When you’re planning major surgery everyone and their uncle advises you to “be positive” and “have a good attitude.” That’s what people told me as I approached spine surgery for scoliosis. It would take five months to recover – that I was also told in advance.

I did recover, and even wrote a book about my experiences to help others: Back to Life: A Journey of Transformation Through Back Surgery. My friends insist the reason I came out so well was that my attitude was good. I don’t even know what the heck that means.

The platitude elicits a creepy image of a round yellow happy face with lame-brained dot eyes and a lipless smile pasted over someone in pain; in other words, a phony. It also conjures people who deny their own ability to take charge of their situation by asserting “I’ll be fine” while affecting a beatific smile, their glazed-over eyes looking down on those who don’t believe that faith is sufficient so they don’t have to do anything. I’m sorry, in my opinion that won’t get you through a serious surgery.

What you need are truth and a strong dose of your own power. Truth, not artificial sweeteners, because only when you know what’s actually going on can you own this experience enough to manage it. And you need guts. It takes courage to plan for major surgery and thoroughly prepare for any eventuality including disabling pain or even death; courage to force yourself to move your body immediately afterwards; courage to reclaim your life in a changed body. It takes both physical and mental strength to persevere by holding to a clear vision of what you want to do.

Not to be grandiose, but I’d even advise you to verbalize what you’re living for. I recommend being specific. Instead of a facile answer like “for my family,” try to define distinct, tangible desires and goals, which may involve asking questions about what you really want. Sure, it’s a bigee; it’s like asking who you truly are.

I went out and gathered particular art supplies down to a new rich golden yellow paint called “light orange,” a name that doesn’t capture what it promised me. I bought materials in various sizes, in case I might have to start small, and a whole new bottle of glossy acrylic painting medium. My daughter, who is a singer, had scheduled shows after my surgery and those dates became targets for me to attend. My husband and I wanted to improve our cracked-cement patio with tiles, and I picked out the style before I went to the hospital, though the renovation would be months away. And I began the journal that led to my book.

Your plans for joy after you recover might surprise you – they’re not only about being safely home and getting back to work; maybe they’re what you’ve always wanted. I hope you make those plans. It helps to focus on them when you’re feeling bad.

As for “attitude,” I prefer the image of gripping the metal railing on the side of the hospital bed with all my might to be able to roll off a bedpan, how much arm strength that took, and how much will to persevere when the pain cut through me like a blade. Yes, I’d rather offer that crude example as a guide rather than an image of someone lying helpless in bed pleading to the darkness to make her better some day.

Listen, nobody gets out of life alive. But you can win this round. First, don’t be shy about being your own advocate. Your questions aren’t stupid and anyone who acts annoyed is a jerk. Get the answers you need (though a nurse might help as well as your doctor and probably has more time). Complain if something’s wrong, even if you discover it’s a normal phase of healing and you simply have to go through it.

And keep moving. My brother, who is a doctor, once commented that a leading cause of death is sitting down. He wasn’t entirely joking. At the time we were talking about osteoporosis and how a hip fracture may lead to a wheelchair where the immobility cascades into other problems that can hasten death. Of course, you’re not running marathons right after surgery. In fact, you must respect the healing process; let it take its natural course. But over time, if you give up, your body will give up on you.

So what’s a good attitude? For me, it meant getting in shape in the months before surgery with an exercise program. It meant being aware of the strange chemicals that would invade my body during the surgeries, and that I’d need to eat in a way that made me as resilient as possible on entering, and to cleanse my system after I was home. It involved trying to walk soon after surgery, no matter how difficult that was. Later, I walked further and further with longer steps each day, and finally I went back to an exercise program.

To me, all that is an affirmation that energy will continue to move within you. But it won’t move by itself so get out of bed and off that chair and go for it. That’s the great “yes” to your future. That’s the good attitude I wish for you.

Author's Bio: 

Pamela Douglas is an award-winning screenwriter with numerous credits in television drama, and also a fine artist. In May 2005, facing a degenerative spinal disease that threatened to leave her paralyzed, Pamela underwent major surgery. Her decision and the long recovery that followed inspired her to write BACK TO LIFE: A Journey of Transformation through Back Surgery. Written in journal form as she was going through surgery and recovery, the book takes the reader into the immediacy of the moment and through the transformational power of an experience far beyond surgery. Learn more at www.divineartsmedia.com.