This is an open invitation to my friends to take their best shot at sending me an email that will make me laugh! See, for the past nine days I’ve avoided reading, listening to, or watching anything possibly funny because it HURT to laugh.
On Friday, December 2, after an urgent visit to our nearby hospital’s ER, I was hustled in for emergency surgery to remove a seriously infected gallbladder. The surgery went smoothly.
Things have greatly improved since the days in decades gone by when they sliced a HUGE opening in your belly to get at the gallbladder, and recovery from the patch-up job took weeks. Older readers may remember the scandalous photo of President Lyndon Johnson back in the 60’s showing off his bare belly with its fearsome-looking gallbladder surgery scar. Nowadays, surgeons can usually do “laparoscopic” surgery, which requires four very small incisions. One is made through your belly button to insert a teensy camera. Two smaller ones are made off to the right side to allow surgical instruments to be inserted to do the surgery. And after they have clipped all the tissue holding the gallbladder in place, it is pulled out through another fairly small hole just below your breastbone.
But I didn’t realize until after the strong painkillers wore off that the small hole in my tummy through which the doc extracted the bad bladder was smack-dab in the middle of the abdominal muscle that contracts when you lower yourself to sit down, when you tense to raise yourself to a standing position … and when you laugh.
The first night I was home after the surgery, I made the mistake of thinking it would be pleasant to distract myself from my post-operative discomfort by watching a DVD with my husband. It was the introduction to a series from a ministry called “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” I should have taken the time to read the description of the session, titled “The Tale of Two Brains.” I checked just now… it literally says “laugh till you hurt.” Speaker Mark Gungor has the talents of both a pastor … and a stand-up comedian. I’m not sure what listening would have been like if I’d been in “normal health.” But with stitches in my mid-section, it literally felt like a knife was being plunged into my belly when Mark got to some of his funniest routines! Needless to say, I decided at the end of that session to put off watching the rest of the series for a couple of weeks.
So for the next week and a half, I literally had to warn family and friends to avoid being goofy around me, or sending me “funny” emails, or doing anything else that might make me laugh. Yesterday was the first day I noticed that I could stand up, sit down, and laugh without pain. What a relief! (It’s actually been impossible to do much more than tone down my friends and family a tiny bit … humor is a way of life for most of them and for me.)
But actually, that’s not what I wanted to write about in this blog entry. It’s what I noticed after that belly-laugh-muscle healed up. It was only when I quit having to baby it every time I stood up or sat down … or fought off laughter … that I noticed something really odd. You see, for the past two years, I have had some significantly miserable “back pain” issues, especially when lying down to go to bed at night. I would usually feel OK sitting up at my desk, or standing, or walking. But when I’d lie down to try to go to sleep, the back pains would start almost immediately. Sometimes it was aching and sharp pains in the muscles next to my tail bone. I would have to shift and shift and shift my position in bed, elevate my legs with a pillow perhaps, turn from side to side, to find some position where the pain subsided.
Sometimes it was a nagging ache between my shoulder blades that seemed to radiate up to my shoulders and then down the upper part of each arm. I would try propping my arms “just so” on separate pillows to try to alleviate this.
Sometimes it was an odd sharp pain along the top “ridge” of my hip bones, that wasn’t related to muscle pain, just left that ridge feeling “painfully tender,” and would leave me again shifting and shifting position trying to find a position that alleviated it somewhat. Many nights I’d end up taking Tylenol or Ibuprofen to try to dull the pain, but often even those didn’t help.
I kept making excuses for all this, assuming it was creeping arthritis or something related, an unavoidable side-effect of aging. Many mornings I’d wake up exhausted from so little sleep because of how long it took me to fall asleep … and fall back asleep, if I had to get up in the middle of the night for a bathroom visit.
And then I finally realized yesterday … every last one of those pains has been gone since the gallbladder surgery nine days ago! I can get immediately comfortable when I lie down, and there are no nagging pains later.
At first I thought maybe it was “all in my head,” as this seemed too odd to make any sense. And then I decided to Google “back pain” and “gallbladder.” Was I in for a surprise! Every last one of the symptoms described above is cited all over the Internet in medical articles about complications from infected gall bladders!
I have always vaguely realized that our bodies are made in such a way that sometimes pain or problems in one body part can “bounce around” and be manifested in another part of the body. But I related that in my mind to something more “logical,” such as tense neck muscles manifesting in a headache. I had no idea that there are some direct connections between the gallbladder and other widely-spread internal parts.
After reading up more on gallbladder symptoms, I also realized that I had ignored some very direct gallbladder attacks in the same past two years. I kept attributing my symptoms to either some sort of “stomach bug” or perhaps mild food poisoning. On two different occasions, several months apart, I had extremely bad stomach pains and nausea (but unable to vomit) all through the night. Because the symptoms lifted almost totally the next morning, I didn’t think to talk to a doctor about it.
And on another occasion, several months later, I had what I thought at the time was a heart attack. The pain had started between my shoulder blades, several hours later was a stifling pain in my chest and upper arms. The ER staff accepted it as a likely heart attack, since there was a small presence of some chemicals in my blood that can be a heart attack indicator. I was admitted to cardiac ICU and went through a heart catheter procedure the next day.
When I came out of the anesthetic, the doc said, “Your arteries are clean as a whistle! What are you doing here?” After discussing the circumstances that led up to my hospitalization, they decided at the time that I had perhaps had a “panic attack” from a severe emotional trauma, which can definitely mimic heart attack symptoms. But after talking to the gallbladder surgeon, I discovered that such emotional distress can ALSO trigger a gallbladder attack … and the symptoms of severe gallbladder attacks are also very commonly mistaken for heart attacks!
I was chatting about these new developments with my daughter Mona and husband George today. We all agreed that we can see some strong parallels between the way a toxic gallbladder can sneakily and negatively affect widely-scattered parts of your body… and the way a seemingly small toxic part of a person’s life choices can sneakily have a wide negative affect on many aspects of one’s life. And just like I kept “making excuses” for puzzling symptoms, and trying to ignore them, we can make excuses for things in our life that really, really should be faced and dealt with.
We thought through what aspects of our lives might have some problematic little issue that seemed fairly minor, but that might have its tentacles spread much wider. And we came up with all kinds of examples.
For instance, we have had issues with “hoarding” in the past, which we still struggle with at times. It seems like that would just lead to minor inconveniences such as having to rush around and “clean up” when company is coming. But the reality is that a hoarding tendency that gets out of hand can have all kinds of physical and emotional side effects.
There is the expense and inconvenience to store and/or move items that are, to put it kindly, often worthless. (When my mother in law died, she had been paying out of her meager Social Security income, for over twenty years, monthly charges for three large, garage-sized storage units. I cleaned those units out after her death. It was 99% total junk, crumbling and/or mouse-eaten, most of which she hadn’t looked through in thirty or forty years.)
There is the relational friction that hoarding can cause between a hoarder … and a mate who prefers simplicity and neatness. If taken too far, hoarding can make a home so crammed and cluttered that it is impossible to even entertain friends and family, further affecting relationships.
There is the stress that can be caused when really important items cannot be located … because they are lost in the hoarded piles. (After my mother in law’s death, while emptying her crammed apartment, I found a diamond necklace worth thousands of dollars—a treasured gift from her own mother—lying on a shelf under a pile of random clutter.)
There is the emotional embarrassment, and lowering of self-esteem if “outsiders” discover the problem.
And at bottom … there is whatever is CAUSING the tendency to hoard in the first place, and the failure to deal with those issues.
What could seem like an isolated problem … “just keeping too much stuff” … is really the nerve center of a whole galaxy of other problems. It’s not really just a “small problem.” It’s a toxic source of negativity that can make life miserable!
When we fail to deal with something toxic in our life, to face up to it and identify it—and take the steps necessary to get help if necessary to root it out… just as that nasty old gallbladder was extricated from my innards! … we may be unwittingly contributing to unnecessary misery in other parts of our lives.
I intend to do some more “introspecting” with this metaphor in mind, and see what else I might need to get rid of to improve my quality of life. I invite you to consider doing the same. I sure wish I’d gotten rid of that nasty old gallbladder several years ago! But I am grateful to God for the relief that I am now experiencing, for a return to “A Time for Laughter.”