I Will Be Out of the Office: Post-Surgery Thoughts on Downtime

Tomorrow I return to work after nearly 7 weeks off following surgery.  (See Goodbye Ovaries.)  During that time, I worked very little.  I hadn’t expected that.  Despite my doctor’s warnings before surgery that I must take at least 4 weeks off and preferably 6, and despite that my surgery expanded to 6 hours instead of the expected 2, I thought I would or should bounce right back.  I figured on 3 weeks of downtime, but with e-mail checking and perhaps a little work even then.  Then I imagined I’d take 1 week as a bit of a vacation and work part-time from home for 2 weeks before I returned full-time.  The last extra week I scheduled I expected not to use.  I scheduled it because I knew it would be easier to come back early if I felt well than to extend my time off if there were complications.

I’ve never recovered from major surgery before.  I had no idea what it was like.  The day after surgery, rather than checking my i-Phone from my hospital bed, I struggled to keep down small bites of toast and jello in the hope that the food would counteract the dizziness and nausea from the pain meds.  The first day home was not much better – my niece later described me as periodically turning into a glassy-eyed zombie (is there any other kind?).  That night, with a switch of pain meds and the anesthesia almost out of my system, I started feeling human.  For the next couple weeks I alternated between sleeping, occasionally chatting or watching half a TV show, and feeling too exhausted to do anything except wish I could fall asleep when I couldn’t.  The good thing about feeling bad was that it freed me from any nagging feeling that I ought to be working.  For the most part, I couldn’t, so it wasn’t an issue.

Around Week 3, I read one brief filed in one of my cases and reviewed and commented on a response to it written by a colleague.  The time I actually spent, and billed to the client, was about an hour.  It took me nearly five hours to do, though, as I could only work in about 10 minute increments with at least half an hour of rest in between. 

What surprised me was that writing fiction was just as exhausting.  I’d thought I would get all kinds of writing done.  I enjoy law, but I know that it’s work.  I love writing fiction, so I rarely think of it as work.  I forgot that it takes just as much energy and mental effort.  I also didn’t consider the fact that sitting in front of a computer requires using the abdominal muscles, which are right in the area where I needed to heal. 

One of the striking parts of my experience was how many people said they hoped I was “enjoying” my “break.”  Just 3 days after surgery, I was asked wasn’t it sort of relaxing to be home and off work.  I was barely out of the zombie stage and still had significant pain, so the answer was no.  The rest of the time was better, but it was only this last week – my extra week 7 – that felt somewhat relaxing.  While I still have a little pain, and I still tire easily, I’ve been able to read, write, and watch DVDs to my heart’s content, if for short time periods.  I’ve also gone to my office a few times to get things in order for my return and to talk to human beings.  (I’ve been talking quite a bit to my parakeet, Mr. Bird, and my stuffed Tigger, so I figured it might be time.)

Also interesting were the responses to my out-of-office message.  Everyone who e-mailed me at my law firm received an automatic out-of-office e-mail explaining I was out on medical leave until mid-July and directing them to contact my assistant for urgent matters.  (She had a list of who could handle issues in my absence.)  Before I left, I called my clients and the lawyers involved in my cases to let them know I’d be out.  I heard from them on rare occasions, but only when there was a real need to reach me.  Most other people who e-mailed me said they’d get in touch when I got back.  A few, though, rather than check with my assistant, just continued to send requests, noting I hadn’t responded before.  Each time, they must have received the out-of-office message.  For the most part, I assumed that the person who kept e-mailing me simply didn’t read the message.  But occasionally people would write to wish me well with my health, but then write back a day or two later expressing surprise that I hadn’t responded.    

Even before the recession, our culture admired excessive work and excessive stress.  We tend to look up to people who say things like, “I’m so busy,” or “I can handle high levels of stress.”  And with the job losses during the last years and the struggling economy, those fortunate enough to have work particularly feel the need to work constantly for fear of losing their jobs or businesses otherwise.  So much so that taking time to recover from serious bodily injury (which is what surgery is, only in a controlled medical setting) seems almost like laziness or at least like an enviable vacation.  E-mail, texting, Twitter and other social media only exacerbate that view.  I love Facebook and Twitter, which help me keep in touch with people I love, make new friends, and publicize my fiction through a means completely unavailable to authors a decade ago.  These are all good things, as is using computers and e-mail to help manage my law practice if I need to be away from the office.  But with all of that comes the pressure of always being “on” in one way or another, constantly being vigilant, never getting away.

So, my resolve as I officially return to work tomorrow is to remember that technology ought to make life easier, not more stressful.  And to do my best to take time for myself when I need it.  I enjoy my work, and I always strive to do my best.  I can’t do my best, and can’t keep attracting work, if I am not well physically and mentally.  And I can’t enjoy life if all I do is work.  As my mom used to say, “Do you live to work or work to live?”  I’d like to make it a mix of both.

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and the author of THE AWAKENING, a thriller about a young woman whose mysterious pregnancy may bring the world its first female messiah — or trigger the Apocalypse. Ms. Lilly is also the author of THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR. All this year’s royalties from THE TOWER are being donated to The Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM) in honor of her parents, who lost their lives due to an intoxicated driver’s choice to drive in January, 2007. THE TOWER is available at:


THE AWAKENING is available at: