and they were going to give me something to restore the rhythm of my heart. Another nurse came in and I think they put medicine into my IV line because they said I’d feel my heartbeat return to its’ natural rhythm. Well, I had a different reaction to the medicine and instead of my heart calming, it started pausing. It would beat a few times, then pause. I’d feel the heat in my face and head and that’s how I knew a pause was coming. My husband was there by then and amid the flurry of activity going on around my bed, I remembered to do the only thing I could do, surrender. I felt no fear, nor anxiety, all I remember feeling was calmness along with the familiar emptiness and sense of helplessness.
They took me back to ICU and I stayed there until the next day. In the early afternoon on Friday they brought me to my own room again. This time my room had windows that faced the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains. I was born in the flatlands of Louisiana, but the mountains are where I feel at home. There is something about the colors, shapes, and the feel of mountains that draw me in and fill up my senses. For the first time since I’d been in the hospital, I actually felt something beyond empty, and that feeling was gratitude for the breathtaking view I had.
They wanted to monitor my heart for another 48 hours so I was told I’d be in the hospital until Sunday. I had the nurse put a recliner with a pillow and blanket on it by the window. For the rest of Friday afternoon and all day Saturday, I sat in that chair and stared at the mountains. A couple of times I got in bed for a nap, and upon awakening I’d go back to the chair. I ate my breakfast, lunch, and dinner reclining in that chair. All I wanted to do was look out the window and watch the shadows rise and fall on the mountain as day came and went. I felt a silence deep within and a call to immerse myself in the peaceful, healing spirit of the Blue Ridge. I wanted to describe what I was feeling, but I had no words. All I had was silence and the serenity and the strength that the mountains were offering me.
On Sunday morning as I was getting ready to go home, my blood pressure dropped and I was put back in bed and told I’d have to be watched for another 24 hours. My husband walked into my room, saw me laying there crying, and climbed into my bed with me. He held me in his arms while I unleashed my sorrow and cried myself to sleep. When he left for home that afternoon, I went back to my chair,my silence, and my view of the mountains. On Monday afternoon I finally got to come home and I began my daily journey to recovery.
As I think about the events of those seven days in the hospital, and the slow and what seemed like endless recovery after, I’ve come to an understanding of what I experienced. I never felt hopeless, but I did feel totally and utterly helpless, like I was tumbling down the rabbit hole and there was no one to catch me. I had no control over my life or what was happening to my body, so the only thing that made sense to me was to allow myself to feel the helplessness of the situation, and leave it to providence to heal my body. The more helpless I felt, the less I tried to control or change anything. I somehow found the courage to let go and just sit and be quiet. The endless chatter in my mind had abated and it was replaced with an emptiness that bordered on serenity. I found myself crying a lot and I saw how useless it was for me to try to do anything. I didn’t feel depressed, I just felt like someone had turned me over and emptied me out and I instinctively knew I wasn’t going to be able to fill that emptiness with any magic tricks or quick fixes.
Days and weeks passed and I began to gather strength in my body, and before I knew it I was able to resume a lot of the activities of my life. One thing I noticed is how quiet my soul has remained. Every once in a while I have the thought that I need to do something to make a contribution to the world, that perhaps I need to get a job, or I need to write more, or start a women’s circle, or volunteer for something. But thankfully, before I can get myself in gear, I remember the soul healing I experienced by sitting quietly and staring at the mountains, and I once again find myself able to just be quiet. I have a suspicion that my heart is not only healing itself physically but also emotionally, and I don’t need to interrupt what’s happening inside of me.
The gift that I’ve been blessed to receive in this experience is the lesson of how to allow helplessness and surrender into my life. I remind myself moment by moment to breathe, drop my shoulders, and just be present to what shows up. I wouldn’t wish the physical and emotional trauma of open heart surgery on anyone, nor would I ever want to go through that experience again. But what I will carry in my heart forever is gratitude for the gift of learning how liberating it is to allow helplessness into my life.