I feel like a walking miracle. A year ago I had my brush with a painful back injury and now I am reflecting on how far I’ve come.
Pain feels like everything
It started as a twinge. As if a rubber band in my back had stretched, twisted, then popped back into place in the span of three seconds – all while simply lifting a bag out of my car. I always wish there were a more heroic story when an injury happens, but alas, this was a grocery-related injury. I limped into the house and continued feeling “off” for about three months. Then, on one very normal morning, as I woke up and walked through the doorway of my bathroom, I froze mid step – it was as if I had been struck by lightning from the inside out – I was yelping and breathless at the same time. I held on to the doorway for dear life as pain seemed to explode from my back and legs. I buckled to the ground. Aftershocks of ‘lightning’ kept jolting through my body.
Time slowed down. Every miniscule move I made was not only excruciating but also terrifying because I couldn’t tell when the next lightning strike was coming. Then the thoughts flooded in: Could I even stand up? How would I get to the bathroom, get showered, or make it to a doctor?
The answer was very, very, very slowly.
I thought it was a standard case of what so many people experience as Sciatica. I thought the ripping sensation down my sacrum was part of muscle strain. So my reasoning was to simply go to my chiropractor, get an acupuncture treatment, and book a massage. Over the next 4 weeks, I continued to get adjustments, treatments, and massages, plus all the other self-care tricks in the book with little relief – epsom salt baths, supplements, even a trip to Spa World.
After a month of barely being able to function, my chiropractor was able to convince me to get an MRI so we could get a visual on what we were dealing with.
When you get medical news…
There’s a reason people preface news with “you might want to sit down for this”.
My chiropractor read the MRI results to me: “Well it turns out you have one of the worst kinds of disc injury. It’s called an extrusion, which means one of your discs broke open and the contents are resting on the nerves that feed your left leg.” I felt my legs go rubbery as he was explaining my anatomy to me. “You can either go to a Neurosurgeon, who won’t be able to guarantee a 100% fix with surgery, or you can give your body 3-6 months to work on healing it naturally, which also will not guarantee a 100% fix. Sometimes bodies can reabsorb the disc matter over 1-2 years. Most people end up living with it, and you just never know when the pain might strike.”
I held it together until I left the chiropractic clinic, where I erupted into tears. I told my business partner Rachel, “I’m about to go into shock for a minute, and, I’m fine – I’ll be fine…” I proceeded to cry-hyperventilate while I processed what I had just learned and what I should do about it and how this might affect the rest of my life. Would I ever walk normally again? Would I be able to continue working? After about 10 minutes of letting all the feelings course through my body, and after getting a mini acupuncture treatment by Rachel, I felt stable enough to go on with my work day; back to the business of healing.
That day was long, and it turned into months of very long days.
I chose to see what my body would do if I gave it at least 3 months to heal itself.
I had lost all sensation down the side of my leg and foot. Movement was severely restricted. Twisting, lifting, and bending over were not options. If anything dropped on the floor, there it stayed. During the days, finding a comfortable position was impossible. I would set my alarm two hours early to give myself time to move like a sloth and manage a shower (aiming shower gel at my feet to clean them was quite hilarious). I made it through work with an ice pack strapped around my waist to keep my back numb enough to move. The only way to get through was by constantly shifting my weight from side to side, front to back, sitting to standing to slouching to leaning. The limited, shifty movement during the few hours of work and listening to patients was a welcome distraction. I couldn’t sit at a computer comfortably either so any online work had to be done on my phone while lying down.
I’d come straight home and lie flat on my bed. There were no social outings; I went nowhere besides home and work for 3 months. Getting into the car alone was so difficult, and that was just to ride in the passenger seat in a fully reclined position. I looked forward to being able to lie flat on my bed. The electric strikes continued to hit randomly. When I ventured into the kitchen or the bathroom, I took baby steps with the help of a cane. Sitting on the couch felt like torture. I didn’t watch much tv, didn’t read much, didn’t listen to podcasts. I slept a lot or stared at the ceiling, laying very still and very flat, for as long as 18 hours. I gave myself acupuncture treatments in the twilight hours. Painkillers were timed around the clock. I set two alarms overnight to wake up to take them. I learned what “getting ahead of the pain” means, because if you wait until you’re crying to take the painkillers, it’s too late.
It’s amazing how the body works toward healing itself, and sometimes that is not in a linear way. I had impressive night sweats, which is interesting because sometimes the way the body reabsorbs disc matter is to dehydrate itself. My alignment looked like an ‘S’ – in my spine’s effort to relieve pressure on one side of the body, it contorted itself (antalgic posture); my belly button was lined up over my left knee. My upper back muscles stiffened as they worked to hold my body up during they day.
What was the most important part of my recovery? Patience.
Through it all I never wondered ‘why me’. I’m a believer that everything that happens in our life has a gift hidden in it. I could appreciate many gifts about this pretty early on. I had many moments of wonder and awe at the human body, moments of bliss for when time felt like it was suspended, moments of humbled gratefulness that I had the great fortune of being able to rest. It also helped that I love being alone; hibernating is an introvert’s dream! I felt truly lucky to bear this injury; if I had other jobs or kids or any other set of circumstances, I would not have this luxury.
Killing the martyr
It was so difficult to ask for help. To ask my work mates to do any work that required physical movement felt like a blow to my identity, because I had always relied so heavily on being able to be active, to be capable, to jump in and work anything out, roll up my sleeves, get it done. It was embarrassing to not be able to change out the water dispenser, let alone pick up the pen I dropped.
My husband Airrion did everything at home. Groceries, meals, laundry, cleaning, driving, and helping me put shoes on. Oh the shoes. Shoes, especially in the winter, are so hard to get on. Thank God for flip flops. Isn’t it true that you never realize how much you use a body part until it’s [gone]?
For a while, I was believing that I was “just old now” and “now I walk like an old lady”. One of my friends put me in check and said, “Stop it, Joy, don’t speak your existence into being that way.” So I stopped, put my shoulders back, and go figure – I don’t feel old anymore.
It’s been a year, and I have little to no pain. I write this to celebrate, and I write to remember.
There are moments when I am so utterly grateful: “I just peed without the help of a walking cane or feeling like I might die!”… and… “Do you realize how amazing it feels to sleep on your side?!” I have odd sensations in my back all the time still – sometimes it feels like there’s either a pressure or a feeling of a void – all reminders to not overdo it. I don’t take my back for granted. This injury was a result of years of my previous smaller injuries, strains, and overwork. I am very aware that this physical freedom could all be gone again at any time. And surgery may be my friend in the future, who knows.
So many people walk around every day with what I have – either bulging, protruded, or extruded discs – and don’t even know it, because they have no pain. And there are all kinds of things going on in our bodies and brains that we don’t see or feel. “Healthy” or “free of imperfections” doesn’t exist.
There’s an artistic technique from Japan that perfectly illustrates how we go on living in broken bodies: Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi) is a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.
The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize the history of the object and to visibly incorporate the repair into the new piece instead of disguising it.
The process usually results in something more beautiful than the original.
Here’s to filling our cracked open parts with gold.