Slowing down time between stomaversaries

Yesterday was Wilbur the Stoma’s birthday! I know the past five years since surgery have contained days and days of incredible adventures, but somehow the time has still gone by in a flash. With the sense of normalcy I now have with my stoma, the memories of  those early days are starting to fade.

I love looking back on my blog posts and videos as they help me to connect with who I was in those initial years after surgery, but so much of that time is also a blur. Life sprints ahead when I wish it would meander along in a stroll. It feels like summer was just here, and now the trees are already missing their leaves. Before I know it, I will be celebrating my six-year stomaversary. I want to slow down and savor moments more. Fortunately, I have found a secret for reaching that objective: nature journaling.

I first started nature journaling in the 1990s when my love of keeping diaries and passion for sketching merged and forever changed my relationship with nature. In my journals, I could playfully record natural happenings, curiously ponder what I was witnessing and write down my feelings about it all. At the end of a journaling session, a moment in nature and in my life had been noticed and preserved on the page (and in my memory)! Through my journals, I felt more connected to the natural world and to my soul.

The problem was, despite my best intentions, there were huge chunks of time over the years when I didn’t write or draw in my journals.  My post-surgery years were one of those stretches. What the birds, trees and flowers were doing during those moments I cannot say. And that made me sad.

I don’t get along well with unhappiness, so I am in the process of purging other things from my schedule in order to have more personal time to journal. As small details in the lives of box elders, woodpeckers, praying mantises and other flora and fauna are noted on paper, the hectic pace of my own life slows down and feels richer. Over the past two years, I have filled half the pages in a large sketchbook. That is a big improvement from when my nature journal sat mostly untouched after surgery, but I can do better. I aim to fill the second half of that journal in the next few months.

Mantis sketch

To further build my journaling skills, I attended a three-day workshop in the Marin Headlands of California last weekend with two of my favorite nature journalists, John Muir Laws and Clare Walker Leslie. The experience was beyond-words inspiring. We greeted the birds with our sketchbooks at sunrise, explored the coastline with pens in hand in the afternoon and captured the sunset on our pages. After a short break for dinner, we drew taxidermy mounts in the conference center’s teaching lab until bedtime.  At one point during the trip, I spent an entire hour sketching scat, tracks and other signs left by otters in their travel corridor between a pond and canal. Observing and recording the natural world that keenly for three days straight was remarkable and allowed me to slow down and ground myself in the present. Refreshed and inspirited, I left the workshop with a goal of writing and drawing in my nature journal more frequently.

Journaling on the coast

Otter trail sketch

One of the ideas that resonated most strongly for me was Clare Walker Leslie’s practice of recording daily “small wonders.”  When I didn’t have time to create an entire journal page of nature observations, simply documenting one exceptional image from the day could help connect me with what was happening in the natural world. Whenever I needed to recall those moments, they would be there waiting for me in the pages. I started my first series of these this week, and I am hooked.

Daily sketches

Time can’t actually slow down, and the 365 days until my next stomaversary will come and go whether or not I nature journal. However, closely observing and recording happenings in the natural world  helps each day to stand out. It’s hard for life to be a blur when you are looking with focused eyes. I might record tracks in the snow after winter’s first blizzard, the first blooms of spring, a spotted fawn in the tall summer grass and all the things that make the world so breathtakingly beautiful. Five years ago surgery gave me a second chance at life. It’s time I start paying greater attention.

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

~ Mary Oliver

Nature journaling

 

A forgotten anniversary

Yesterday morning while perusing Facebook, I saw a post by Brian Greenberg, founder of the Intense Intestines Foundation, regarding the four-year anniversary of his ileostomy surgery on November 9th. I was thinking about how awesome it was that he had accomplished so much since his operation and how happy I was for him. Then I came to a sudden realization: if Brian was celebrating his stoma’s birthday, it meant that I had completely missed the anniversary of my own surgery. You see, when I first discovered Brian’s website a few years ago, I found out that it wasn’t only a love of the outdoors that we had in common: our surgery dates were only one day apart. When I was getting used to my first day as an ostomate, Brian was being wheeled into the operating room. I remember wishing I had known him then. We would have had much to talk about as we prepped for and recovered from surgery.

Now, four years later, I couldn’t believe I had actually forgotten about my stomaversary. It was a date I always ardently celebrated. My surgery had given me my life back and had allowed me to do all the things I loved again. To think I had let my stoma’s birthday pass by without notice made me feel sad and disappointed.

However, I soon started to look at my forgotten stomaversary differently. The reason I had my ostomy surgery was so that I could return to all the things I love and lead a normal life again. I wanted a life in which my family, friends, hobbies and career were at the forefront and health issues faded into the background. Yet in those initial weeks after surgery, my stoma dominated my world. More than anything, I just wanted to get to point where it felt like my ostomy was part of me and not something I had to think of at every moment. On November 8th, I gave my ostomy nary a thought. Perhaps forgetting about my stoma really was the best way to celebrate how far I have come in the past four years.

That said, I don’t intend to let the date slip by again. Wilbur, my stoma buddy, we will definitely celebrate your 5th birthday with a bit more fanfare next year!

Hiking the day after my stomaversary-- completely unaware that I had failed to remember the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over.
I went for a hike with family and friends the day after my stomaversary. It would have been the perfect chance to celebrate, but I was completely oblivious to the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over to think of such matters.

 

Happy travels! (feat. new video)

Last month, I wrote about a climbing road trip that Doug and I took to Idaho and Oregon. We finally completed a video highlighting the vacation. It is a long film at 30 minutes, but there was a lot to cover on this 17-day adventure.

Getting out and traveling with your ostomy provides some very significant confidence-building opportunities. You have to change and empty your appliance in unfamiliar surroundings and you must learn how to adapt to having an ostomy in unique situations. Unknowns abound with each bend in the road and each new town on the map. Dealing with each of these new situations stretches your comfort zone and leads to growth and tenacity. So, if you are just recovering from surgery, plan a trip if you can — even if it is just a weekend getaway.  If you have had your surgery for a while, get out on a longer excursion and try something new.

Two years!

November 8th marked the two-year anniversary of my ileostomy surgery. It had been a hectic week, and I was in the mood for some quiet reflection time. I climbed a mesa near town, took in the scenery, and sketched and wrote in my journal.

As great as it was to quietly contemplate my two-year stoma anniversary on top of the mesa, something more festive was definitely in order. Once I got back home, I threw a little party with Doug, complete with  homemade culinary delights: chicken pesto pizza and a cake decorated like a colon.

Looking back, I am still in awe that it has already been two years. In those initial months after surgery, time crawled by slowly and every bit of my attention was focused on healing and getting used to the changes to my body. I thought of nothing but my ostomy and appliance. Now all those hard times seem to have gone by in a flash. My stoma has become part of me, and large portions of the day go by when I don’t think about it at all. When I do think about it, it is often with a feeling of gratitude. It may sound crazy to say I love my ostomy — but I really do. This day marked a special anniversary, but everyday is a celebration of the health my stoma has given back to me.

Celebrating my two-year surgery anniversary. It is hard to not look at the cake and map out all the areas where I had colon inflammation over the years. I chose the cecum for my first piece of cake. 🙂

Drawing my way out of the doldrums

My first mainly sedentary week has been hard mentally. I wish so much that I could go for a hike or run, but just walking around the grocery store makes my hip throb with pain, so that is not going to be a reality any time soon. I went swimming at the gym and did an upper-body weight workout. Both of those activities went okay, but it feels like all the amazing  progress I made working out with my personal trainer is going to slip away.

When sadness and anxiety start to take over and I can’t deal with the stress using exercise, I often turn to my nature journal to lift my spirits. Somewhere in those moments when I am looking closely at the pattern of veins in a leaf, and my pen is moving over paper recording what I see, my mind finds peace. Expect to see many drawings in the weeks ahead!

 

Climbing progress

On Sunday I climbed a few feet above the fourth bolt on the wall at the rock climbing gym, held my breath, and jumped off. I felt a few butterflies in my stomach as I free-fell 10 feet before my rope and harness caught me and brought me to a stop. Doug lowered me to the ground where a staff member gave me a smile and a casual “nice job” nod. I had just passed the test to be able to lead climb at our local rock gym. This was my second such test. I had also taken one in Fort Collins last month at the gym we sometimes climb at with Doug’s father.

In lead climbing, a climber clips their rope into protection placed in the rock (or on the artificial gym-wall) as they go. This “pro” is either: 1) temporary equipment that a climber places in cracks outdoors, or 2) permanent, preexisting bolts drilled into the rock or artificial wall. If a climber falls above the last piece they clipped, they will travel some distance before the rope catches. For instance, if a person falls three feet above their pro, they will fall that distance plus three more feet until the rope catches. Factor in a bit of rope stretch and the total distance could be 10 feet. The climbing gym wants to make sure climbers know how to safely clip their rope into the bolts on the wall and fall properly before they will allow you to lead climb.

Top roping is a different style of protecting the climber in which the person will only fall a short distance because the rope is already anchored at the top of the cliff or wall. When I began climbing again a year after ostomy surgery, I started with top rope climbing. Though I am now leading in the gym, it will be a while before I feel confident to lead routes outdoors again where there are more hazards.

Nothing has been a bigger symbol of my climbing progress as being able to get back on the “sharp end” of the rope. I was fearful of what a big fall might feel like after surgery. Would falling several feet in my harness hurt my stoma? Would the resulting tug make my pouch pop off? As has often been the case when returning to my active pursuits, none of my fears came true, and my stoma and pouching system held up just fine through the tests at the gym.

Lead climbing has not been my only measure of progress lately. While climbing weekly, I am quickly moving up the grades and getting on some overhanging routes (steeper than 90 degrees). When I returned to the rock gym five months ago, I didn’t even try to do any marked climbs — I just grabbed any hold on the wall. Soon after, I was only using the “on route” holds, but sticking to routes in the 5.7 range. Last month I ventured into the 5.8 and 5.9 territory, and last weekend I did my first 5.10-. I am feeling powerful and strong with not the slightest pain in my core.

When I got back into climbing, I told myself that I would be happy doing 5.7 routes for the rest of my life if that was all my body could handle. All that mattered was that I could climb again. However, I now see that these restrictions won’t be necessary. By conditioning my body, progressing slowly to build the required strength, and always wearing my six-inch-wide hernia belt, I am quickly returning to my pre-surgery climbing abilities. I look forward to warmer days when I can start climbing outdoors on a regular basis and head out on some much longer routes. And, of course, I’ll share some of those through videos!

Craving normalcy (feat. new video)

In the initial months after ileostomy surgery, all I craved was normalcy. Life as I knew it had completely disappeared. Gone were the days of getting up and going to the office to work on a variety of enjoyable challenges like writing nature-education curriculum and leading hikes. In my free time, there were no more hiking, snowboarding or running adventures anywhere on the horizon. Instead, life revolved around the wiggly red stoma on my belly. My days played out around endless worries and looked something like this:

7 a.m.  How am I going to get my appliance on while my stoma is spewing liquid output everywhere?

9:30 a.m. Okay… got the appliance on. Wait, is that skin showing between my barrier ring and stoma? Geez, maybe I should do it over. My output will certainly eat away my skin if it touches that exposed 1/8 inch. But will it destroy my skin more if I pull the wafer off so soon? I better just do it to be on the safe side.

10:30 a.m. I can’t believe it took me over two hours to get an appliance on and this second one still doesn’t look that great. I need to call Doug and vent about it or I will cry for hours.

10:45 a.m. I need to drink some water. I am already way behind on my liquids today and I haven’t eaten breakfast yet either.  I am really not hungry, but Dr. Brown said I need more protein. Is a protein shake and eggs enough?

11:30 a.m. I have only been up for a few hours and I am already tired. Better go take a nap. Am I always going to have to sleep this much?

1:30 p.m. Is that just a regular itch or is it from output touching my skin? Man, this incision hurts. I am not hungry, but I need to eat with my pain pills. I better have some lunch. When are these pain pills going to kick in? Drat, maybe I should have just sucked it up and not taken the pills. What if I become addicted to them?

2 p.m. Why am I watching this stupid TV show? Shouldn’t I be doing something productive? I am just too tired. Dang, I forgot to order those Hollister samples again. I am too tired to do that too. I can’t believe I am about to take another nap. I am supposed to be going for a walk right now, not sleeping.

3:30 p.m. The neighbors must be wondering what happened to me. I am walking so slow and hunched over, but it hurts too much to stand up straight. Is this two-block walk through the park really all I can muster? I can’t believe how much this hurts. This used to be my warm-up walk before I ran five miles, and now I can’t even cover this short distance. And I’m walking as slowly as a turtle.

4 p.m. I miss Doug. I am so lonely stuck here by myself. When is he coming home from work?

5 p.m. Doug is home! Doug is home! Doug is home!

6 p.m. Is this too late to be eating dinner? I am supposed to eat before now, but that isn’t very handy. Is four weeks post-op too soon to eat steamed broccoli if I chew it really, really well? I am so hungry for veggies. What if I get a blockage? Or horrible gas?

7 p.m. Wasn’t that just the 12th time I emptied my pouch for the day? When is this output going to slow down! It is like water. Have I had enough liquids to drink to offset that?

9 p.m. Okay, time to take a shower. Can I get this appliance wet? I better tape plastic wrap all over my belly just to make sure it stays dry and doesn’t peel off.

10 p.m. Time for bed. I should lie on my right side all night just in case I leak. Don’t want to get stool into my open wound.

11 p.m. My back hurts. I sure wish I could lie on my left side but I am too afraid.

12 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

2 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

4 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

7 a.m Thank goodness it is morning but I don’t want to get up. I am going to lie here and cry for a while. Will my life ever be normal again?

And so it went for the initial couple months after surgery. I was overwhelmed and depressed that my entire life now seemed to revolve around my stoma. I tried and tried to picture what things would be like when everything settled down, and I actually learned how to manage my ostomy, but it seemed impossible. I couldn’t see beyond the hard times I was facing in those moments. It was particularly difficult to imagine how I could possibly ever do outdoor sports like snowboarding again.

I wish I would have had a crystal ball back then. Had I, I would have seen that I shouldn’t have worried so much. My ostomy output would settle down as my body adapted. I would figure out my systems and become more efficient with them. My incision would heal. Someday in the not so distant future, my ostomy would feel like a regular part of my life as I returned to work and went on outdoor adventures again. In the crystal ball, I would have seen the point I am at now when everything is so much easier. The normalcy I craved after surgery has been restored to my life.

Last Sunday was a beautiful powder day in the mountains, and Doug and I headed up to go snowboarding. I decided to film the day’s events and create a video showing a typical day on the slopes with my ostomy. I realize everyone’s experiences are going to be a little different regarding their emptying schedule, when they eat, etc. What I hope to show is that once a person adapts to life with an ostomy and gets their own particular systems down, life can feel wonderfully natural again.