I had a whole other topic developing in my mind the last couple of days for this post, but I am a bit waylaid. Literally. I can’t sit at my computer desk that long today, certainly not without getting up and moving about some. The other, more involving topic will have to wait. I considered not writing, at all, but it’s a habit I love so I will give a whirl.
I live with chronic pain and have ever since my teens. Most people can’t or won’t see it, not even my husband or other family members. There are days it yanks me off a more livable plateau and won’t release its strangling grip. I know large numbers of people have this problem. Pain relieving prescriptions are a gigantic business, as are other interventions/treatment systems. And if a person suffers the complex ramifications of a severe injury or lifelong debilitating disease–well, all the bearing up, the seeking solutions, the gritting of teeth, the prayers for aid…it goes on and on. I’ve known some of those people and don’t know how they get on with life. Everyone is unique in their tolerance and self-care plan. Many finally do not get on much, at all, and become addicted to pain pills or end up couch-bound. Or worse.
I have for decades pushed against or sought detours around the most negative outcomes and still do. I mean, to live a decent life, one must often push forward, right? I tend to view my health challenges as that picture of the tunnel above: it gets so dark but I can still see the light out there–there is always some way through the strictures of suffering. You come to it, it is gotten through, perhaps even alleviated as well as it can be. Then, fresh air and sunlight are hailed once more. Until the next time. If there are no long term solutions, there are temporary stays from the worst–usually. I need to get creative, at times.
One thing I shy away from is pain medication. If deemed medically critical, the lightest type of prescription pain reliever is used at lowest milligram, in smallest doses and for a day or a night. I am in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence that began as a young woman (partly due to serious digestion issues that remain) so I am not about to go back down a more miserable path. I feel so strongly about this that when in the hospital for chest pain and my cardiologist insisted I take the IV Demerol I was adamant I would not. In frustration, he gave me something else, he didn’t explain his choice. But it was just enough until the tests were completed. On the other hand, as he has informed me assertively, pain control is important for worsening inflammatory responses and increased blood pressure– and my heart health. I got hit with heart disease fairly young, at 51. So I try to ignore it less and treat it the best I can. I don’t want to ruin all the work he and I have done.
It’s not always easy for me to even pinpoint the cause of pain, and that can complicate things. It might be a big surprise and then it can move about, am I right? Last night I had a creeping headache with sudden worsening back-of-neck pain that spread into my back. I took an OTC pain pill, then another in an hour. But it plagued me, anyway. I had to make inventory of all I had done the last few days to solve the “What” of it. I had been reading a good hour at the dining room table, which meant the bad discs in my neck got irritated as I hunched over to read, elbows on table, head bowed down. I also had half-picked up my toddler granddaughters earlier and carried fairly heavy grocery bags up stairs and into our place. And done some cleaning. All these create more stress on an already tricky backbone and spine. So I hypothesized that was it. But even as the headache decreased, it hurt when I took deep breaths. This was a little alarming, but I had no other symptoms; my actual breathing was alright, I felt fine except for pain. In time it seemed to lessen with a heating pad against the back of my good chair, a short neck massage by Marc, and one low dose muscle relaxant. In the morning I felt much improved with barest pain, then none. But after sitting, reading and then typing, there is more pain in my upper back and neck. It is kind of hollering at me so I will pause…
I am sharing this because those who have pain–or worsening pain attacks– understand this process of attention, examination, tentative conclusions, plan of action. It can be time intensive and certainly can interfere with the usual rhythms of life. How does one diagnose the source of acute or lingering pain? I have to carefully check in with my biological systems to tick various boxes: is it coming from stomach pain or gut (GERD/gastritis/colitis)? Is it those crunched or bulging discs in neck and the spinal stenosis getting worse? Is it the tricky behaviors of my heart (coronary artery disease and arrhythmias)? Is it an overreaction to my body’s cues?
Likely not the last. If anything, I have been told I underreact and under-treat. Why?
So many have been taught to be stoic. I know I was. My mother got kicked by a horse as a teen and had no professional medical treatment, and all her life she endured nearly unremitting back pain. I can still see her with an arm tucked behind her back, her fist pressed against the throbbing spot. Sometimes she lay down to rest but she always popped up and got busy again and rarely said a thing about it. She could be washing floors or dressing in brocade for the opera all the while in pain, but she kept on. My father simply ignored health matters as long as possible and loathed doctors. (They both lived into their 80s and 90s my mother longer, but may have lived longer…). A child learns by watching; I learned to minimize my physical discomforts, carry on with a smile. A good attitude could make a difference, in fact; l I had witnessed it, found it often true. Besides which, it was embarrassing to admit to weakness. Who wants to feel weak? Not me, no then, and often, not now.
I was a natural athlete as a child and teen and craved physical activity. I wasn’t into team sports–it was figure skating, cycling, running, diving, swimming, water skiing, softball, volleyball, dancing and so on. And these obviously required vigorous engagement. Even singing and playing cello required sustained output of energy and concerted efforts for long periods. One thing expected was a consistent effort to push through aches and bruises. (“No pain, no gain”–right? The American sports mantra. But it isn’t useful for some of us, at times.) It stuck with me into adulthood when ailments became more intractable, yet I still loved being active outdoors. I also began weight training and body building a few years. Plus I had five kids–so who had time to sit around? I told my kids to get up when they fell, wipe the blood off and keep going; I was naturally doing the same. Or was that such a “natural” response? My children, now adults, have significantly followed suit–they like to think they’re tough. Maybe they are–but at what cost in the end?)
Maybe it’s time to take a look at all these ingrained beliefs again. Progress has definitely occurred since I went off the rails as a teen and other major dips in my late 30s into early 40s. I had to learn to stop forever charging into life. That extended to needing to slow down my well-known hard driving stride upon all surfaces whether with my boots, high heels, hiking boots or bare feet. Take a break, I had to tell myself, not every second is critical to anything or anyone... Undue or persistent stress, one’s life pressures mismanaged creates more aches and pains, thus worsening one’s health status. Seems simple.
My life is no longer all work, too much tiredness and minimal play. Well, I am retired now but believe me, early retirement was still lots of work at home. I still keep an daily agenda book filled with tasks and goals… But perfection is unnecessary, for one thing. Suffering is not always part of the deal, either. My body needs loving care as much as my mind and spirit. I finally got it by age 45, that lightbulb coming on full wattage after another divorce, more years of sobriety, fascinating work and better friendships, more frequent outdoor activities, reading for fun and not always education. Oh, and the board games and cards. I rediscovered the simple pleasure of quietly playing a few again– not to win but to…play!
Still, here I am typing away when my upper back and neck are cringing like mad. (At some point, I remind myself I also was in a bad car accident two months ago, with whiplash and other jolts that may still impact nerves and tissues.) I have gotten up and down a half dozen times as I’ve written. Had a cheddar cheese and cracker snack, made more delicious tea, threw another two wet loads into the dryer. I have stretched, shaken it all out, turned up the heat as a cold rain splatters the ground. Marc will be home soon and I think he will make dinner…it relaxes him, aggravates me too often.
Earlier I took a hilly 45 minute walk even though it hurt some. I fully believe in walking for whole health, perhaps especially for pain management of body and mind. But when I got home I called my cardiologist to set up a check up appointment soon–I usually see him once a year now but it seems a good time before holidays– took another acetaminophen, and got my cozy blanket to wrap about as I write. I may get that heating pad going next and read a bit in my best chair. Despite it being daylight and thinking I really have more to do. Must I still fight against feeling I will be giving in to getting older?
Well, Cynthia, you are getting older; the body takes a beating as it moves closer to that point. Repeat after me: it is alright to practice regular self-care and time outs.
I do know what to do now that I have learned hard lessons over time–including getting medical help when needed. So now I must end this post: I do relent. It is fine to relent. In fact, it is important to stop struggling at times, rest the painful places, allow more of nature’s healing to happen. And to ask for more help from Divine Love. There is that light at the end of the tunnel; I am going for that once more. Always.
I will check in Friday with a poem. I hope you all take care of your bodies, hearts, minds, as well.