Friday, September 14, 2007

Ouchy Is Just A Place In Switzerland

It's easy - for a cynic like me, anyways- to scoff at those so-called inspiring stories of human triumph. What those stories often don't talk about, and completely unprepared me to address when I became injured, was that not only would I be dealing with the the physical pain, but also trying to figure out a huge lifestyle shift and change in my identity. Before I was hobbling crutches, I was superdynamicawesomebionicwoman. I spent my weeknights running about five or six miles, and my weekends rock climbing or surfing. Running was a habit; a daily ritual that allowed me an hour or so of clear, uninterrupted introspection, release, and movement. It was a mental signal that the workday was over and that the evening had officially begun. I would come home feeling accomplished, invigorated, and ready to deal with the world- I mean, if you can run six miles in 50 minutes, there's a lot you can accomplish, right? It was the foundation of my self-confidence.

Once I was on the crutches, I was just a crip, which was really hard- I'm past the age where it's funny for the li'l white girl to flash gang signs. Well, that and not only was I not the powerful athlete that I once was, I also had a lot more free time that I had no idea what to do with myself. I didn't even know quite when to shower- I was so used to coming home and rinsing off after a thorough workout, but suddenly I wasn't sweaty anymore- did that even mean I was dirty? It always kind of baffled me why people shower in the morning- who gets dirty in their sleep? As I adopted the habit, I realized it was little more than a placemarker, a time to get clean because that made as much sense as any other time.

My body started changing, too. I lost almost ten pounds- awesome, right? Except that it was about ten pounds of pure muscle. My measurements are probably about the same as the were before, but I feel different. Not to sound boastful, but I used to have an ass that looked quite cute bouncing around in a pair of jeans. It's almost completely gone now. Clothes fit completely differently, and I haven't figured out quite how to wear them in this new body. My friends and the Object assure me that I'm still adorable, and I'm sure I am- but I just don't feel like me. Let's not even get started on how not being able to wear most shoes has vastly limited my wardrobe option.

At the core of this is my self-identity, which has taken a beating. I was fairly easygoing before the injury, and used exercise as my large means of controlling stress. After the injury, I fell apart at the tiniest things. In one particularly memorable moment, I burst into wracking, heaving sobs when the Object threw tomatoes into the wrong dish that we were cooking for dinner.

Dealing with a complete overhaul in self-image is a lot of work, but in a cruel twist of the cosmic universe, chronic pain is controlled by the limbic system. The limbic system is also project manager of stress and emotion, and when you throw chronic pain in there, it throws the whole system into crisis mode, so that all of them are more difficult to control. Because pain management is a field that has not been widely studied until quite recently, so not only do a lot of medical professionals actually understand what's going on, they aren't even aware. The head of orthopedic surgery at George Washington told me that because pain didn't "travel" in a certain way, the pain I was describing to him couldn't exist. Since I'm pretty goddamn sure I'm not just making stabbing pain up, my pain must be incredibly cosmopolitan, since it can travel in all kinds of new and unheard of ways. I'll buy it a fucking SportSac rolly luggage bag if it just gets the hell out of here, but for the time-being, it's made a happy little home in my body, so don't tell me it's not real, figure it out and make it go away!

I count myself lucky- after working for a few months with a good physical therapist in DC, he saw that I wasn't really progressing and had the self-awareness to admit that he was at a loss on how to help me any further. That's got to be pretty hard for any medical professional, a field in which, by necessity, one needs to be incredibly confident in his work. He referred me to the "Mayo Clinic of Physical Therapy", to a specialist who has been at the forefront of back pain and the SI joint. When I began seeing the new specialist back in April, I appreciated that not only was he frank with me that the journey to recovery was a long, difficult slog, but that he understood the difficulty of the emotional and mental impact, and he had a plan. I don't mind working, as long as I know there's a goal I'm working towards.

As I keep working on my physical therapy and progressing through treatment for my back and hips, there are the inevitable setbacks. The days that I am in excruciating pain a fewer and far between, but what I didn't anticipate is how much more of a betrayal it would feel like when I still do have those painful days. I'm pretty lucky in the support that surrounds me when I have a hard time with myself. Not only do I enjoy my job and find it a distraction from the pain, but my boss and team are incredibly supportive of my doing what needs to be done to get better- it's not every organization that will work with you to assess how to manage time flexibly so that you can dip out early a few times a week. My friends are perfect- since the gauntlet of quotidian physical therapy exercises takes place over several hours, they're content to bring over a six-pack, let me cook them dinner, and shoot the shit while I'm working.

And there's no way I can express how having the Object as a partner helps, despite the fact that this has been incredibly difficult for him, too. He's lost his climbing partner and now lives with a woman who every so often turns into a snarling beast. But he knows when to bring me a handful of pills and a mug of tea and has become a champion at not taking it personally when I blame him for ruining my life, despite the fact that all he's done is leave his socks around the house. And that's just what's at the very surface.

But still, there are really hard days, like today. My abs are so sore from the PT exercises that they feel hot to touch and are visibly swollen. Because of all the muscle tension on my right side, it feels like none of my bones are sitting in their joints the right ways, so I can't get comfortable in my own skin. A few weeks ago, I slacked off on my physical therapy, and paid the price in pain, quite literally. But for the past several weeks, I've been as assiduous as ever, and I still want to jump out of my muscles and walk around with just my skeleton.

On these days, I like to think of people who have it worse off than I do. This can be a Catch-22, though. The first problem is that because I work with outreach to developing countries, I think about things like incurable diseases a lot. And I actually feel really positive about the work I do; that it impacts the world in a real, positive way. So while that's reassuring, that's just the shit I do everyday. Then there's children in Darfur with the big gassy bellies much bigger than my swollen abs who will probably be raped and killed anyways- and then I feel resigned to living in a cruel world and just accepting the pain I have, completely unmotivated to keep working hard to try and get better. That doesn't work much either.

Which brings me back to the inspiring stories. Those are supposed to work, right? But they're so formulaic and ultimately boring. And if I'm an inspiring story, I'm at the really sucky middle part that you only read to enjoy the end. Boooooring and irrelevant.

OK, except that football player who thought he was paralyzed and is now getting better; that's pretty sweet.

And this is the magic of the internet: the place where you can always turn to find people worse off than you, but not so bad that they'll make you feel bad about yourself. And that's where I am. It's become my own little prayer: Universe, grant me the serenity to accept the pain I'm in, the courage to keep working on getting better, and the wisdom to know when to turn to funny pictures on the internet.

And so, without further ado, I present you The Goo Gallery of Ouch:

Wrong Place, Wrong Time Ouchy

I'm Stuck Ouchy

A Little Air Please Ouchy

Don't Put BenGay on That Ouchy

Implausible Ouchy

The Seasonal Ouchy

The At Least My Hips Don't Look Like This Ouchy

Except that those are my hips. And no, the x-ray isn't crooked. I have to get another MRI now. You have a good weekend.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now for something completely different...

Hey poofy glue,

I am giving away about 30 issues of climbing and Rock and Ice covering the 2002-2007 period.
Since we are neighbours, i assumed you might be interested.

You can email me


10:07 AM  
Blogger 3pennyjane said...

I offer a story that doesn't 100% have a happy ending, but it is one of my faves. Back in the day, Sasha Rabchevsky said that the most important things in life were women, motorcycles, and Pixie Stix. Now, after a horrendous accident, he's working on spinal regeneration technology that's helped ensure that people who experience accidents like his are able to regain more function. He's still in a chair most of the time, but he's making huge difference for other people.

I am so sorry about the pain and stress. Be well.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Chris Chan said...

Darn. I'm sorry that you're going through so much pain. As someone who's been in a similar position recently, I really hope that you get better soon.

1:35 PM  

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