Still searching for answers

I’ve had yet another lengthy flare-up of nerve pain. I waited to write because, really, what is the point of peeling that onion of anger and frustration once again? It’s not like this nerve pain recedes completely. It’s been a faithful visitor to me for decades (since age 11). Its visits have become frequent and longer lasting over the years, especially in the past year and a half, with the exception of the six month period immediately following my spine surgery. I had minimal nerve pain during those six months. It’s possible that I lost of bit of my “tolerance” for this pain during those six months, kind of like how one needs to get acclimated to cold all over again at the beginning of winter. Still, you’d think I’d have built that tolerance back by now.

It’s becoming clearer to me that I may not find an answer or a ready narrative for my pain. I recently read a book called Drug Dealer, MD by Anne Lembke, MD (Johns Hopkins Press). While this volume is really a textbook for college classes addressing the opiate crisis, it did have some concepts I found very helpful to my situation. Lembke stresses that story creation is a fundamental part of both culture and identity.  Like every culture, mine has common stories about illness, about pain. There’s a good chance I’m going to pursue one or more those stories to get relief, and the doctors who have treated me and will treat me have their own stories.

I feel lucky that one particular story was not available to me: long-term opiate therapy. Had I gotten surgery for my ruptured L4/L5 disc earlier in time (and my disc ruptured many years ago, unbeknownst to me, actually), this may have turned out differently. I think it was a bad collision of opportunism on one side and compassion on the other that lead to a whole generation of back pain patients getting hooked on opiates. No one can convince me that opiates work long-term at safe doses, and I don’t think they help with nerve pain. There’s also the proverbial elephant in the room, or the colon, if you will, constipation. Why in the world in the world would I want to lay a pile of bricks and mortar on top of the mess I’ve already got going on down there?

I used the term back pain the preceding paragraph, but that is also a source of contention for me. In reality, I don’t often have back pain, and when I do, it quickly resolves itself. No matter how many times I’ve tried to correct the matter in the past and present tense, my appointment records and the like still indicate that I have back pain. Is there is just no diagnostic category for what ails me? I have spinal stenosis, assorted bad discs, and the like. I have radicular nerve pain that is intermittent and moderate to severe when it flares up. Years ago I saw an electrical storm from a highway in the New Mexico desert. The nerve pain feels like that storm looked.

The pain seems to be a function in part of the pace of my movement. This is most evident when I am walking. Slow walking or waiting in line can be an agony to me, but faster walking usually gives me no trouble. Why is it that I can walk miles in a day but I can’t stand in place for more than a couple minutes?

This is the moment when I recall something that my sister, who is a fellow nerve pain/spinal stenosis patient, used to say to me in the midst of our various sibling rivalries, “Nobody knows and nobody cares.”

That may sound radically cynical, but there’s a vital truth in it for chronic pain patients: you are chronic because nobody yet knows how to fix your pain, and if they do not care, do not go back.

I don’t know where to turn next for getting treatment for this nerve pain. The first thing I’ve learned is that any treatment can have unintended consequences. When I had L4/L5 fusion with disc replacement last year, the indication was advanced disc degeneration and severe spinal stenosis. I had significant numbness in my left leg, urinary issues, and the like. I did have sciatica in the months leading up the surgery, but nothing as troubling as the nerve pain I’ve felt in the past nine months.

Long story short, surgery was the treatment of choice for what ailed me. I knew that the discs above the one replaced were not in great shape, but I did not think they would give me trouble so quickly. By the way, despite the nerve pain L3/L4 is generating, it is nowhere near qualifying for surgical removal. The one that did get removed, L4/L5, was so herniated it compressed my spinal cord on one side. It remains a mystery to me why it took so many years for me to feel pain or other symptoms from the L4/L5 rupture.

Next, I had the epidural injection. I wasn’t thrilled with this treatment. The relief I had was partial, and it lasted for six weeks. After this injection, I had nerve pain in new locations like my toes and neck. When the L3/L4 returned, it was mirrored to the right side, too. Now I have nerve pain in all four quadrants of my body. I cannot claim a cause-and-effect relationship here, but I will tell you to be very careful when you open the proverbial Pandora’s box of the central nervous system, especially if you come from a family with a history of migraine or fibromyalgia as I do. It’s not that I feel more pain than I did before I had the epidural; it’s coming from many more locations than it did before.

Back to the concept of story, I suppose it’s up to me to craft one of my own that helps me makes sense of what’s changed within me, one that does not rely on scalpels, syringes, or prescription drugs. We were human long before there were any cures. We loved, suffered, and triumphed before we knew what ailed us.

A Fortnight and a Day

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Wake me when this mess of a winter is over. I really wish I could hibernate through this season. Having lived in Ohio for most of my life, I am accustomed to wide variances in weather. A 70 degree weekend in February is not impossible. I’ve also witnessed a two-inch snowfall in May. Still, recent weather has tested my endurance:

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These brief reprieves of warmer temperatures make it hard to acclimate oneself to the spells of ridiculous cold. Our average January high and low should be 33° and 19°, respectively, but it seems we hardly ever have a winter day that represents that average.

At least the crazy weather has afforded my daughter a few snow days to work on switching back her nights and days.

In other news, we have found a second guinea pig, aptly named Buddy:

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He is quite unlike our other guinea pig L’Orange in one way: he actually likes to snack on vegetables. I hope they do not develop a sibling rivalry with Buddy occupying the role of the child who better conforms parental exceptions whilst taunting his rival sibling in secret (btw, I was that sort of sibling when I was growing up).

It is too soon to tell how well the guinea pigs will get along. I’ve taken Buddy to the vet for assurance that he is not carrying infectious diseases, but I feel I should wait a bit longer to put them together in a large habitat. L’Orange just seems to be a mountain of a man compared to little Buddy. I did succumb to temptation and placed L’Orange in Buddy’s cage for a few minutes a couple days ago. What ensued was a comedy of errors wherein L’Orange literally dragged his ass around the cage while Buddy tried to make his elder a hobby horse. I suppose they can have another opportunity to sort out who’s the boss at a later date.

My vacation at home during the first week of the year was a misery of sciatic grade pain and frozen weather. I learned something important that week: spinal stenosis and sedentary living do not combine well. As much as I’d like to do so, it is a terrible idea for me to sit down and read for eight hours a day, no matter how engrossing the texts before me might be.

As for my back, it turns out that my L3/L4 disc is bulging to the point that it is impinging a root nerve that runs across my left hip, thigh, and knee. As a result, I have nerve pain along that pathway. I will be getting an epidural injection soon to help remedy this issue.

I had one of my periodic surgery follow-ups last week. It’s been ten months since my L4/L5 fusion, and my spine is fusing well:

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If only my lumbar degeneration had been confined to the disc that was removed. If so, I would be fairly trouble-free at this point with orthopedic pain.

p.s. Of all the Golden Age mysteries I’ve read recently, I highly recommend Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. I think that Christie’s body of work explores a lot of the anxiety of coping with a changing modern world. This theme is very apparent in this novel.

Frozen Again

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I am on vacation this week, and I have few plans other than drowning myself in Golden Age detective fiction. This morning I thought I’d advance toward the revelation of the culprit in Harriet Rutland’s superb Knock, Murder, Knock!, but I fell asleep not once but twice as I tried to read. These naps were of the dreamless variety, so even my subconscious mind didn’t help me in revealing further details of the plot.

I’ve been digging into these Golden Age (1920’s-1930’s) narratives not so much for their well-crafted plots but for period details. I’m not sure why I’m finding these fictional worlds so comforting. This was a time when meritocracy ran a distant second to lucky accidents of birth, and I have no wish whatsoever for the world to revert back to its socioeconomic terms (e.g., heaven forbid that dressing up for dinner become a trend again). Maybe in these pages I am finding some constants of the human condition amid the relatively baroque decor and fashion. No matter how many layers of clothing we must wear, the heart still covets and the will within may fail, yet we adapt and survive. In these fictional worlds, there is the hangman’s noose awaiting those who cannot remake themselves in the face of life’s defeats.

Onto the weather . . . another Alberta Clipper dropped a few inches of snow. Now that the snow has finished falling, the temperatures are drifting to zero degrees again. I tried shovelling some snow this morning, but early afternoon wind gusts undid my work. My husband ventured outside with the leaf blower to clear off some walking paths:

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The dogs next door were out just long to do their duty and bark at us:

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I think the hound on the right is asking me why I’m outside when my toilet, unlike his, is indoors.

Four Below

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As I drove to work in the darkness today, steam rose from every manhole I passed, and my car’s thermometer indicated that it was just -4º F outside. Like much of the northern U.S., our holiday season this year has been bookended with a mini polar vortex.

My route to work bisects downtown Lima, where plenty of evergreen garlands, red bows, and twinkling lights are still on display. The bloated outdoor Christmas ornaments of municipal displays remind me of the massive 10# canned foods used in institutional cooking. A foot-wide ball ornament appeals to me about as much as a 112 oz. can of chocolate pudding.

In the darkness, the frozen weather made manifest the slightly spooky melancholy of that twilight time between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The anticipation of the season is over and there is plenty of room for the ghosts of holidays past to creep into the mind. As I drove through downtown, I recalled the times I spotted either of my grandfathers walking around that area during dawn or dusk. Both of them were wont to walk.

Following the stream of consciousness, I savored the sound of “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull while I was at work today. Since I am an oddball, I imagined what a feat it might be to learn the flute solo from that song. To what purpose? I suppose it could be a neat party trick, but how would I secret a flute into such a gathering? These musings are pointless considering how rarely I attend parties. I suppose the value of performance fantasies consists solely in their capacity to entertain oneself.

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Let It Snow

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I’m as ready for Christmas as I ever get. I approach the holidays much like I did test taking in my school days. After an initial fervor, I’d procrastinate until I had to cram the information, layering the re-reading of my notes with plenty of Hail Mary’s in hope that something, anything had embedded itself into my long-term memory. Despite these crises of confidence, my test results were usually good unless I didn’t bother to show up.

I have all the presents wrapped and ready to load for the trip across town to my parents’ house tomorrow. Of course, I feel like I somehow missed getting anything that anyone would actually like because my usual self-absorption has precluded me from telepathically receiving everyone’s wish lists. Nobody tells me what they really want for Christmas any more, even my daughter. Perhaps they have abandoned all hope that I would actually find the time and the wherewithal to brave the holiday shopping crowds to get what their hearts truly desire.

One year I got all the adults on my shopping list an As-Seen-On-TV item and a gift card. At least they were able to apply the latter gift toward something useful.

Today we had our first substantial snow of the season. We had mist and fog last night, so the tree branches were primed to grow heavy with fallen snow:

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I really wish I had some photos of last night’s fog. My daughter and I went shopping yesterday evening, and we took a road-less-traveled on the way home. My habit of alternative routing is very much based on avoidance of left turns except at traffic lights with a left turn green arrow and four-way stop signs. Anyway, there was a nearly-deserted overpass we took on the way home that looked quite magical in the fog. It was a scene I will not soon forget.

By the way, I’m still a little melancholy over the closing of this year’s garden. Where once were baskets overflowing with blooms are now just forlorn shepherd’s hooks:

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I struggle to appreciate winter, even though I know from experience that I need this downtime to ensure my serenity in the long term.

Back to the subject of Christmas, my daughter did take the time to inform me of one entry on her wish list. Her relating this wish to me isn’t really an exception to the cloud of unknowing regarding my loved one’s Christmas lists, for she’s been campaigning for this one since summer. She wants a companion for her guinea pig, L’Orange:

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We adopted him last winter, and he has given us unexpected joy. My daughter has a special voice that belongs to L’Orange. The timbre and spirit of this voice hearken to Louis Armstrong, raspy, witty and wise. I’m surprised by how much history L’Orange has learned despite his seclusion. Last week he told us, “The Doughboys fought in World War I. They were badasses!”

She insists that he’d be happier with a buddy, but I’ve delayed the acquisition of one because I’m concerned that keeping two boars happy could be a tricky business.

After doing a bit of reading online, I’ve learned that it is feasible to keep two males provided they have plenty of space. I challenged my daughter to make space in her room for expanding our guinea accommodations. I didn’t think she would rise to the occasion, but she did so just in time for the local supply of guinea pigs to evaporate due to  Christmas gift giving.

Perhaps we will acquire L’Orange’s buddy in much the same way we did him. He was a February surrender of a Christmas gift gone wrong for his first family.

Merry Christmas to all of my readers.

A Moving Postcard from 45

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I turned 45 this month. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve asked myself a crucial question several times: are you old enough to withstand seeing yourself as other people see you?

I admit that this question is a bit strange, but it is in my nature to wonder over such oddball notions. When I was a child, I wished and wished that I could shrink myself small enough to fit inside my toy shopping cart, just to see the world like my stuffed animals did as I walked them down the street in that cart. I imagined that I could have heard their soft banter had I been their size.

For all that we share selfies and short updates about daily life, are we any more efficient at conveying our selves to the world than we were before the internet existed as we now know it?

Think of the sense we gain of someone by watching that person enter a room or move down the street. When I look at the online profiles of my friends and family, I’ve hardly ever seen such footage, and I hadn’t thought to share such moments online until today.

This afternoon I remembered what the world was like when I became an adult in the early 90’s. The options in communicating over a distance with a kindred spirit were limited. Long distance telephone calls were pricey, so like many of my generation, I’d record mix tapes and write letters packed with inside jokes.

Back then, I could not have imagined what it would be like to have a real-time, multimedia communication device at my disposal. If smartphones had materialized back in the early 90’s, I’d have wanted to see ordinary moments of those who were and still are dear to me.

I remember being 19 years old and living 600 miles away from my mother. How delightful it would have been to watch a video of her lighting a cigarette in the morning and sipping her coffee.

Why is that we have this technology at our disposal but it is so seldom used in this way? Is movement reserved as that last shred of privacy in lives lived ever increasingly online?

I set up my tripod in my backyard after I returned home from work this afternoon. I wondered if I could stand to see myself walk across the yard. Believe it or not, if you haven’t seen a video of yourself walking before, the experience is just as jarring as hearing your recorded voice for the first time. Both experiences beg two questions: Is that really me? and How much do I like that person?

In seeing my video, I had to confront how I felt about myself. At first, I recoiled at the sight of it. Then I considered that my distaste was not a reflection of reality but of how I perceived myself. When I go about the business of daily living, people don’t react to me like I am a bloated absurdity come to life, and the odds are slim indeed that most people I encounter are wearing a poker face until I am out of sight.

I rewatched the video with the thought: imagine that you are watching somebody’s mother, daughter, wife, or best friend. Then I realized that I was doing just that. The people who are dearest to me don’t love me in spite of how I look, sound, and move. They love me in part because of those things.

I share this because the same thing is true of you, dear reader. At this moment, there are people in your life who would love to see moments of your life today as you lived them. Will you let them see you, or will you wait until some perfect moment in the future, when your hair, clothes, and size have reached some mythical standard?

There is no reason to wait, for you are already perfect enough for those who love you.

Here is my video:

Pizza Buffet

Last year I endured a minor tragedy in electronics that lead to my owning a smart phone with an awful camera. My Samsung S5 tanked just days after the manufacturer’s warranty expired, and my cell phone insurance did not cover loss in the event of failure due to a restart cycle so relentless the phone could eventually reach a blacksmith range temperature. Since I am batty, I am imagining a cell phone glowing with enough heat to fashion horse shoes.

Back to the phone topic, I bought a cheap replacement phone, the LG V8, which retailed for just $144 when it was still available. This phone is adequate in every way except for its camera. In low light, the pictures have so much noise that the raw pictures look like time travelling back to the dawn of digital photography.

This evening we enjoyed a pizza buffet at a local bowling alley. We stopped in the parking lot because it hosted a donation drive for Hurricane Harvey relief, and we ventured into the bowling alley for the buffet.

I tried taking some shots of dinner, but this is the best I could do:

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Why the frame? It distracts from the noise in the picture, and it so happens that we had such a good time at dinner that the moment seemed worthy of such polish.

Our dinner conversations are typically full of tangents. My daughter is taking German this year in school, and she let me know that she found four different words in translation for the word dewlap, which is the double chin found on some female rabbits and male guinea pigs. She also reminded me that people get dewlaps as well . . . and my early turkey neck qualifies as a starter dewlap.

Before we left the subject of dewlaps, she informed us that she found a German Men’s Health article about a double-chin-slimming workout (Gesichtsgymnastick: Das Anti-Doppelkinn-Training).

Some horse race from Saratoga was playing on the TV in the bowling alley, so my husband and I mused about the average size of the horse jockeys. What could their maximum height and weight be? 5’3″ and 100 pounds was my guess. I also remembered how my mom told me in the midst of the Monkees resurgence of the 80’s that Davy Jones had been a horse jockey before his stint in the Pre-Fab Four. My husband recalled this bit of trivia from his youth, too (btw, he was in grade school when “Daydream Believer” was a hit).

The pizza itself was unremarkable aside from its abundance and price. The sauce had bright flavor and well carmelized cheese, but the crust was average. Given the cost of this dinner, I can’t expect anything approaching perfection. All three of us dined to the border of gluttony for a little less than $20.

This was yet another pit stop in my attempt to lose my post-surgery weight, but the family bonding we had at this dinner made this falling-off-the-wagon totally worth it.

Adding on 9/2/17:

I forgot to mention that our dinner conversation included the topic of Manifest Destiny because my daughter noticed that one of the horses on the Saratoga race on TV had that name. Of course I had to mention that glorious scene in Family Guy wherein Stewie proclaims “Manifest Destiny!” in reference to their road trip from Rhode Island to San Francisco . . . which brings me to one of my favorite moments from that series. Stewie has stolen a camper during part of that transcontinental trip, and he insists that he can keep on driving straight to San Francisco because he’d taken some pills that a trucker had nicknamed West Coast Turnaround. There are so many transgressive things about that scene, and it all collides in a delightful way.