I’m grateful for my brain surgery.
Though I’ve been preaching and practicing green living for years, I haven’t always been so good about maintaining the healthiest of living practices.
Generally, I’ve always eaten what I wanted, regardless of how fried, processed or fatty it was. I exercised sporadically. I only paid attention to my emotional health if and when a crisis warranted it. I largely lived like a typical American (who—granted—gardened and composted and walked more than most).
Then I had brain surgery.
Last October, a VP shunt that neurosurgeons had placed during my childhood failed. My wife rushed me to the emergency room; a little over 24 hours later, surgeons were opening up my skull. When I finally left the hospital five days later, I was struggling with forgetfulness, inability to focus, physical weakness, loss of balance and “blanking out”.
I was hungry all of the time (brain healing apparently sucks down the calories!). I figured out pretty quickly that if I didn’t get a handle on my situation—sluggishness—both physical and mental, it was going to become my norm.
Fortunately, I had to start researching my options—neurosurgery doesn’t come with standard courses of rehabilitation. What I found as I read and talked to professionals in the field was that I didn’t necessarily need the latest in high technology. Rather, I needed to start implementing those healthful practices that I’d put on the back burner for so long.
Exercise, eating well and mindfulness became not simply good things to do, but my tickets back to some sense of normalcy and wellness.
Exercise. Getting moving was the first practice I implemented—within two weeks of surgery, I started doing very basic yoga on a daily basis. When I say basic, I mean it. A mountain asana, for instance, was a balance pose for me at the time. Ten minutes was as long as I could go at first. As I progressed, though, I was able to incorporate more challenging asanas and to increase the time I practiced.
Yoga helped with balance and focus, but to really attack my main cognitive challenges, I needed to incorporate something more vigorous.
I added a brisk morning walk to my routine (in addition to the daily walk with the dog). Again, I started off slow, fifteen minutes at most. After a few months, I’ve moved up to at least a half hour (in which I’m moving much faster than I was initially).
Eating. That first month of constant hunger took its toll. Not only did I gain weight, but I also became a habitual snacker. Within four months, I’d gained thirty pounds. Something had to give. With the help of Mark Hyman’s The Blood Sugar Solution, I’ve shifted my diet to mostly high protein whole foods.
Almonds and fresh fruit are now my snacks of choice. Lunch almost always consist of a salad with some kind of protein (usually beans). I’ve cut way back on habitual eating and managed to lose ten of those thirty pounds. I have no doubt I’ll get rid of the rest.
Mindfulness. No doubt, trauma like brain surgery takes an emotional and psychological toll. In the weeks and months following the procedure, I struggled with depression and hopelessness. As with my weight gain, I realized I couldn’t continue down this path, and added cognitive behavioral therapy to my course of rehabilitation.
In addition to normal cognitive behavioral activities—tracking thoughts and feelings, planning my days, etc.—my therapist suggested I also re-start a mindfulness practice that I’d played with on and off for years. A few minutes of focusing on my breathing follows lunch every day now. After a few months of this practice, I’m able to almost naturally take a step back and examine stress, anxiety and sadness as they appear. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners has been instrumental in this progress.
I haven’t “recovered” from surgery yet.
In some senses, I may never do so. My implementation of these practices is still far from perfect—we still have white flour and processed salad dressing in the house, but I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I struggle less and less with the cognitive issues that led me to start exploring my options for recovery.
Along the way I’ve even developed some gratitude for my illness itself, in that it’s pushed me to re-examine my lifestyle choices.
For now, that’s good enough.
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog, and the green writer at the Sundance Channel’s SUNfiltered blog. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and a houseful of animals.
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan