Nothing Ever Changes Unless There’s Some Pain

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Spring is well into its eruption of green and blooms. Once again, it’s been entirely too long since I last posted. I actually took these photos a fortnight ago, but I haven’t gathered the will or candor to post them until now. The previous sentence begs the question of why should honesty enter the equation of creating a blog post with nature photos? This oddity arises because this blog is also an open diary of sorts, and I feel that failing to disclose parts of my ongoing problems would be a lie of omission.

I continue to struggle with chronic pain, and I suspect that I have partly alienated key people in my life with my complaints about it. I can take enough of their perspective to understand why some people just look at me with stone-still faces as I talk about my nerve pain or migraines. They can’t solve this problem for me. Nerve damage is not something that can be fixed like a flat tire.

There’s also something to be said about the notion that thinking about pain is not helpful. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about pain without thinking about it. Reflecting on pain can intensify the sensation of it. Perhaps my conversations about pain tend to become monologues because people might think being supportive of my talking about pain will lead to me thinking more about it and hurting more. There’s an innocence beneath such a perspective. You are lucky if you’ve never felt pain so omnipresent that it could not be ignored. Since I think of lyrics entirely too often, this sort of aforementioned innocence reminds of some lines from “These Days” by the Foo Fighters: “Easy for you to say . . . your pride has never been stolen.”

Speaking of lyrics, the borrowed the title of this post hails from “Goodnight Song” by Tears for Fears. There are bits of treasure to be gleaned from pop culture.

Another gem I remembered this week hails from “I Wish You Well” by Tom Cochrane (who, btw, also wrote “Life is a Highway”): “She wants her space to feel love and be angry.” I’m still angry that pain erupts in me every single day, like a toddler who tantrums again and again for toys that might have been bought if not for the fit thrown. There are few certainties in life aside from birth, death, and change. I’m mad because I don’t want my life to change.

I loved the character and substance of my days in the decade before this mess happened. I loved that I had become a morning person, that I had conquered my fatness (a problem which has returned btw, but not entirely). I loved binge-watching British mystery shows while riding an exercise bike or elliptical machine for the entirety of a series (I’d watch the show for 30 to 45 minutes at a time). I loved my small feats of strength, such as carrying the better part of a trunkload of groceries in one trip.

I’m beginning to consider that the sort of life I was leading was both a denial and intuitive treatment of spinal issues that had been brewing for years before their diagnosis. Weight loss is a good conservative treatment for spinal degeneration. Losing 130 pounds did make me feel better, but all the while I ignored important signs. It is not normal to awaken five nights a week due to leg cramps. It is not ordinary at all for weight loss to restore sensation to a knee that was apt to go numb when doing any significant standing or walking. This era of my life now seems to be an extended remix of the sort of denial that can lead a woman to fail to realize she is pregnant until she is in labor. Wasn’t there a show about this phenomenon called I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant? I remember seeing an episode of this series wherein one of the women said she was mystified by pains that were “growing stronger and longer and closer together,” until her baby crowned.

I recall laughing heartily over that woman’s surprise childbirth story. I thought, holy shit, how can you be of childbearing age and not equate pain that gets stronger, longer, and closer together with labor? I now know that life is full of such willful ignorance. We bury all sorts of deception and pain until we’re ready to deal with it. There are times when we’d rather not add up signs of betrayal or know what that pain means. We don’t want to stop just yet and open the door to that which must be reckoned with eventually.

I’m lost in charting a course in how I must change to cope with my chronic pain. Should I pursue a cure when some of my previous attempts seemed to be worse than the disease? I belong to a Facebook group for people who’ve had spinal fusion surgery. I’ve noticed that many members have written that spinal fusion surgery was the most painful experience of their lives. In all honesty, I didn’t think it was exceptionally painful compared to other surgeries I’ve had. Actually, there have been times every day this week that I have felt worse than I did in the days after that surgery.

I suppose it doesn’t help that my affect is rather flat through all this. My Midwestern stoicism is very deeply ingrained in me; I seldom look stricken when I’m in pain. I suppose that it is hard to believe me when I mention that today I felt worse than when I was in labor with my daughter, even if that is a true statement (and I had back labor for 44 hours, half of which I endured with no pain medicine).

Here are the diagnoses on my chart at my family’s doctor’s office:

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There are several chronically painful conditions on that list.

My chart at the local orthopedic center has a bit more detail:

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I don’t know how I could keep this mess to myself, to spare people the details and reality of such pain, without being a fundamentally dishonest person. I am the sort of person who has almost no mental real estate for keeping secrets, and all of that space is reserved for secrets that belong to other people.

Lately, I’ve heard that I must be blowing this struggle out of proportion, for I’ve been through worse in the past. For example, people will mention that it must have been harder to leave everything behind but a couple suitcases when my daughter and I relocated 2,000 miles away during her infancy. I assure you, dear reader, that my past struggles were very easy indeed compared to what I face now. Nothing is easier than quitting, no matter what the consequences of doing so. Through quitting, you take the power of choosing the outcome, even if the result is awful. Quitting is not an option now. I must bend without breaking to keep everything in place, no matter how bad I’m feeling.

I will close this post with images of this season’s enfolding growth, and I hope that my mind, body, and spirit begin to reflect this renewal.

Spring Photo Walk, April 22: Spring Wildflowers Are Here!

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This has been the first week of spring with weather cooperative enough to permit some wildflower blooming. The result was a collision of three types of wildflowers that usually bloom separately from one another: bloodroot, anemone, and trout lily.

I was pleased to see all three of them today. I haven’t had the chance to see all three of them in a few years. Every spring, I intend to capture all the season’s changes in flora, and then time just runs away from me. The next thing I know, the irises are in bloom. At least that hasn’t happened yet this year.

The first picture below shows the next bloom in spring’s progress: Virginia bluebells.

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Fall Photo Walk, September 30

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This post has a dual purpose. As indicated through its title, I will share some photos I took on a walk this morning. I will also devote part of this post to explaining why I haven’t been posting as often.

Our heatwave is over, and the weather has been ideal for the past couple days. I am so grateful that the sweltering temperatures have dissipated. It feels strange to write that we reached temperatures in the low 90’s during the first week of fall. When the heat becomes oppressive, I linger on memories of cold temperatures.

One memory in particular that helped sustain me through this recent heat hails from seven years ago. I was working nights in a freezer (a tidbit I also mentioned in my post from earlier today). To be more specific, I worked part of my shift in a freezer. Even though I had ample gear from my employer to protect me from the cold, I’d often struggle with feeling that my feet were cold when I tried to fall asleep at home later in the day.

Necessity required me to keep a strange schedule during that era. I failed to launch several times in my earlier adulthood. After each of several ill-planned goals had fallen apart, I’d move back into my parent’s house, dwell on my faults at length, and grasp another straw. By the time I reached 35 and had a child of my own, I figured I needed to stick with something, anything. The place that felt like home was a massive grocery warehouse, where I still work and have grown to love as much as anyone can become attached to a workplace.

I spent my first three years there on the night shift, and I’d devote half of my nights to the perishable section. I’d go home after work and rest for a couple hours until it was time to get my daughter ready for school. I’d feel too worn out during this first “shift” of sleep to fuss over feeling cold. Once I dropped my daughter off at school, I’d go home and back to bed. In the winter months, I’d often be plagued with “cold feet” when I’d fall asleep that second time.

I remember getting out of bed and soaking my feet in hot water, but most of the time it seemed that my water heater was too lazy to offer me water hot enough to warm up my feet. No other remedy seemed equal to this challenge without making me wake up in a sweat by noon.

During the recent heat, I dwelled on that memory several times, as if I could resurrect that chill in my feet just by thinking about it. I learned that cold is not a state of mind.

Now for why I haven’t been posting as much lately . . . About a week and a half ago, I found out why my hip and thigh have been aching lately. It was not related to my back surgery. Instead, the issue is muscular, and I have started physical therapy to remedy this problem.

I’ve had pain on a chronic basis for over a year now. In my experience, depression and pain profit from each other. I visited my family doctor and inquired if I should start taking an antidepressant again. She suggested that I try Cymbalta since it has shown promise in tempering chronic pain.

I took Cymbalta for ten days and could tolerate no more. Everyone reacts a bit differently to these types of drugs. While I am sure it has worked wonders for some people, it did not do so for me. It nearly silenced my orthopedic pain. Unfortunately, I had some side effects which were intolerable.

The main problem definitely resides in the Too Much Information file. It’s one of those facts of life that merits little reflection if things are working as they should. If this process is disrupted, it can loom large enough in the mind (and part of the body, too, I suppose) to crowd out other concerns.

There is no delicate way of relating the problem. I developed the worse case of constipation I’ve ever experienced. The whole interlude haunts me like a quote I read in an oddball book I read years ago called Holy Wisdom by Augustine Baker. Baker wrote a series of resignations or things he’d be willing to endure if God’s will demanded it of him. In one of them, he claimed that he would “not yield to the motion of nature, which perhaps out of wearisomeness would fain have life at an end.”

Over the past year, I’ve been prescribed a couple medicines that helped me with my orthopedic pain. On gabapentin, I couldn’t remember shit. On Cymbalta, I couldn’t give a shit, both literally and figuratively. I’d rather feel the pain. At least that pain is diminishing again.

Back to my walk this morning . . . Fall color has been a bit stunted due to low rainfall over the past couple months. If this drought deepens, I doubt we’ll have many picture perfect leaves when the color peaks. No matter how much rain we get, I’ll be grateful for an end to the heat by the time October is over. The temperatures may climb into the 80’s again next weekend.

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Fall Photo Walk, September 23

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I didn’t linger long outdoors today. We are in the middle of a heatwave that straddled the end of summer and beginning of fall. Today’s high was 91 degrees. I don’t think we had a day so hot all summer long this year.

Fall’s beginning is apparent in all ways except the heat. I spotted a sweetgum tree whose leaves had all changed in color. The purple asters have appeared as well, a sure sign that heat alone can’t restrain the season.

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Fall Photo Walk, September 10

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Fall has made an early arrival this year. Virginia creeper (shown above) and poison ivy are the first to blaze in color here in west central Ohio.

Here is some poison ivy that’s made an impressive climb up a maple tree:

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I spotted a fallen branch in a prairie crowded with goldenrod. This branch looks like a long-legged man hiking:

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The fall asters are in bloom. Leaf season is definitely upon us.

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The Long View

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As the summer season draws to close each year, I am reminded that taking the long view forward can have a toxic impact on my mind. There’s nothing like stacking everything that’s needs done in a year or more to provoke depressive feelings in me.

The half spent sawtooth sunflower shown above well represents where I stand at this time. If I focus on what is best in the present tense, I feel well, but if I mull over what is painful or yet-to-happen, I feel a bit crushed. It’s like dismissing the beauty of this plant just because it blooms for such a short time.

I’m already feeling a bit of nostalgia over my medical leave for back surgery this past spring. It’s not like this small era was packed with halcyon days. For two months, I had time to delve into the tangential things my ordinary schedule does not permit, yet I did not have the energy to accomplish much at all. Four months later, I regret that I tainted this time with any expectations beyond healing.

At the time, I wrote that my expectations were very low, but I now realize that such writing was my hope of deflating then-impossible goals. No, I was not going to craft a cookbook bursting at the seams with recipes both cheap and easy. I wasn’t going to document the daily unfurling of early spring with perfectly focused images. Worst of all, I would not have a house that was truly clean.

I did accomplish what needed to be done. My back is still fusing ahead of schedule. I was able to drive during my daughter’s spring break, so we were not stuck at home during the days of her vacation. After I came home from the hospital, I maintained my usual weekday wake up time (5:30 a.m., no less). This provided continuity for my family and ensured that I wouldn’t feel jet lagged once I returned to work.

Twice the time I had for leave has now passed since I returned to work. I can’t claim that the surgery was entirely successful. The symptom that made this procedure (an L4/L5 fusion) necessary was increasing numbness in my feet and in one of my knees. I had a long-term ruptured disc that exerted considerable pressure on my spinal cord. I had sciatica for a three month span prior to my surgery, but I didn’t have much pain obviously related to my back before that symptom began.

My MRI and surgery revealed that my disc ruptured 10 to 15 years ago. I had developed extensive arthritis and hypertrophy in my lumbar spine over that time. I’ve written previously of being stunned at my mental oblivion regarding this disease process. I literally had no suspicion of this degeneration, despite having several family members who’ve suffered from similar problems.

Looking back, the whole long interlude reminds me of that movie The Others starring Nicole Kidman, (spoiler alert) wherein she crafts an entire reality based on denial of her and her children’s passing. She has all sorts of elaborate excuses for why they can’t do the same things living people do, such as her warning to the children that they musn’t open the drapes because they are allergic to sunlight.

During Trick or Treat nine years ago, I barely endured walking my daughter around for a couple hours because my lower back was aching. Rather than go to a doctor about it, I decided that my problem was entirely due to obesity and lost 130 pounds over the next three years. I didn’t make any medical appointments whatsoever during that time (and for another year afterward) except for ear treatments I couldn’t avoid. Why? Because I assumed that almost every symptom I had was due to my weight, and my diet was the slow cure. How absurd that seems now!

Once I went back to my family doctor for myself for the first time in four years, she was so shocked at my change in weight that she sent me straight to a GI specialist. After running all sorts of tests on me (including colonoscopy, endoscopy, and biopsies), the GI doctor informed that I was the first 40 year old patient he’d seen who’d achieved a 50% weight loss without gastric bypass surgery or the misfortune of cancer. My advice to those who are planning a diet beyond a 10% weight loss: keep your doctors informed, or else they might assume the worst.

Now I wonder if my ongoing lumbar degeneration dampened my appetite. I didn’t struggle with eating less and walking more during those years. Now that I’ve had the surgery, my appetite and weight are much more of a challenge. I’m in the midst of trying to lose the 25 pounds I’ve gained over the past year, and the losing has been very slow this time around, 6 pounds in 8 weeks so far.

I started this post with the notion that looking too far foward can be depressing, but most of the foregoing is a backhanded homage to my recent past. The subject of my spinal woes is one in which I am better off lingering on the past than thinking too far into the future. Once I had my surgery, I started getting mild to moderate muscle spasms on the left side of my back and my left thigh. Physical therapy helped dampen this problem by strengthening these muscles. If I don’t do those exercises, the spasms are sure to be worse. Now here’s how I could depress myself with contemplating the future: I am not going to retire until I am 67. If I consider that I might be working with spasms for 22 more years, I feel steamrolled flat at the prospect of it.

If I take this problem day by day, it is just a pain that is fleeting, a sensation that reminds me that I need to keep building my strength.