A reflection on resilience mindsets

Michael Neenan says in his book Developing Resilience that “resilience is forged through pain and struggle, and the willingness, however reluctantly undertaken, to experience them”. I certainly learned resilience when I had surgery to correct inward rolling ankles and dropped arches in both my feet. My feet had been this way since birth and I was forced to wear orthotic insoles from the age of 12. By my mid-30’s I was suffering from early-onset arthritis in my big toes and had hip problems. The first operation was to my right foot in June 2016, followed by the left in January 2017.  The surgery involved reconstructing the arch of my foot, reinforcing the arch with a titanium screw and straightening my ankle by placing a second screw into my heel. Each time I was in a plaster cast from toe to knee for 8 weeks and had to inject myself with blood thinners every night. Post-surgery rehabilitation was 12 weeks of physiotherapy where I had to re-learn how to walk and retrain my leg and foot muscles. In April 2017 it became apparent that the bones in the arch of my left foot had not fused properly and that the screw had snapped in half. Treatment was the use of an ultrasound bone growth stimulator for 90 days.

The following four mind-sets helped me make it through two years of pain and helplessness, even when I experienced setbacks.

Keeping perspective

I reminded myself that I didn’t need surgery to correct a life-threatening condition or because of trauma. Many people go through much more invasive surgery and after all, the leg casts would be removed after 8 weeks. I knew there was an end date and I counted down to that date. Seen in the big picture of my life, these surgeries were relatively small inconveniences yet it would have a major, lifelong impact on my life and stop the early-onset arthritis from worsening.

Finding new challenges

Basic tasks like taking a shower, moving around, carrying things and even getting dressed were challenging and required planning. Giving myself injections every day was especially tough. The biggest challenge, however, was learning to just accept that this was going to be a challenging time for me. I couldn’t rip off the cast no matter how much I wanted to be free from it. Being confined to the cast was put to the test when I developed an allergic reaction to the skin plaster that was placed over the scar, under the cast, after the second operation. I had an intense burning sensation on my foot 24 hours a day for 8 weeks. It was only after the cast was removed that we realised I had a severe skin reaction which I had been putting up with for 8 weeks. At times I irrationally wanted to pull my foot out of the cast just to get relief from the burning, and other times I had mild panic attacks and bouts of low mood. Yet, I knew that what I was putting myself through was going to be worth it.

When I look back at what I had gone through, and how I dealt with it, I feel proud of myself. Not only did I face the challenge once, but twice. Knowing I can deal with challenges has given me the courage to make other changes in my life, including embarking on this course and the career change that will follow.

Understanding control

I quickly realised that I had to give up on trying to change things that were out of my control. I had to accept that walking on crutches was going to be the only way I could get around. I had to accept that I had to inject myself every evening. I also had to accept that the cast was staying on for 8 weeks and no matter how much I wanted to be rid of it, there was nothing I could do about it. What I could control however was what I ate, the supplements I took, how much sleep I got, what I was thinking, and asking for help. Once I let go of what I couldn’t control and took charge of what I could, I reduced my stress which in turn helped with the healing process.

Nurturing an optimistic view of yourself

Of the four mindsets I identified, I think an optimistic view was the most influential in building my resilience. After the first surgery, I was so relieved to get rid of the cast that I was quite disappointed when I realised the hard work had only just begun. Physiotherapy was long, painful and at times I just wanted to give up. I, however, knew I had to get my right leg strong enough to literally carry me through the second operation. I went through physiotherapy again after the second operation and felt elated when the surgeon gave me the all-clear. It was a huge disappointment when I started to develop severe pain in my left foot and was told that proper bone fusion hadn’t taken place after all.  I felt very disheartened but I was still able to see the positive: the right foot had healed, I had come this far in the journey and wasn’t going to give up at the last hurdle, I had private medical aid that would cover the expense of the ultrasound machine, I had an incredibly loving and supportive husband that I could rely on, and I just had to look at my beautiful right foot to see why it was all going to be worth it. I did cry sometimes and I felt frustrated, but I didn’t dwell on those negative feelings. I visualised myself wearing sandals while walking on a beach and even bought a pair of beautiful open heel sandals that I could look at it every day.

During physiotherapy, I was introduced to pilates and yoga. I had never tried it before and found that I love it. I was very aware of how weak my muscles were and I never wanted to feel so “flabby” and weak again. I now do yoga and/or pilates three times a week to keep me toned and strong. I am also very happy to say that both my feet are fully healed and I wear beautiful shoes every day.

I have had challenges in my personal life and more will follow, but I know that with the right mind-set it is possible to face a challenge and emerge a stronger person – in my case, literally and figuratively.

*This blog post is based on the assignment I completed for Module 3 of my Integrated Resilience & Wellness Coaching studies.*