Saturday, August 18, 2012

On Pain and Productivity

You may have noticed this blog has been quiet for a while. Not because I don't want to do it, mind you. I can plead all sorts of excuses, including the need to work on Seaborn (due December 31), revise a drawer-dwelling series my publisher wants, promote Firedancer and Windrider, visits to cons, and life in general. Yeah, all of those things apply, but the biggest thing keeping me away is something I've never had to really deal with before.

Chronic pain.

Back in January I developed a nasty little ache under my left shoulder blade that I took for a tension knot, to which I'm prone from time to time. I did the usual ice/heat thing, expecting it to go away. It didn't. Then I thought, well, maybe it was the fall I took in December while carrying an armload of firewood across my frosty and very slick deck, wherein I landed flat on my back with no chance to catch myself. Since I am allergic to doctors (the last time I knew absolutely that I needed to go I ended up in chemo), and very patient, I resolved to just let it heal. This rather simple philosophy has stood me in good stead over my lifetime. I hate taking pills and a little common sense goes a long way toward helping the body get better fast.

Alas, my expectations were disappointed. Over many months it went from the occasional flare-up of a dull, naggy sort of ache to a maddening, continuous thing I naturally couldn't reach. Every time I thought I really should go see about it, the stars would align or something and the pain would go away for a week or two or three, then return for no particular reason. Over the past couple of months it slowly progressed to where no position was comfortable. Sitting down meant my back was in contact with a chair. I created a standing desk (very good for you anyway) which helped a lot, but there was that pesky bed to be faced every night. My mattress became my enemy. The nagging became jabbing, finally convincing me that yes, pain was created to force you to pay attention.

Part of my reluctance to run to the doctor stemmed from a couple of highly unsatisfactory experiences wherein I got stuck with big bills for absolutely no relief and deer-in-the-headlights reactions from the PAs delegated to my case instead of actual doctors. However, expecting not much, I finally did go to the doc, who did...not much. No x-rays to find any underlying problem, no recommended physical therapy to unlock the muscles. In conversation he was willing to admit there were "adjustments" to be made to the spine but would not do it himself because of the slight chance that cancer might be causing the problem. I got the distinct impression he was willing to let a chiropractor do it but was afraid of a malpractice suit if he did it. While I felt sorry for him I really just wanted answers and a cure. No joy. He gave me some muscle relaxants and a prescription for lidoderm patches (ten bucks apiece!) that naturally the insurance doesn't pay for. He also recommended massage and a chiropractor. Not hoping for much, I reluctantly took the pills and slapped on the patches.

Over the past two weeks the pain got exponentially worse, leading to a desperate trip to a very young chiropractor, who, God bless her, seems to have more than a clue. She started with x-rays showing the beginnings of slight rotation and a non-intrusive test that pinpointed with incredible accuracy the screaming muscles. The second visit erased the pain spreading up to my shoulder and has reduced the by-now sharply jabby knot back to its whining (persistent and teeth-clenching) ache. I have hopes that the next few "adjustments" will get things back to normal. Do I wish I had listened to myself three months ago? Yes, indeed, but the specter of futile service in exchange for a big fat bill had a rather large finger on the scale. As it turned out, that whispering voice turned out to be speaking the truth. Had I listened to my horseshoer back in June I would have gone to the chiropractor first. :)

So, why have I whined about this to you guys? Because I now have a whole new appreciation for people who live with chronic conditions. You can sympathize with the person in the wheelchair, the guy with the white cane, the hearing-impaired, the chronically ill, but you can't really "get it" until you've lived their life even in part, even for a little while. I have been blessed for most of my life with a healthy, supple, agile body that lets me bend, stretch, pull, push, climb, and run however I like. I am accustomed to digging post holes, wrestling with BIG rocks for my landscaping, handling fractious horses, and figuring out how to do difficult physical projects by myself. I actually rejoice in the challenges, because the feeling of accomplishment afterward is wonderful. Letting my body dictate to me is something I just don't do. And like most healthy people, I have, I fear, been somewhat vague in my notions of what true disability really entails. Until now.

In this brief but icky period of my life, my writing output has dropped from 5-6 thousand words a day to a few hundred, all of them forced, and sometimes none. My concentration has been centered in my back instead of on the adventures of my characters in Seaborn. The words simply stopped bubbling up from the endless well in the back of my head, a frightening and depressing reality. For a writer, when the words stops.

However, adjusting to reality is something we all must do constantly throughout our lives by jettisoning the whining and getting on with what needs to be done. I have always greatly admired people with genuine disabilities who don't let their bodies steal their dreams, but find a way to do what inspires them anyway. One of my favorite movies is "If You Could See What I Hear," based on a real story about a man blind from birth. When I look at a double amputee in the Olympics I can only think, "Wow" and resolve to quit whining about my little backache.

I am jettisoning the excuses today. Yes, my back still hurts, but I am resolved to simply write anyway and resume my life. Hence, this first blog post in a month.

I am grateful for continuing life lessons, however small, however nasty. My encounter with cancer spurred me to put writing to the forefront of my life again. This incident serves as a warning that I need to listen harder to my body--but also as a reminder of how fortunate I really am. 


Ann Gimpel, Author said...

I worked in a chronic pain rehab clinic for 3.5 years and in a family medicine clinic for 6. Obviously in the pain clinic, but in family medicine, too, many, many people were frantic for the doctor to do something that would make their pain go away. My observation (and I am NOT an MD) is that allopathic, or Western, medicine, has very little to offer for chronic pain other than opiate drugs (or muscle relaxants or benzos). And you're right. The MDs are scared to death of getting sued, so they practice "defensive" medicine which means lots of expensive tests to make sure they don't miss something that has less than a 1% chance of being the culprit.
It makes me sad that people don't seek medical care because of its outrageous cost and poor outcomes. I mean, given those two things, who would go to the doctor? Because I taught at a residency, I understand why young MDs practice defensively. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. Many things need to change in this country and the introduction of socialized medicine would help a lot. As would legisltion limiting lawsuits.
I'm glad the chiro is helping. Acupuncture helps, too.
And bravo for you that you're diving back into writing. I hope you sink so far into Seaborn that you forget about everything else.

Elisabeth Christie said...

I well appreciate your experience. A year ago I was diagnosed with Temporal Arteritis (not Arthritis but inflamation of the arteries in the brain). Only cure: Huge doses of Prednisone--take it or go blind. And I reacted very badly--incoordination, weakness, panic, depression. My muscles froze, I fell on the bathroom tiles and jammed a shard of femur into my kneecap. By the time they let me bear weight, my muscles had weakened so I can't stand.
On Prednisone I couldn't think straight, lost words, black depression, panic attacks. Even after 9 mos of PT 3x a week I'm still in a wheelchair, and that causes problems in itself. Like edema and poor circulation. And depression. Many times I was ready to throw in the towel. Acupuncture has been a life-saver in healing and maintaining circulatoin
Fortunately as they reduced the Prednisone, I was able think and got words back so I can write. Writing is what's held me together, kept me going, and somewhat sane. I sold a short story and have been submitting my novel to publishers.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Elizabeth,

Congratulations on the sale! I am so sorry life got hard for you, but your perseverance is awesome. I hope things are really looking up for you now.

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