The only thing constant is change...

Three months ago I moved home to Hemet from Los Angeles to save money as I prepared for my move to Spain. Today those three months are up...and now the clock has been reset for another three months. I was expecting to be on a plane to Madrid today, but instead I am going to the doctor to have fifteen staples removed from my belly. Two weeks ago life (being life) brought along an unexpected change in the plans.

On September 19th I was admitted to the hospital with a terribly painful partial obstruction in my bowel, which ended up requiring surgery to correct. So, although I am still going to Spain, it will now be at the end of December, and I'll be starting the TEFL certification program in January.

It has been strange going through this whole process of surgery, hospital, and beginning recovery at home, partially because I am comparing each step of it with my experience going through surgery in December of last year. I didn't post about all of that on social media while it was going on, so it's possible some reading this don't know the story. Up until now, it always felt too private to share on the internet, and I was (still sometimes am) easily triggered into anxiety, so I didn't want to field the comments and questions. But now, after having this recent (semi-related) surgery, and in looking back on the impact these experiences have had on me and my life choices over the past year, I decided that I wanted to write about it. This is part of my story, part of my life, and I feel proud of how I have navigated this year. I have discovered that I am stronger and tougher and more resilient than I realized, and I have found power in owning my journey.

Everything began last November when I had an ultrasound just to make sure the lump I could feel from the outside of my abdomen was nothing, and instead discovered that I had two large, unidentified masses growing on my ovaries. This was followed by several frightening weeks of waiting, tests, and trying to stay present and trusting through more waiting. I didn't get conclusive answers until the end of December, after having two surgeries which also allowed more comprehensive tests to be conducted. The official name of the growths (and I'm going to underline and bold the important part here, because the other word makes it sound scarier) was non-invasive borderline tumors. I like to refer to them as "things" or "growths" because those sound even less scary. But the important part about "non-invasive" and "borderline" is that it means they were benign and that it would be very rare for them to grow back after being removed.

The first surgery was laparoscopic (three small incisions for a camera and some tools) in order to gauge what needed to be done. The second surgery, a week later, was much more extensive, with the incision extending from above my belly button almost to my pubic bone, and during this one they removed both masses and my left ovary (and my appendix as a bonus). During the week between surgeries, I grieved the news that they would have to remove both of my ovaries, but I awoke from the second surgery to be told (what felt like a miracle) that my right ovary had apparently sealed itself off somehow to protect itself from the mass growing on it, so I got to keep it.

Me and my scars, five months after my December surgeries. I was self-conscious about my scars for a while, about my belly not looking "normal" or "perfect" anymore, but I have grown to love them. They are part of me, talismans of my experience. (Photo by my brother, Taren Freeman.)

The recovery from the second surgery was drawn out and intense. I was in the hospital for five miserable nights, hooked up to more than a handful of different machines, and nauseated most of that time from anxiety. (And let me tell you, vomiting post-abdominal surgery makes all other vomiting seem not so bad.) I had a drain in my side for the first week after surgery (having the tube from that taken out was one of the strangest things I've ever felt). And then it was several months before I felt fully back to normal, restricted to lifting no more than ten pounds for the first six weeks, tiring quickly when I was up and about for long (especially my back muscles from compensating for my abs), and slowly regaining stamina and normal range of motion.

Even after getting the post-surgery results that everything was benign and taken care of, I still had fear about it for a long time, as well as PTSD-like reactions when I would go to the doctor, finding myself hyper-vigilant about every new sensation in my abdomen, and crying twice on airplanes once I got back to traveling for work: once triggered by a movie scene set in a hospital room, and once because I was overwhelmed by fear that I would get a blood clot during the flight because the risk can be increased after surgery. It wasn't until July of this year, when I had my six-month follow up after surgery, that I really felt a big shift in those fear reactions. I had been working on processing the lingering fear and trauma of the experience over the previous months, which definitely helped me get to this point, but something about getting another set of all clear results was like flipping a switch, and since then I don't have the same relationship to the memories and thoughts that arise. I don't think about all of it nearly as much, and the fear doesn't grip me like it did before, even when it does come up.

Then two weeks ago I ended up back in the hospital. Apparently when a surgery is performed, during the healing, the scar tissue that forms can create what are called adhesions, and in my case one of the adhesions formed in a way that constricted part of my bowel and caused an obstruction. During this surgery they cut the adhesion and took out part of my bowel that had been partially blood/oxygen deprived by being constricted for a couple of days. I spent two very uncomfortable days in the hospital while we hoped the obstruction would clear on its own before surgery was advised and we agreed. This surgery was much shorter than my last one, and the incision (which went through the same line as my scar) was shorter than my previous one by about two inches on each end.

This time around, the experience of being in the hospital didn't bring the stress and anxiety of the first time, when just walking down the hallway to get my daily exercise was an ordeal and I tried not to look too closely at the hall around me because I didn't want any extra reminders of where I was. I think it was easier partly because I had done it before and knew what to expect, and partly because this time I wasn't going through surgery and recovery with the fear of waiting for tests to come back to know if I was okay. This was much more simple: I was in pain, there was a clear and concrete explanation, and I knew that the surgery would fix it. So this time although the pain was awful, it wasn't exacerbated by fear to the same degree. And so far, the recovery on this one is going much faster than the last time too.

Throughout all of this, from the first ultrasound, through the surgery and recovery, up to now, and through this recent surgery and recovery, my family and friends have been...I can't find words to say how great they have been. Loving and supporting me through the fear, the anger, the not knowing, friends checking in throughout, hanging out to distract me, my parents driving all the way to LA to be with me the moment I got the first ultrasound results, friends and family going to various appointments with me, my brother and sister cheering me up and helping me out in the hospital and during recovery, one of my parents staying with me in the hospital every night after both the December surgery and the recent one, everyone taking care of me and helping with the things I couldn't yet do during recovery (like lift the blender onto the counter to make my favorite green smoothies!). I have always felt blessed and grateful for the incredible people I have in my life, all of my family and friends, but these experiences brought those feelings roaring to the forefront. The months of waiting for, having, and recovering from surgery were the most challenging of my life, and I don't know how I would have done any of this without all of you.

I think it is often true in life that the most challenging and painful things can also bring some of the most incredible gifts. My recent week in the hospital brought back so many of the things that I felt I learned last winter. I was reminded that however much I like to have control and know what is going to happen (and I like that a lot), that is never actually possible, and in fact not knowing is a tremendous gift. Because although it means I don't know when something "bad" might happen, it also means I have no idea of all the incredibly joyful things that will happen. And not having control actually relieves me of a huge responsibility because it means I don't have to prep and plan perfectly so that everything will come out right, because it's not actually up to me. I was also reminded that I can let go of care and worry about what other people think of me, about what I "should" do, and about pleasing anyone. This is my life, and I am living it for me. And I was reminded to trust life, to trust that the universe is in my favor, even when I can't see exactly how.

In addition to feeling these truths, I made some pretty big course changes as a result of all of this, the first being the decision to leave acting. I had been toying with the idea for at least a year and a half, debating how much I wanted to continue focusing on acting. But I felt like I "shouldn't" step away after so many years because it would be giving up, even though a lot of the time I spent acting last year it no longer brought me joy. But in November, when I found out there were strange things growing in my body, it suddenly became crystal clear to me that I was done. I realized I had been sticking with it for someone or something outside of me, because of the "should," but for me it was time. I still consider myself an actor, I still love what I did with it and the time I spent honing that craft, I still love watching great actors and digging into how they do what they do, but pursuing it myself is no longer how I want to spend my time.

Then in February I was talking with Miri, a friend from Germany, about traveling and how she has lived in more than one country and how I have thought about moving to Spain to become fluent in Spanish (though I hadn't thought about it much since getting back into my usual life after returning from Madrid the year before). I said that I wasn't sure if I was ready to make such a big move away from all of my family and friends, and she said, "If you are passionate about it you should do it! Your family and friends will be here when you get back." Thank you, Miri, for saying that! That night I looked up the program that my friend Nicole went through to teach English in Madrid several years ago (she still lives there now!), and though for the next few weeks I kept saying "I think I'm going to move to Madrid," it was really decided that night. Like the choice to stop acting, it just felt right. And the joyful fascination I have with languages and with learning Spanish continues to pull me rather forcefully in that direction.

I realized a few months after my December surgeries that even though this had been the hardest thing I'd ever had to do, even though I still had fear about it, I didn't wish it hadn't happened. Because I learned so much about myself and what I want. And I don't know what would have been different, or how long it would have taken me to figure some of that out if it hadn't happened.

It would have been more fun to be on a plane to Spain today than to be recovering from another surgery and week in the hospital. And although this delay is emphatically not what I had planned, as they say in the musical Jekyll and Hyde (paraphrasing Greek philosopher Heraclitus), "the only thing constant is change"...and who knows what future magic this will lead to? I will wait and see.

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