I tried meditation as a post-operative pain management method. Here’s what I learned.

On Tuesday, I had a tonsilloadenoidectomy. I made it as far as the IV in surgery prep before I passed out – hard. After an injection of norepinephrine to bring me and my blood pressure back (and the ensuing panic of not knowing where I was), I had a few minutes to calm down and be reassured before getting wheeled off to the OR. That’s all just to say that I am an awful patient. Not awful in the sense of being grumpy, or complaining; quite the contrary. I usually find doctors and nurses very kind and agreeable, and I am often more apologetic than belligerent. It’s just to say that I tend to pass out easily, get nauseous easily, and frankly, hate having medical procedures performed on me, easily.

But I had made a commitment to go through this whole thing with a mindful attitude, having woken up a little early to complete my morning sit just to prepare myself, and lying on an OR bed hooked up to an IV in one of those nighties that doesn’t close up in the back was as good an opportunity to train as any.

Which didn’t make it pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, mind you. A common misconception of mindfulness is that if you are practicing it, you are relaxed, calm, and even blissful. No, this case of bringing non-judging awareness to the present moment looked like noting and observing the experience of anxiety in my body, the clammy-ness, the discomfort, the embarrassment, and the dread. But mindfulness means it is what it is, and we start where we are, wherever we are. If I passed out again, I passed out. If I threw up, I threw up. If I panicked, I panicked. I was surrounded by doctors and nurses and wasn’t in any real danger. So, I thought, ho-hum, we’re here, let’s get on with it, and went along for my ride down the hall to the operating room.

Mission accomplished!

The anesthesia was a wonderful experience, and the last thing I remember noting was the most pleasant relaxing sensation (the kind I WISH I had during meditation) before I fell asleep. The FIRST thing I remember after that was eating ice chips and talking to a nurse who was sitting with me in the recovery room. I don’t remember much, but eventually my spouse came back to sit with me and eventually brought me home. Come to think of it, I don’t really remember getting home, but I’m pretty sure we stopped at Starbucks. Then it was time to begin my recovery period in earnest!

Now, I want to be clear that I went into this whole thing with the intention of using it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness and meditation as a pain-management method. It is as important to practice being present with not just pleasant sensations, but also (if not more importantly) through difficult experiences as well. So I admit that I imagined myself a stalwart meditator, sitting on my cushion for hours of silent awareness, into the night even, in a stunning display of equanimity and groundedness that would lead to, if not my enlightenment, at least some degree of ability to manage the pain. I will also admit that I convinced myself that this would be so effective that I would forgo pain medication as part of this meditative experience.

Now, I also want to be clear that did not happen. I see from my regimented medication chart that I first reach for the hardcore pain pills at 6:20pm on that first day. I also see from my meditation timer app that I did not meditate at all on day one. No, the biggest victory that day was drinking an iced (yes, iced!) cup of chicken broth, which to me was a 5 star dinner and brought some relief from the intense pain and swelling.

My strictly regimented medication schedule

I want to stop you right here, because I know what you’re thinking: dude, you had your tonsils out, it’s not that bad, kids get it done all the time. You would be excused for thinking this if you had it done as a child or teenager. But you would be wrong. Tonsils are really only active in children, but by the time you are an adult they should have shriveled up and not be visible. If, like mine, they are large, and have lasted this long, they are mostly scar tissue and are very difficult to remove (making it a much more traumatic surgery with a significantly longer, more painful, and riskier recovery time). These last 4 days the pain and swelling have been so bad as to make it nearly impossible to breathe, talk, swallow, or even lie down (even at night, because my throat would just close up).

However, since day one I can honestly say I have kept up with my regular daily meditation schedule. Whether or not you have ever practiced meditation, you could try to imagine sitting still and bringing your full awareness and attention to the sensation of swallowing razor blades.

But you know what? It helps. Not that it makes the pain any less, to be clear. If anything it calls the pain to the front and center. But this awareness is a realization that trying to push or wish the pain away only makes the experience worse. The pain is the pain – there’s no denying it. But all of the suffering: the misery, the self-pity, the “this is unbearable, it’s going to last forever, how am I going to get through this” are the thoughts and stories we add to the pain. It’s what we call the second arrow – separate from the pain of getting hit with the first arrow, we inflict all of this suffering on ourselves through our resistance to the pain. And under the light and microscope of meditation, none of this suffering – the thoughts or stories – hold up. It’s painful, yes, but you’re bearing it just fine, it’s not going to last forever, and life is going on. And yes, while it’s small consolation, I really do get all of the popsicles I want, with an abundance of free time to read, watch TV, play video games, and meditate that I always wish I had.

Seriously the bruising from the IV is awful! I have new respect for people that have to leave these in for days at a time.

Observing the pain, really getting close to it, and not pushing it away but allowing it ironically separates you from it and gives you perspective over it. You become an observer of the experience of pain rather than identifying with the pain. Allowing the pain, and just being with it, I swear, somehow makes it an enjoyable experience. It is the experience of being alive. What could have been an agonizing, miserable surgery recovery period ended up being an incredibly healing and restorative time of self-discovery.

The good news is you don’t need to get a tonsilloadenoidectomy to practice meditation! While I promise that practicing mindfulness helps you deal with difficult circumstances, we can bring mindful awareness to the present moment wherever we are to awaken ourselves from being lost in thought and truly be alive.

4 thoughts on “I tried meditation as a post-operative pain management method. Here’s what I learned.”

  1. Dear Ian, first I’m so sorry that you you had to go thru this. As someone who also uses her voice professionally, this must be very frustrating. I’ve also been through several surgeries and your post made me think. My only piece of advice to someone who is going to have surgery is to take the paid meds. They help you relax and sleep, and you can’t heal if you don’t sleep. I don’t meditate. But your post made me think about my experiences.

    I think I do a kind of meditation when I’m in pain. I take the meds, but I also lie still to let the meditation take affect. And I focus on my body, relaxing and feeling the pain ebb. So yes – the two need to hand in hand. Thank you for bringing this to my realization. Maybe I’ll add a second piece of advice to my speech. Relax, focus and heal.

    I hope you’re back in the pulpit soon. God speed your healing.

    Mary Trigg

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