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The Black and White of it? Support is Everything.

By Tricia Hottenstein  stomamama.com

I recently shared an article about a little boy who was bullied so badly that after twenty-six surgeries, he decided to take his own life. It hit me so hard. I read it with tears rolling down my face, my heart hurting for his loved ones and my soul hurting for the things he must have felt. I read it after spending a long weekend in the hospital and after undergoing three of four surgeries in just two months. I read it knowing the hurt of bullying and the feeling of people looking at me with any variant of disgust when seeing or talking about my ostomy bag. I read it after writing and sharing what was basically a diary entry of overwhelming emotions. It is by no means comparable, but it made me think a lot about the strong support system around me. I know that my mindset is shaped so greatly by those handpicked few who always have my back and in the midst of this article, fresh in my own rehashed wounds, my gratitude for life and the way it all works out has increased. I can’t be certain I’d have made it through the last few months had they happened to me a year ago when I was already down and struggling. Support is everything.         

I’ve had an ex who was (and still is) really supportive and caring, and one who made me cry and feel worthless in a hospital room. I’ve also had an ex who couldn’t hide his lack of understanding or his overly dramatic gags when he saw me changing my bag. The embarrassment and disrespect was the exact reason why I decided to mention my stoma the very first time I met my boyfriend. I had since decided that anyone who was less than understanding would be an immediate no. I was afraid of dating with an ostomy, but I was no longer willing to feel like a burden or anything less than sexy. I would be okay being single and building myself back up on my own.

And then practically out of nowhere, I was on a date. I was nervous in spite of it going so well, or maybe because it was. I spent many moments of conversation wondering if they were the right moments to bring up the surgery. I speak so freely of my bag to everyone. I answer questions from coworkers, friends, family, and strangers without thinking twice. This is my bag; it saved my life! It is worth talking about. But how do I casually bring this up without awkwardly ending a date? What if his response wasn’t what I wanted it to be? Although, that’s the point, right? I’m old enough, I’ve been through enough. No more on the fence with anything. It is black and white and I’m not moving forward with any more gray.

“Tell me something about yourself that would surprise me.” To be honest, I don’t even remember if he eventually answered the question. All I know is he stared at me. This moment of oh shit in my mind as he was staring at me, half laughing, shocked to be put on the spot. So I just went for it. “I don’t have a colon!” More stares, more shock. I explained the scenario in a nutshell. The disease, the surgery, and the bag I’ve had for several years.

“Well… I guess…that’s kind of shitty, huh?” The words hung in the air before we both laughed. And in all honesty, my reaction to that response could have been a variable one depending on many factors. But really, how better to respond? Because I don’t want someone who will constantly feel sorry for me, or who will treat me any differently. Rather, I want someone who will make me laugh, who will be understanding and upbeat, and who will continue on with the conversation afterward as if it is no big deal. Sure, there were questions to be asked, but not a single one of them seemed to really matter. And there it was, in black and white and bar lights: this glimmer of hope.

As it would turn out, it couldn’t have come at a better time. A few short months later, I was back in hospital gowns and waiting rooms. And not once did he flinch. Not when I delivered awful news, not while he sat next to me in pre-op, not when my bag leaked in the middle of the night or I got frustrated and had tears running down my face. The reality is, most of the time I didn’t even have time to process things before he was reassuring me I’d be okay and distracting me with nonstop laughter.

When I’m in the trenches, when I’m alone, when I think too much, it is easy to go to a place of overwhelming emotions. I have spent more than half of my life with this disease, and surgery went so well that I thought the rest of my life would be smooth sailing. I was finally meeting people who had never known me as sick. It sounds so irrelevant, but it is a huge deal. I remember several years ago when a family member introduced me as “the sick one.” It was intended to be harmless. Intended simply as a way for their friend to put a face to the person they had obviously spoken of. The person undergoing IV therapy, taking twenty-some pills a day, piling up medical debt, and seeing the best physicians while still unable to leave the house most days. It cut through me and it scarred deep. But post-op, there was this moment in life where that was no longer me. Now I was strong. I was an adventurer. I was healthy.

The frustration when that all came crashing down was audible. Suddenly I was right back down to the some of the lowest points in my life. I was again “the sick one.” Somehow even when things had been slowly going downhill, I was blinded enough by the highs to be shocked when I was back to square one. I was angry. I felt sorry for myself and felt alone despite the people around me. I started to prepare myself again for the life full of battles, ready to sink back to that person who laid in the fetal position on the sofa, unable to eat or move or laugh from deep within my belly. I just kept thinking, over and over, that this is my life. I had a whole other vision for it after my ostomy surgery, but this person, right here, in a hospital room getting bad news? This is my life.

Until the person next to me, the person who responded to the news of my ostomy when we first met with a poop joke, responded with another poop joke. The kind that made me laugh so hard that all the ugly tears shook off my face. And as he wiped the remnants of them away, he reassured me. With a few simple words, he reminded me of my actual life. Reality. Yes, I am the sick one. But I’m also the healthy one. In black and white, that is my life. Some days I will be an adventurer. I’ll feel healthy, I’ll laugh, and I’ll enjoy the smooth sailing. And some days I will be sick. I’ll be a warrior. I’ll look for hope and rely on others. And their support will be everything.

 

UOAA Resources:

Emotional Concerns

Sexuality

Living with an Ostomy

 

Expect More – Take Control of Your Health Care 

Part 6 in Series

 

By Joanna Burgess-Stocks and Keagan Lynggard-Hysell

 

There are many different emotions you may experience as a new ostomate, and it is important to understand that physical and emotional healing after surgery may follow different timelines. We understand that everyone copes with emotions differently. Some people struggle for a long time. Whether you would like to seek individual support from a social worker, therapist, or other medical professional or prefer support from a peer mentor or by attending a local support group; understanding the emotional impact of ostomy surgery and receiving the appropriate support is an important part of taking control of your health care.

 

Witnessing the Emotional Impact- a WOC Nurse’s Perspective

“Hello, my name is Joanna.  I am here today because I am your ostomy nurse”.  

I have repeated that sentence hundreds of times over the last 12 years. I am in the unique situation in that I am meeting you at a pivotal moment in your life, heading in a direction you might never have imagined–facing ostomy surgery. During that initial encounter I am sometimes met with a blank stare, a stunned look of fear and dread, or with complete relief.  Whatever the reaction, I am the person that is there to help you navigate the world of living with an ostomy. I take great care during that initial visit to meet you where you are emotionally, knowing that this is a sensitive topic for you, someone who most likely is not used to talking about the way you go to the bathroom. Soon, however, I will share with you that I too am an ostomate (person living with an ostomy) and have been one for 53 years since the age of three!  As I leave you that first day, I finally see a glimmer in your eyes–hope! A sign that maybe this journey is possible and that you are not alone.

As an ostomy nurse, I have had the opportunity to meet patients in a variety of settings and have worked with hundreds of patients facing ostomy surgery whether it be from cancer, bowel or bladder diseases or from emergent situations.  No matter the reason, the anticipation of ostomy surgery is a step into the unknown and can compound the anger, sadness, and fear about the medical condition that caused you to need an ostomy. As you face these multitudes of feelings and adjust to life with an ostomy, know that you can take control of what may feel like an uncontrollable situation.

 

Facing the Emotional Impact- a Patient’s Perspective

“Good morning Keagan, today a special nurse is going to come and teach you how to care for your ostomy and help with your first bag change.”

A special nurse?–I thought to myself. Why do I need a special nurse to show me how to take care of my pouch? I had so many questions, a multitude of emotions, and I was feeling overwhelmed. So many things were out of my control, my recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, my hospitalization, my surgery, and now the responsibility of caring for my ostomy. I felt helpless and was eager for some independence in managing my body.

My WOC nurse entered the room and introduced herself with a smile. As she sat beside my bed listening to my fears and frustrations she explained how we were going to change my pouch. In an attempt to gain some independence, I told her that I wanted to take the pouch off myself and as I lifted the edge of the barrier just enough to see the edge of my stoma and the few black stitches poking through my skin– I lost it. I didn’t want to do it anymore, any of it. I didn’t want my insides on the outside, I was scared of my own body. My WOC nurse stepped right in with encouragement and support and a perspective I will never forget. She said she understood that what I was going through felt unmanageable but that caring for my stoma was something that would allow me to be self-sufficient, and that changing my pouch would give me independence in caring for my health. Since my very first pouch change, I have been encouraged to shift my perspective and to be proactive in the areas of my care where I can take control.

 

Seeking Individual Support

It is important for you to seek the resources needed to understand and work through the emotional impact related to ostomy surgery. It can be very helpful to have someone affirm your emotional concerns as you adapt to life with an ostomy. Most will find their path to acceptance as they physically begin to feel better and become comfortable with the care of their ostomy. If you are struggling with depression, how to tell others about your ostomy, or any part of the adaptation process (including the lack of will to learn self-care), seeking support through counseling can help you address these struggles. A licensed professional has the skills to help you create the life “tools” you need for navigating the unknown, including fears of introducing your ostomy into a new or existing relationship, addressing body image challenges, or understanding the grieving process. You can speak with your physician for a referral if needed.

 

Finding Support in Others

The fear of the unknown can often be soothed by learning from those who have gone through a similar experience. UOAA has approximately 300 Affiliated Support Groups throughout the United States, providing the opportunity for you to connect with others within your community who have also undergone ostomy surgery. To find a local support group near you, visit UOAA Support Group Finder. If you would like to connect with others but prefer to do so through an online format or from the comfort of your own home you can join a Virtual Support Group. Another way to gain support is through an ostomy mentor. Ostomate Lois Fink describes in her book Courage Takes Guts; Lessons Learned From A Lost Colon, meeting her mentor for the first time at a restaurant. The mentor was wearing a very slim dress and Lois felt perplexed, trying to figure out where she was hiding her ostomy pouch!  Lois learned that she could be the same fashionista that she always was while wearing an ostomy pouch and it helped her face her ostomy surgery with more strength and confidence.

To learn how to connect with an ostomy mentor, many UOAA Affiliated Support Groups have certified visitor programs or you can contact UOAA for a list of current ASG visitor programs at 1-800-826-0826.  

 

Our Hope for New and Struggling Ostomates

It is the hope of all of us at UOAA that one day you will be able to look at your stoma and see it as something that was life-altering and maybe even life-changing, but it was also life-giving. Be patient with yourself as you journey through both the physical and emotional healing process and be sure to utilize the available resources to support you every step of the way.

 

Additional Information & Support

UOAA has developed several tools to help you navigate through various informational topics at your own pace. To help better understand what ideally should happen before and after ostomy surgery we have developed the Ostomy and Continent Diversion Patient Bill of Rights. To learn some of the common “ostomy lingo” you can refer to our blog Know Your Ostomy and Know Your Ostomy Pouching System and Supplies. Complete the accompanying checklists and keep them handy for your ongoing ostomy care.

As a new ostomy patient, you may have concerns or face many unknowns. UOAA provides resources to answer these frequent concerns and questions to best equip you in living with an ostomy. Here are a few of the ostomy educational resources available at ostomy.org: