After Top Surgery, I Am Learning To Trust My Body Again

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Amber Leventry/Instagram

My oldest daughter snuggled up next to me after I read stories to her at bedtime. Without either one of us thinking about it, she laid her head on my chest and wrapped her arm around my torso. This was not a new interaction between me and my nine-year-old, but when she dug her head into my pectoral muscle, I realized it was the first time in months that she was able to do it.

My chest is still tender as it heals from a double incision mastectomy, and it was the first time in a long time that I hadn’t flinched in anticipation when one of my kids approached or touched me. They have been amazing at giving me gentle hugs, but it’s hard to trust the body control of kids who don’t always have the skills to not squeeze the toothpaste or ketchup bottle too hard. My daughter’s snuggle allowed me to see that my progress wasn’t about trusting my kids or environment anymore; I understood that I was starting to trust my body again.

I am a nonbinary transgender person. I am also a parent, partner, writer, and lover of peanut butter and Schitt’s Creek. My mastectomy was not because of cancer or any other disease or the risk of it; removing my breasts was a gender affirming surgery.

I, nor any transgender person, am never obligated to share my story; nor are we required to have any type of medical assistance for our identity to be valid. I choose to share pieces of my journey because I want to and because I am happy to be the representation others may need. Part of my transition was a double mastectomy three months ago. This is often called top surgery in transgender and nonbinary communities. My breasts caused crippling dysphoria because they did not allow me to present myself or be seen the way I want.

I knew my surgery was necessary to achieve the quality of life I deserve. It was declared medically necessary by my doctors, therapists, and insurance company. But as important and wanted as my surgery was, it was still physically and psychologically difficult.

The first few days after my surgery were spent in a haze of painkillers and sleep. I was sore and itchy and in a general state of discomfort, but I had never known the type of exhaustion I was feeling. Of course, I know what it’s like to be tired; I am a working parent with three kids—I know exhaustion. This was different. Every task I was able to do on my own felt heavy. I shuffled instead of walked and shuffling for too long seemed to make all of the blood in my body rush to my surgery site. My arms would become numb and tingly, a sign that I should to sit down or pass out.

I couldn’t lift my arms beyond the plain of my newly grafted nipples. And I moved and stood hunched over as if closing in on myself would prevent further injury to my chest. My body instinctively knew to protect itself and that caused me to think I was fragile. I was frustrated. I was humbled too.

After so many years of trying to find ways to be at home in my body I fluctuated between dissociating from it and being in tune with my movements and how they connect to feelings of discomfort and strength. Even though I wasn’t at peace with my body, I knew it was strong and capable. I used these assets to power through sweaty workouts which cleared my brain and eased anxiety and depression.

Surgery was an incredible gift of affirmation, but I was terrified I would fall apart–literally. When my surgeon told me I could remove the scar tape two weeks after surgery, I anticipated my incisions bursting open. I started to pull on one end of the tape and became nauseous with the belief that I was going to erupt at my seams. I was sure my insides were about to spill out. I lay on the bed, dizzy and sweaty, and fell apart emotionally.

I have never given birth, but I have always known and celebrated the body’s ability to create life and then produce it. After my surgery, I had a much greater appreciation for the trauma all bodies experience after a major surgery, illness, or even labor and delivery. The body that I knew before my surgery was not the one I was getting to know.

Slowly I was healing. I began to stand a little taller; broadening my chest to the world felt daring. My first walk on the treadmill was as exhilarating as a mountain hike. Lifting my arms overhead seemed equally defiant and liberating. After six weeks, I was allowed to resume my “usual” activities, but with the physical limitations that were a natural part of regaining strength and endurance, I fell apart again. Healing was one thing; regaining the confidence to understand and settle into my body was much more difficult.

I had to decide if sensations in my chest were problematic or part of the process—I am still doing this. I am learning to be patient with myself during everyday tasks. I am able to do housework again. I have gone back to work. I can snuggle with my kids and carry them from one room to the other if they want a piggyback ride or have fallen asleep somewhere other than their own bed. But there is rigidity in my movements and I always wonder if I am doing too much.

Exercise helps me evaluate what I can and can’t do yet, but unlike before my surgery, I am starting to celebrate more of what my body can do instead of what it can’t. I am proud and grateful to be able to get back into the shape I want in a body that feels more permanent.

Yoga has been an important piece of my sobriety and one of the most valuable tools I have to stay grounded in my body when I want to escape it. I began to practice again two months after surgery. After three months, I pulled my mat over to the wall in case I needed assistance, knelt down and cradled my hands around my head. I took a deep breath and kicked my legs into the air. I didn’t make it upside down the first time, but it was enough to shake the doubt. I kicked up again and was upside down. I shook and wobbled and told myself to breathe. Then I giggled.

Trusting my body means believing I wouldn’t physically fall apart, but it also means trusting that I can put myself back together after each emotional breakdown. I am doing both with shaky grace.

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