I’ll rest in peace when I’m dead

Why is taking it easy so hard to do?

I had surgery on my right ear four weeks ago. The operation involved a mastoidectomy, to remove a cyst called a cholesteatoma; and a tympanoplasty, to repair my eardrum. The two procedures are often done in tandem, which means they’ve earned their own cute celeb mashup name: Tympanomastoidectomy.

(I promise those are all of the overwhelmingly technical words you’ll have to read this issue.)

I wasn’t too worried about the procedure itself. I was anxious about going under general anesthesia, and being in a hospital-like setting, which tends to bring back difficult memories for me. But I didn’t give much thought to the recovery. My partner was there to drive me home after surgery, my mom was visiting the next few days to offer support, and I had plenty of prescription medicine to alleviate any pain and nausea. No big deal.

I prepared for a tough 48 hours post-surgery. I knew I’d be wearing a hard plastic cup over my ear (though I didn’t realize it’d be festooned with smiley-face stickers!), and would need a steady dose of painkillers. No problem. I had already resigned myself that I wouldn’t be able to keep up my 10,000-steps-a-day goal that, up until then, I’d dutifully maintained for all of 2019. Not ideal, but what’s two days? And I planned to miss a couple of days of work. No worries.

I bet you can predict where this is going.

Reader, I did not have to recuperate for a short 48 hours. It was much longer than that. I fully anticipated that my mom’s visit would include mother-daughter sightseeing around town. Instead, her trip featured a mix of mother-daughter Netflix binge-watching and listening to me moan about the pain I was in. I wasn’t able to hit 10,000 steps (of walking!) until eight days post-surgery, and even then I felt like I was pushing my limits. Now, a month after the procedure, I’m still experiencing intermittent pain and discomfort. My hearing isn’t expected to improve for months, and I’m on a strict no-flying, no-swimming ban for what seems like forever.

And guess what? THAT’S ALL NORMAL. Those all caps are intended for me, because I’m the one who needs to hear this. Without getting into graphic details, the surgery involved cutting my ear open. I now have a scar that runs along the back of my ear, along with a prosthetic ear bone. In other words, my head went through some shit!

It’s no surprise that recovery is taking a while. It’s not that my doctor didn’t prepare me for what to expect — he did, but I only listened to parts of it. I allowed myself 48 hours of recuperation, and I expected to be back to my regular routines after that. And when I wasn’t, I beat myself up for it.

As the days passed and my body clearly needed more time to recuperate, I became increasingly frustrated. I felt lazy. I chastised myself for the steps I didn’t take, the money I didn’t earn, and the words I didn’t write. I didn’t view the fact that I was healing — something that was necessary so I could do those things in the future — as important work.

“I mean, it sounds kind of awesome,” replied my friend John after I bitched about how little I was able to accomplish post-surgery. “I would love to have a week of watching TV and taking naps.” John may have glossed over the pain I was in, but he had a point.

I am not good at relaxing. This isn’t an incident isolated to surgery recovery, nor is it a problem I’ve discovered since becoming a widow. I’ve wrestled with this for decades. I rarely allow myself to slow down without feeling guilty about it. And I have a tendency to turn even restful activities into tasks (hello, 10,000 steps a day!).

To be clear, I am not sharing this as a badge of honor. Just the opposite. I sincerely want to be better at relaxing. I have no doubt it’d be really good for me, and it would probably be just as good for the people around me. One of my regrets from my too-short time with Jamie is not relaxing more often. I wish I had enjoyed more time with him when I was less stressed out.

There are loads of studies and resources out there that tout the benefits of relaxing. Just last week, The New York Times published an opinion piece titled, “You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything,” by Bonnie Tsui. “There’s something to be said for the state of quiet dormancy, where little apparently happens,” wrote Tsui. “We might have periods of furious output; to get there, we require periods of faithful input. With input, there’s a restoration of fertile, vibrant thinking.”

Tsui’s piece came out on the first day of summer, a season that she says offers a good time to practice and protect fallow time. I’m in. I’m ready to feel less guilty about letting my mind wander, or getting absorbed in a good book or movie. I know the feeling of inspiration after spending an afternoon at a museum or in nature; it’s an experience I’d like to have more often. I want to feel good about not always doing something. In our capitalist, always-on, work-is-virtuous culture, doing nothing, as Tsui points out, is “an act of resistance.”

Of course, taking time off from work and responsibilities might seem completely out of reach for some. As journalist Heather Bryant noted, making room for fallow time is a privilege. It’s one that I wish was afforded to more people. If we all had the opportunity (or permission) to unplug more often, there would be untold benefits — for us, and the people around us.

That’s just one more reason why I shouldn’t push away the precious opportunity to rest. I’m currently trying to reframe my relationship with relaxing by reminding myself that it’s inherently valuable. The message board in my kitchen now reads, “Rest Is Important Work,” and while I’m sure I’ll gloss over that sign once I get used to it, it presently serves as an effective reminder.

I certainly don’t want to have to wait until another medical procedure forces me to rest. I’d rather do it on my own terms, with less pain, and even less guilt. Hell, maybe I’ll even enjoy it?



Good job, brain

I'm reading: Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviving,” by Julia Samuel. It’s been nearly two and a half years since I became a widow, and there’s still so much I’m learning about grief. I wish everyone could read this book to understand the experience better.

I’m inspired by: The people I’m spending time with this week at the Big Brothers Big Sisters National Conference. This is my second year doing interviews with BBBS leaders, staffers, and other special guests on Facebook Live, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

I'm aiming to: Rest and recharge when I’m not on camera. This introvert needs plenty of self-care during busy weeks like this one!

Additional resources

  • Have trouble relaxing like me? Here’s an explainer from Psychology Today on why that might be the case, and some actions you can take to de-stress.

  • Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” is on my to-read list. In the meantime, I enjoyed this interview with Odell on the always-great Call Your Girlfriend podcast.

  • Speaking of great podcasts, I really enjoyed Note to Self’s Bored and Brilliant project. It’s a six-part series that helps you detach from your phone and reconnect with your creative self.

For your sweet dumb brain

Take a walk outside today, and don’t take your phone with you. (If you must, bring your phone, but keep it stashed away in your pocket.) As you walk, take a few deep breaths — inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale deeply through your mouth. Take note of how your body feels.

That’s it. Congrats, you’ve done nothing! Doesn’t it feel good?

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. This week’s guest editor is Ren LaForme, who is much better at relaxing than I am — especially if there’s beer involved.

p.s. Ren has his own newsletter, which is a true joy to receive in my inbox each week.

p.p.s. I wrote this week’s essay over the weekend, instead of, you know, resting. That seems like something I should confess. This sweet dumb brain is a work in progress, ok?