Reflections of Lemonade

As I was reflecting on a few things early this morning, I found myself scanning through some old notes and blog posts. In doing so, I realized that we are more than halfway through 2018, which made me pause to consider my theme and goals for the year. It is common for me to perform a little check up around the middle of each year, but it almost got lost in the shuffle of a year in disarray. My theme for this year is Making Lemonade, which is all about accepting the struggles and challenges placed in my path and making something positive out of them.

Over the years, my goals have been a combination of relational, physical, spiritual, and mental. Some of them have had specific numbers, like dates or weights, while other goals have been more open-ended. A few goals carry over from year to year, because not every goal can or needs to be achieved by December 31. And yet for all the fluidity in the way I set goals for myself, I found it a challenge to create goals for this year due to my state of injury and the massive cloud of uncertainty hovering over me as a result, but I managed to come up with a few. If you want to see the list in its’ entirety, you can read it here; otherwise, here is a quick recap:

  1. Use lemons to my advantage.
  2. Heal my disc.
  3. Get back on the powerlifting platform.
  4. Walk on the wild side.
  5. Simplify.
  6. Expand.

Looking at that list in all its brevity could be completely nonsensical. What kind of goals are those? I guess that’s why it is a good thing to review the first half of the year and see where I’m at! So how am I doing with my challenges?

  1. Using lemons to my advantage is intentionally vague and broad, because you cannot always plan out how you will respond or react to a lemon in your life. Life’s lemons take us by surprise, and I think it is okay to be surprised, to feel upset or angry or confused or whatever emotion the situation evokes in us. What is of greater importance is how we deal with those emotions and the situation after that initial response. I have been embracing lemons as often as I think about them. I’ve enjoyed some really delicious lemon treats, and the bright yellow of a lemon will always catch my eye now. In terms of the more symbolic lemons in my life, I think I’m doing okay. Maybe not perfectly or to the same degree another might in my situation, yet I am looking at life with different eyes and finding reasons to be filled with joy and thankfulness.
  2. Healing my disc. Hmmm. I don’t know how to qualify that goal. I was quickly shown the CT scan of my disc earlier this week, so I know that the disc is still bulging and looking quite similar to how it looked in the MRI from last December. The image would suggest it isn’t healing. The ongoing pain and numbness would suggest it isn’t healing. And yet, I am not in the same place that I was at the end of last year, and that would indicate to me that healing is taking place. After a seven month leave of absence, I am now back to work. Unless I’ve been on my feet for an extended time, I can walk without limping once again. Although I still have constant pain and numbness, the intensity of it is not always as strong as it used to be. This is a goal that is not entirely within my control, because I cannot just do this or that for X number of days and all will be well again. I can control a great deal of things by doing my rehab and exercises and being mindful of my restrictions/limitations, but even my 100% compliance will not guarantee a healed disc in a specific timeline.
  3. Powerlifting! Oh, how I miss thee! But I am at peace with leaving that goal up on a shelf until the time is right to pull it down and dust it off. I won’t be competing this year at all. At this point in time, I’m not even looking ahead to next year.
  4. Walking on the wild side has been one goal that I have not thought of much over the past number of months, at least not purposefully. It’s a goal about being open to trying new things and stepping out of my comfort zone. I did my own little Polar Bear Dip to start the year. I tried tempeh for the first time and purchased three packages, which have been in my freezer for a couple of weeks now, waiting for me to have the courage to do something with. To be honest, I cannot recall if I’ve done much stepping out of the comfort zone, because I barely stepped out of the house for much of the first half of the year!
  5. Simplifying is something I strive for on a regular basis, and I successfully removed a ton of stuff from the house in the early months of the year. Due to my injury and symptoms, my life has been rather simple by necessity more than choice. I have been able to enjoy cooking more, because the demands on my time and energy have been less. I enjoyed simple activities and a simple schedule. I have been simplifying by making smarter environmental choices, like remembering to use my cloth shopping bags and reusable straws and cups.
  6. Expanding is a complicated goal that might not make sense to anyone but me. It is also, in many ways, an invisible and silent goal that may not be seen in the moment and is easily overlooked in retrospect. I’m not certain I have done much with this one yet, but there is still plenty of time. And with the brain fog gone and the pain/symptoms being mostly tolerable, I have been opening myself up like a slow blooming flower.

Now that I’ve examined the past seven months, I think I’m doing okay, although I really wish I could do something more #2!

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Attitude Check

While I am not a risk to snap at anyone in my general vicinity, I am feeling just a bit grumpy today. This isn’t a sudden occurrence, as I have felt a disturbance in the force for the past several days; it just was mild enough to be brushed off. This morning though, as I walked from the change room to the weight room at the gym, my attempt to be positive and upbeat crashed hard. An immediate cause was evident, at least to me, with every step I took. I am quite familiar with the area of permanent numbness in my left foot and toes since herniating a disc, but I was startled by a new area of numbness in the same foot.

I have had numbness in my left foot since herniating my disc more than 8 months ago. For the first month or so, the numbness was quite extensive. For the past 7 months or so, the numbness in my left foot has been limited to my smallest three toes and the ball of my foot directly below those toes. Sometimes the numbness is painfully strong. Other times the numbness is simply numb, but it is always there. What hasn’t been there for 7 months is an odd, numb sensation on the sole of my foot near the heel! Hours later, the sensation is not as strong or noticeable, yet in that moment, I was dismayed.

After being off work for 7 months I am glad to be back, however, my body is not so excited. I was warned about that. Told to expect an increase in pain, that it would be completely normal. I thought I was mentally prepared for it, but reflection on today’s mood has me re-considering that position.

I worked two very short shifts last week and went home in a significant amount of pain. The back was the main culprit, increasing in pain over my time at work until I was reduced to limping once again. Once back home and laying down, the back pain subsided within an hour or so; however, the nerve pain in my legs would only increase. Despite having a couple of days off in-between shifts and since my last shift, I am feeling the effects of being back to work. There is an increased aching in my back. The nerve pains in my legs have most definitely increased compared to what I had been experiencing in the weeks prior to going back to work. It isn’t as bad as it was way back at the beginning. Not even as bad as a few months ago, And yet, it is worse than the best it has been recently, and this should be expected and normal.

But I wasn’t expecting new numbness in my foot. Is that normal? Is that to be expected? Perhaps this new numb sensation will be fleeting. Maybe it is just an anomaly. I don’t know and the not knowing is disturbing. Frustrating.

Frustration is really the name of the game here, I think, and the reason for my grumpiness. Despite knowing that pain would increase, I think I was still half hoping or expecting that returning to work would be okay. Mentally, I am so glad to be back to work. Physically, my body is not so happy. I think my body will eventually adapt, at least in some ways, I hope. Like the back. In my non-professional opinion, the back will eventually get used to being back to work. My back has held up okay the past few weeks, when I’ve been out and about for several hours at a time, so I thought it would be okay at work. Work, I suppose, is more physically demanding than simply standing and walking for hours. The nerve pain increase is exhausting. I had trouble falling asleep last night because of the pain. I nearly burst into tears at one point last night while in the middle of an activity, not from the pain but from the dark tunnel my thoughts randomly entered. When will this be over? When will I be back to normal? Will I even be normal again? My doctor’s mantra is that it takes time, and I get it. Healing takes time, but how much time is considered reasonable? At what point do you consider healing to have reached its maximum potential? Because quite honestly, I’m leaning towards the belief that I will never fully return to my pre-injury state. That numbness in my left foot and toes…I suspect that might be my new normal. The nerve pain in my legs…even if it seems to go away eventually, I suspect it will return now and then, depending on what I’m doing. When I think about the possibility of these symptoms being permanent, I feel my insides shrivel and twist into a hard, ugly lump.

I just want to get back to normal, to resume normal activities again, and to feel normal when I sit or stand or lie down. That’s not too much to ask for, right? I am tired of being asked how I’m doing, how it is to be back to work; I don’t always like to talk about myself or make a big deal out of my problems. I feel like my being back to work should mean something more than what it currently does with my graduated return. With how “well” I was feeling in the month leading up to my return to work, I think I expected an easier transition than I am having, as if that warning I had been given wouldn’t apply to me anymore. Obviously that’s not the way things work with this sort of injury and recovery.

As I went through my workout this morning, moping and frustrated without really understanding why, I managed to put 2 and 2 together to reach 4. Those mild irritations I’d been experiencing for the past few days were flowing out of my frustration with the state of my body after returning to work. The increase in pain was a disappointment and unwelcome. I had thought I was prepared for it, but I guess I still managed to downplay just how significant it could be. Will it get better with time? Maybe. Hopefully. To be honest, I just do not know.

Thankfully, or not, I had an appointment with my doctor this afternoon. If he were at all interested in how I am actually doing, I would have shared some of my thoughts with him; however, he’s not, so I don’t offer much beyond what is physically relevant. My doctor doesn’t seem all that interested in how I actually feel or the toll it is taking on my or my life. He also doesn’t seem overly interested in improving my situation, but maybe that’s just the way most family doctors approach (or don’t approach) such things as herniated discs. I have come to the conclusion that my doctor is merely the gate-keeper (yes, I am thinking of Ghostbusters!). The only way I can access various means and methods of treatment is through the gate-keeper my doctor, but that’s about all that he is useful for. Another source of frustration to be sure! My doctor told me that I wouldn’t be damaged by returning to work. Good to know! He sent off yet another request for an appointment with the pain clinic. I’ve been waiting for an appointment since March. And I can come back in 2 weeks. Lucky me! I get to waste my time every two weeks, so he can get paid to see me and do nothing to actually help or improve my situation.

It’s been almost a week since I officially started back to work, and it has been a painful, uncomfortable week. Maybe my little shift tomorrow will be better? I have my doubts, but I’m hopeful that it will at least be slightly better. I’m desperately hoping to at least last the entire 4 hours this time!

8 Months, 7 Months

I’d like to say that tomorrow is the day I have been anticipating for seven months, but the truth is that my seven months of medical leave were more necessary than I could have imagined back in December. Sure, I was hopeful about returning to work in December, February, March, and April and disappointed when it didn’t happen, but my desire to return to work was firmly based on emotion. My body, however, was relieved with every delay in going back to work. So in reality my body has only recently begun to fall in line with my emotions, and I feel confident that now is the best time to go back to work.

It’s not the ideal time, but one cannot always wait for something that might not ever be. Ideally, all my pain and nerve-related symptoms would be completely gone by the time I return to work. Tomorrow will be 8 months since herniating my disc, and I still have symptoms and pain. Only the severity has changed. Everything I feel these days is tolerable but annoying. Tolerable but constant. Tolerable but still impacting my daily life. I hope that things will continue to improve. I hope that there will come a day when I have no more symptoms, but I don’t know when that will be. Or if ever. I strongly suspect that even if  these symptoms do vanish, they will show up again from time to time. I cannot wait for someday.

I return to work tomorrow, but I will have a graduated return for the first month or so. I feel good about it and realistic. My body will most likely not be as thrilled with resuming work activities as I am. Tomorrow is supposed to be a gym day for me. With a short work shift in the middle of the day, I will need to go to the gym sometime after work. I am going to play that by ear, knowing that I might be physically done in by the end of my work shift and that I have flexibility with the rest of my week to get the training in. Continuing to be smart by listening to my body is kind of the name of the game.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

I am not one of those people who feel compelled to chain themselves to trees, to stop all personal hygiene, or to live off the grid growing my own clothes and food. I typically tend to be a middle-of-the-road kind of person, balanced, thoughtful, and considerate rather than swinging like a pendulum from one trendy extreme to another. Being born in early 1970, I grew up at a time when convenience was still something of a novelty. Growing up in a small Saskatchewan city likely meant an even slower introduction to all the new-fangled conveniences and inventions. I think I remember when the grocery store introduced plastic bags. My family purchased our milk directly from a dairy farm, which meant scraping off the cream every morning before pouring milk on our cereal. I remember when Pizza Pops were new…and plastic bottles began to replace the glass ones in the pop machines. Schools sent home lists of items needed for crafts and projects, like empty egg cartons and toilet paper rolls. We didn’t recycle back then, at least not the way we recycle today with our curbside bins and depots, yet I think we were less wasteful, more resourceful.

Society has changed over the years since I was a child, and I’m not certain that all our changes have been positive. Convenience is king these days, which means so much is disposable, cheaply made, filled with chemicals and preservatives, and frequently over-packaged. I am not an environmental activist, but I do believe in being a good steward of what has been given to us. We have one life on this one planet. How do you want to live it? How do you want to leave the world for those that come after you?

Everyone makes their own decisions about what they value and how they want to live. I get that, and I am not the lecturing type. As for me, I have been striving to make even better choices as often as I can (and remember). Small steps take one forward and sometimes make the journey less traumatic than trying to make massive changes all at once. We’ve had reusable cloth shopping bags for years, but I haven’t always been good at remembering to use them. Over the past several months, I have been working to improve in that area and have seen measurable success. I have used a reusable water bottle for several years now, but I struggle to be as consistent with my reusable coffee mugs. My daughter just introduced me to a shampoo bar, and despite my skepticism, I liked it enough to make that my next shampoo purchase. I’ve been making my own facial scrub for quite some time. It’s a simple combination of coconut oil, baking soda, and essential oils, and I love using it.

I don’t garden; my thumbs are pitch black. There is a composter in my backyard, but it has sat untouched for years and never amounted to much when I did use it. Maybe I didn’t completely understand how to use it effectively, or perhaps my failures flow out of my black thumbs. I don’t know, but it sits there idle and avoided by everyone but the wasps. I’d like to figure it out one day, and maybe I will.

I don’t always get to our local Farmers Market on a consistent basis, but I do try to purchase most of my fruit and vegetables from local producers. Thankfully I live in an area where this is easily accomplished. Local honey. Kombucha. Wines. Etc.

Packaging is one thing that has been bothering me a lot lately. I understand that some products need to be packaged, but I do not understand why three pairs of underwear need to be individually folded over pieces of cardboard, taped to another piece of cardboard, and then wrapped in plastic. (I’m looking at you, Calvin Klein!) While I cannot always eliminate packaging, I am beginning to look for items that are not heavily packaged.

So, I’m doing my part to keep myself and my planet healthy and vibrant. Often it may feel like a waste of time and effort, but there is also kind of a thrill in knowing that you are making positive changes, even on an individually small scale.

The Email & The Outcome

Without looking back through old emails and paperwork, I have lost track of just how many times I have submitted paperwork with the unmet hope of being permitted to return to work, but I can confidently say it has been at least three times since I first went on medical leave at the beginning of last December. In each of those instances, I was hopeful about returning to work, even though I was still in significant pain and limited mobility. Having my return denied on each of those occasions was equal parts frustration, disappointment, and relief. It is truly mind-boggling how many hoops must be jumped through as one wades through the layers of medical care/treatments, a medical leave from work, employment insurance, and short-term disability. At times I have felt as if I had been dropped in a foreign land where English is non-existent, and I still kind of feel that way today.

Last week, I submitted a fresh functional abilities form to the leave of absence team and began holding my breath once more. I felt hopeful and more optimistic that I’d be approved this time, but I had felt fairly hopeful the last time, too. And yet, this time felt different. Although I cannot say that I am pain-free or symptom-free, there has been a distinct improvement between how I feel today compared to three months ago when I had my leave extended. As I lie here typing, my back is somewhat achy and mild electric currents and tingling are coursing through my legs and feet. Then there is the permanent numbness in my left foot and calf…but everything, every ache, pain, and symptom is generally tolerable these days. It would be nice to return to work free of pain and symptoms, but I could still be a long way from that outcome, if it is even ever going to happen.

This morning, the email I had been waiting for arrived in my inbox, and I hesitated a moment before opening it. I think I have re-read that email about a dozen times since this morning, making certain that I haven’t imagined it or misread the content. I have been approved for a gradual return to work with a few minor modifications and accommodations to my ongoing recovery. My leave of absence officially ends on July 3rd, eight months after my injury and seven months after going on medical leave!

I am excited about going back to work, although I am sure nervous butterflies will settle in my stomach the closer I get to that first shift back. So much has changed in the months I have been gone! My numbers might be slightly off, but I think there are seven new staff members I have never worked with before. There have been a few staff members who have left in the time I have been gone. There are new products and procedures, new hours and new customers. I know that I am a decently quick learner and I’m sure everything will come back to me once I am back to it, however, I do feel out of the loop and out of sync. But I get to return to work!

Filling Cups

My husband texted me this afternoon to ask if I wanted to meet him at my Starbucks for a refreshing beverage. Since I had already been to Starbucks a couple of hours earlier, I hesitated but ultimately agreed. A few minutes later, we were sipping our drinks at the bar counter, where I could stand instead of sitting. This is where I work, so I frequently watch what is happening behind the counter, wanting to stay connected and involved even if I’m currently not working, and so, I picked up on some concern towards a regular customer who was sitting outside with friends. I am not usually the sort of person who makes a point of injecting myself into other people’s conversations, but I did this afternoon and I’m glad I did.

Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and she quickly stood to greet me with a hug that she was reluctant to end as she told me that her husband had passed away last night. This sweet couple have been regular customers for as long as I’ve been working there. Alf was always the quiet one, but there was a sparkle in his eyes as if he had been up to some sort of mischief. There had been health concerns for a while, so his passing shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet, there was also the sense that we would present him with his mug of green tea for a long time to come.

It’s not always easy or comfortable to interact with someone who has experienced such a loss, especially so recently, and such situations make me feel incredibly inadequate and awkward; however, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see Corrine today, to share a bit of her grief, and to simply be a friendly face to hold onto. In her typical sweetness, she introduced me to her good friends and also asked about my own health and potential surgery (the last time I talked with her I was still waiting to see a surgeon). I listened to her share some stories of Alf, some recent and some not. There was laughter in her voice but also grief and loss and sadness. And strength.

I love my job. Mostly I caffeinate people, but I love that I also have the opportunity to nurture and inspire the human spirit, to fill the figurative cup of the people I serve. Of course, not every customer is going to want anything more than their cup of coffee, but we do our job with the knowledge that we have the potential to be something more. It is about connection, and that is one of the reasons why I started working at Starbucks. When you connect with people, even with a coffee counter in the middle, you get excited when a student passes that exam they’d been studying for. You know when someone’s been on vacation or when they’ve been sick. You encourage the teachers as the school year draws to a close. You welcome the snowbirds back in the spring. You listen to stories and share your own. You cry with them when they’ve received bad news. And you grieve when loss happens.

You don’t need to be a barista to experience this connection. People are everywhere, and I don’t know a single person who has their life all together and without struggle, pain or loss. As an introvert, I like my time to myself…I like it a lot; and yet, people need people. People need people who care enough to ask how they’re doing, to simply say hello, to lend a hand or even just a smile. Think about that.

Resting

I overheard a bit of conversation between two women in the change room at the gym this morning. The older woman had asked how the younger woman was doing which brought up recent struggles with either allergies or a cold, as well as the fact that her young daughter had been sick for several weeks previously. More rest was suggested by the older woman. The young woman pointed out that she didn’t typically stay up very late; however, she also said that she routinely gets up at 4:00 each morning to go do her cardio before returning home to resume her day. I am at the gym three times a week between 8 and 10 in the morning, and I see this young woman in the weight area almost every time. I don’t know if this woman is a stay-at-home mom or if she works outside of the home in addition to caring for her child (or children), but it sounds as if she is a busy person. The conversation ended with the young woman going to do her workout, while the older woman finished changing to leave.

Hearing that this woman gets up at 4 AM to do cardio makes me wonder what kind of crazy she is! I’m kidding. Mostly. Training and/or going to a gym wasn’t part of my lifestyle when my kids were little, but I understand that people sometimes do need to plan life at odd hours to make things happen. It’s not so much the time that amazes me but rather the excess. Getting up that early to put in that much time doing cardio, then going to the gym to weight train…that sounds like a lot of physical activity for an average person, an average person with at least one young child to take care of. I’ve made training a consistent part of my routine and, up until this injury, I was training with intensity and the purpose of competing. I can’t say that I’ve never done cardio at 4:00 in the morning, because I did back in my running days when training for the marathon I never got to run. So I get that life is busy and you gotta do what you gotta do, but if you’re sick you need more rest!

I first woke up around 5 this morning, rolled over and let myself drift back into sleep. Around 6:30 I woke up enough that I could have got up and begun my day, but I was still so exhausted and sluggish. I laid there for about an hour, fading in and out of sleep, having already decided to forego my morning cup of coffee before the gym in exchange for my laziness. Only now as I replay that overheard conversation, I don’t see my decision to stay in bed as laziness, but rather as self-preservation.

It’s no secret that I’ve been exhausted for months, since herniating my disc. I’m sure there are many reasons for why that is: medication, pain, healing processes, lack of quality sleep, and so on. I’ve made progress in many ways over the months, but I am still not where I want to be. It is easy enough to remember that healing takes time and still easy to forget. Physically I am not sick, but that doesn’t mean my body doesn’t need rest. Healing is hard work. As I did my workout this morning and my new rehab exercises, I was thankful for that extra hour of rest! I left the gym feeling as limp as a wrung out dish cloth; I don’t know I could have made it through all of my exercises without that extra rest.

The moral of the story, I think, is to listen to your body and take time for rest. Rest days are a regular part of my training life, but sometimes your body still needs something more. If you’re sick or injured or simply overwhelmed, cut yourself some slack. Maybe you can skip that 4:00 AM cardio session once or twice in order to get a few more hours of sleep. Canceling one night’s plans for a quiet evening in might be just the charge your battery needs. A weekend walk in nature will refresh your soul more than a Netflix binge session ever could. An early morning cup of coffee on the patio by yourself might be just what you need to ground your day with clarity and purpose. I think the methods are many and uniquely personal.