22 Aug How I Got Back My Belly Button

I used to have a nice belly button. An innie. On occasion, Jill would inspect it and marvel at the lint my belly button collected. Belly button lint is no mystery, by the way. It’s a product of friction as your stomach abrades your shirt. Gravity does the rest, taking the liberated lint downstream, where some of it falls into the welcoming pit of your navel. If you have a hairy belly, as I do, you get more lint rather than less.

Some years ago (four, to be exact) I noticed that my inny had morphed into an outie. It didn’t look nearly as nice as its former self. But I assumed that this was a natural course of events. Maybe everybody’s navel changed over time. When my outy kept growing, however, I realized that something was wrong. My doctor confirmed that I had an umbilical hernia. That’s a rupture of the stomach lining in its most vulnerable spot: the belly button. You get this by straining your stomach when, say, lifting weights or doing sit-ups. I remember precisely the time I started injurying my belly button — it was a particularly wicked incline for sit-ups at a gym I was visiting. What I was feeling during exercise, I thought, was “the burn,” when actually it was the ripping of my stomach lining.

The bulge that protrudes from the injured belly button is your intestines. If the injury grows, your guts will push out of your stomach and you’ll be in for some serious surgery. So, you don’t want to wait around to take care of this. You can see how bad it gets by browsing through internet images under “umbilical hernia.” Mine was a classic belly button hernia, that is, not a disturbing sight but clearly not normal. I had learned to exercise so that it didin’t aggravate the injury. And I wasn’t in pain.

I had never had surgery, never been in the hospital for anything except stitches when I was five. Hospitals are scary places, in part because they’re like complicated machines: there’s too much going on and too many things that can go wrong. That’s why you wear a wrist tag, in case somebody misplaces you. My procedure was fairly simple: the surgeon made a small incision, then inserted a piece of netting behind the rupture. The netting keeps my guts from pushing through again. And it bonds with my stomach lining to create a permanent plug. I wondered if I would feel the netting afterwards. But I don’t.

As for the surgery itself, I went under within 30 seconds (I’m a cheap drunk). I awoke in the recovery room, a nurse by my side monitoring my vitals. The nurse cautioned that I might be in a lot of pain. I went home with a bottle of Percocet (acetaminophen and oxycodone). It’s an opiate that sells well on the street. The main thing, she said, is to stay “ahead of the pain.” That is, don’t wait until you feel the pain to deal with it; otherwise, you may be playing catch-up with the pain and, usually, the pain wins out. I don’t like being doped up, so I’ve been popping heavy-duty Ibuprofen. And, fortunately, I don’t feel any pain. Anesthesia has its own set of side effects. It’s heavily toxic stuff (which is why it can kill you) and it can make you temporarily psychotic and/or demented, You’d do well to de-tox your body as soon as possible after surgery. So I’m in the midst of doing that.

As for my rehabbed belly button, I don’t know what it looks like yet, since I can’t take off the dressing for a few more days. But I’m confident it will look much better than it has of late. The perfect belly button is a matter of taste, I suppose. Rock diva Madonna claims that hers — an innie — is a “perfect navel.” A quick perusal of half-naked models, men and women alike, will show that the innie wins: nobody is parading around showing off an outie. And it may be that, as a model, you can’t show your stomach if you have an outie. Is this true? Plastic surgeons are making money “improving” people’s belly buttons, which I guess makes sense for those who spend a lot of time shirtless in public. There is a Perfect Belly Button club on Facebook, if you’re interested, and it claims that “The perfect belly button is not an outie, it’s an innie.” No matter how you feel about yours, let’s be clear about this much: your navel is not your doing. You had no say in the matter: you were in fact screaming your way into the new world as the obstetrician clipped your umbilical cord and then, neatly or not, tied off the leavings to make that permanent finger-poke of a mark on your belly. Be happy that yours is in good working order.