On Grief: The Worst Thing About Having Your Tonsils Out

a diagram of an open mouth displaying the back of the throat, the soft palate, palatoglossal arch, palatine tonsil, and median sulcus of the tongue are all labeled
Image by Jan Tik / CC BY

I had my tonsils out as an adult. It’s a brutal recovery. Most people don’t know this because they think of a tonsillectomy as something kids do. A few days in bed with all the ice cream you can eat, and then you’re right as rain.

But adults don’t heal like kids do. And essentially the surgeon rips out the back of your throat. Sends you home with an ice collar and a handful of pills.

The first 24 hours aren’t so bad. The aftermath of general anesthetic is like being drunk off your ass. Served up with a side of dissociation.

But once that fades? The pain is incredible. Non-stop.

I went into the procedure expecting the pain. I’d been warned. Your jaw balloons. Your tongue triples in size. And aches as you try to move it. There’s a dull ache in your ear like an ice pick. Sometimes that ache blossoms into a spasm, like someone is wiggling the pick. You don’t get any heads up though. It just happens. It can start while you’re asleep. Or just as you’re tipping back water, throwing your head back to use gravity to get liquids down.

Because you don’t know how to swallow anymore. The muscles are used to a certain range of motion, and now that your tonsils are gone, there’s a big open space. But you need to find a way to get the liquids down so you don’t go back to the hospital.

Bonus: It feels like your throat is lined with barbed wire.

The first few days, I feel like I’m going to black out as I pound back a bottle of water. I cry after. But mostly in my head. Actual crying is torture. With all the postop swelling, the last thing I need is to be more congested.

The pain would be bad enough. But you’re also starving. And craving all sorts of food that you can’t possibly eat.

And the worst part of all? When you finally are able to eat that food, you can’t enjoy it because your taste buds are fucked up. Because your lymphatic system is in overdrive, compensating for the loss of a major nexus for lymphocytes. Everything tastes like anger and battery acid.

I salivate over pizza any time it comes on television.  I wake up on the 8th morning after surgery coughing up blood. The folks in the ER say I am having a hemorrhage. They hold me n.p.o. (nil per os, nothing by mouth), the doctors debating whether I need a repeat surgery. And as I sit there in my paper gown watching a Domino’s commercial, I feel like Garfield with a food bubble over his head.

But when I manage to choke down my first slice another week later, it feels like shards of broken glass. No matter how much alfredo sauce I slather it in (marinara is of course off limits because tomatoes burn a newly tonsillected throat like you wouldn’t believe). And worse, my reward for the pain? The taste of bile.

Diet Pepsi is black pepper soda.

This lasts 8 weeks for me.

Having your tonsils out is such a deeply traumatizing procedure that it not only deprives you of pleasure momentarily but also affects your ability to enjoy things for a long time after you’ve healed.

Everything Tastes Like Anger and Battery Acid

I see the same phenomenon when friends lose someone they love. They’re in agony, but grief is a personal suffering that’s hard to understand from the outside, especially by people who have only known simple losses. Y’know, kids stuff.

“You’ll feel better soon,” they’re told.

“I know you, you’ll snap right back.”

Well-meaning folks say this to be reassuring.

“You just need to get out there and date again. Throw yourself into it.”

But if it’s bad enough, if the pain is deep enough, if they’re still healing, it’s not the same. Everything tastes like anger and battery acid.

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