Sifting Knowledge

The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore. ~Rumi

I like to know things. I want answers to the questions why, how, when, where, and who. There is a thirst for knowledge that sends me searching for answers, for wisdom, for a broader perspective. And yet, I recognize that not all of the knowledge I seek is of value or for long-term storage. This is why I love history but would struggle to rattle off specific dates. The dates aren’t nearly as important to me as the actual events and themes. As a teenager, my knowledge of professional wrestlers was amazing. I could tell you a wrestler’s real name and all sorts of interesting tidbits. That information is no longer relevant to me, so most of that data has long been lost or erased. Without even being aware of what I was doing, I have been practicing the art of knowing for a long time, but lately I have been struggling in knowing what to ignore.

Since herniating a disc last November, I have heard and read all sorts of information on such injuries and how to treat them. To say that there is conflicting information out there would be an understatement, and it is enough to make my head spin.

  • do not squat with a barbell
  • do not deadlift
  • do not stop squatting or deadlifting
  • get traction
  • traction is an out-dated treatment
  • take this medication for pain
  • do not take that medication
  • you will never be able to do weight training again
  • you will be able to do weight training again
  • hang upside-down by your knees
  • use an inversion table
  • don’t use an inversion table
  • walk
  • swim
  • see this physiotherapist, sports trainer, chiropractor, massage therapist, etc.
  • don’t see that physiotherapist, sports trainer, chiropractor, etc.
  • take these supplements
  • eat these foods
  • don’t eat those foods
  • do back extensions
  • don’t do back extensions
  • don’t sit
  • don’t stand
  • don’t lie in bed all the time

The list is long and continues to grow. Some contradictions actually do make some sense. Back extensions are a common rehab exercise for disc issues, so it makes sense that they are recommended and prescribed. I was told to stop doing them, when it became apparent that the extensions were being more harmful than helpful in my situation.

Other contradictions make sense on the surface but not always practically. The don’t sit, stand or lie down theories are such an example. If I sit, I hurt. If I stand, I hurt. If I lie down, I hurt. What does that leave me with? I avoid sitting as much as possible, but not sitting requires that I either stand or lie down. So, what’s a girl in constant pain to do?

Then there are the contradictions which leave me confused and unsure of what I should do. Things like don’t deadlift versus keep deadlifting or get traction versus traction is out-dated and ineffective. My brain has been chewing on these things, hoping to find discernment and clarity where there is none. I’ve been scouring the internet, reading articles and opinions, listening to the voices of those I trust, those I do not trust, and those I do not know well enough to as yet determine their trustworthiness. Despite all my searching for information and wisdom, I honestly feel no closer to what is best and true for me and my situation.

It seems as if everyone has an opinion on what to do for herniated discs, whether through their own experience, their medical expertise, or the ego of being an expert on everything. I am usually quick to recognize the ones speaking from their egos, and their advice is swiftly sifted and the chaff discarded. Personal experience can be a great teacher, so long as you remember that each person and body is unique and one approach won’t necessarily work for everyone. I am eager to hear about the experiences of others with a similar injury, because there is comfort in knowing others have traveled a similar path and perhaps you can learn something new. But when another’s personal experience runs counter to what the professionals have told you to do or not do, how do you reconcile that? Ignore your health care team? Discard the personal experience? That decision is made more difficult when the personal experience or contradictory directions comes from someone who also has professional knowledge.

As the days inch towards the 6 month mark, I feel like I have learned a great deal about disc herniations. Causes, symptoms, rehab exercises, treatments, surgical procedures…I have read all about them over and over again. But I still feel lost. Sometimes I even feel caught between invisible opposing forces. On one side is the force of out-dated and old-fashioned thoughts and practices, the attitude of reacting rather than being proactive, and a system that places proper steps and protocols over proper care. The other side is completely opposite. Modern techniques, forward thinking, constant learning and adaptation, proactive and holistic care. I lean heavily towards the modern ways, but I am forced to endure the plodding steps of the old-fashioned side of medical care, which then results in being pulled in two different directions at the same time. It’s hard to listen to both, but the way our medical system works I have little choice. It’s confusing and frustrating, and it leaves me feeling as if I’m little more than a guinea pig at times. Wouldn’t it be nice if an injury was exactly the same for everybody with a one-size fits all band-aid solution?

 

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Power Restored

“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where your power is.” ~unknown

Two weeks ago when my doctor told me I cannot return to work for another three months, I was initially devastated. Three more months on top of the four months I’ve already been off work is an awfully long time, and I would desperately like to reclaim some semblance of normalcy in my life once more. But the feeling of devastation didn’t last too long. In fact, I think I actually felt relief in knowing that I’d be home for three more months, because the lengthy extension means I no longer need to jump through the hoops of filling out forms every four weeks and anxiously waiting to hear whether or not I’d be allowed to return to work this time. Yes, I’d rather be back at work; however, the three month leave-extension has reduced my stress-load.

Back in December when both my chiropractor and physiotherapist were recommending I ask my doctor for a surgical referral, the very idea that my injury might require surgery was stressful. Despite my reaction to that idea, I was willing to ask my doctor, understanding the pros and cons and state of my body, and so, I was frustrated and disappointed when my doctor refused to refer me to a neurosurgeon. The fact that my doctor held all the power in this situation involving my health and well-being only fueled my frustration. Now that my doctor has finally decided a surgical referral is warranted, the frustration continues. He could have started this ball rolling months ago. Instead, I am still waiting. Still suffering. Once this ordeal is finally over, I will seek out a new doctor. In the meantime, I am choosing to be thankful that I do have a referral now. The projected timeline for an appointment is sometime in May, but I have asked to be put on the cancellation list and will check in (code for nagging) as often as I can work up the courage to pretend I’m that type of person. Mostly, I just feel relieved that something proactive is now on the table.

With the exception of a few days and weeks here and there, I have managed to continue going to the gym since my injury, and that has also been a source of frustration as I haven’t been able to do the type of training that I enjoy. I have had to let go of any goals or hopes of competing this year and for as long as it takes to heal. It’s been disappointing and hard to watch some of those goals crumble into dust, knowing how hard and long I have worked to reach them. Although I aim to workout at the gym three times a week, I usually do so in varying degrees of pain and discomfort. I do safe and essentially simple exercises that won’t inflict more harm on my back. For a long time, my limitations chafed. Okay, so they still do, but I also hurt enough and for long enough now to know that this is all that I can do right now. At least I can still do something! I never used to have a tough time getting myself to the gym, not until this injury, and there are days where I have to skip an exercise that is causing more pain. I’m listening to my body. I’m staying as active as I can with pain in my back and both legs and numbness in a foot and calf. Pre-injury, when I’d do heavy squats, the adrenaline would create little tremors in my hands. Now, it’s not adrenaline, and it’s not little tremors. My hands, my arms, my legs…they shake and sometimes violently, because of the pain and effort of holding myself together. But I’m not so frustrated in the gym anymore. I’ve known from the beginning that healing would take time, and now I have fully come to term with just how long that could be, even if there is no end in sight.

In the early days of injury, I thought I’d be better in a few weeks. A month after the injury when I finally agreed to take a medical leave, I thought I’d be back to work in 2-4 weeks. Late December I settled on my theme for 2018, choosing to make lemonade out of this lemon given to me. Since then I have gone through the gamut of emotions. Up, down. Angry, sad, relieved, even happy. I’ve been twisted inside-out, been hung out to dry, wallowed in misery, and broken fingernails clawing my way back out. It’s one thing to make a statement of making lemonade, but the practice of doing it isn’t always so simple or easy. But it isn’t impossible. I think I am finally, or mostly, at a place of peace and acceptance with what has happened these past five months and what is yet to come. This is probably the first time since the injury that I actually feel in control, not of what has happened or will happen, but in how I respond.

Good vs. Bad

Living with this injury for the past five months is taking its toll on me. There are good days and bad days.

good day is simply a polite way of saying that the day has been tolerable. Since I haven’t had a single pain-free minute since herniating my disc, a good day is typically one in which the pain is just there instead of raging. These days are occasionally productive, or as productive as I can manage. My mood and attitude are more positive and hopeful on these days. But a good day is still a day with pain and fatigue and frustration.

Today has not been a good day. On a bad day like today, the pain is too strong to ignore. It screams at me. The electrical currents running down both legs are on fire. The numbness in my left foot and calf feels worse. My back aches and trembles; my hands and arms shake. So cold…it feels like I will never be warm. The eyelids are heavy, but I have done almost nothing all day.

This morning I went to the gym for the first time in a week. I had been instructed to take the time off in order to properly assess a change in my care. That change came to an end yesterday after determining that it was having a negative impact on the pain in my back. So, with permission and instruction to take it easy, I went back to the gym today. It was the shortest work out I’ve ever done, like 15 minutes!

Goblet squats were up first. 30 pounds. During the first set I realized that I was glad my coach had instructed me to decrease the weights by 10 pounds. The squats didn’t hurt, but I could tell that a heavier weight would have caused problems. Single leg calf raises were fine, although as always the left calf is weaker and unable to “raise” as well as the right. The only exercises left on my program were leg curls and single leg leg extensions, and both were pain-inducing from the get-go. After a few reps of each, I called it quits, because I’ve been told to stop if something is causing pain. And most of the time, I listen.

Of course, it is easy to listen to that type of advice when the alternative is potentially damaging. This kind of pain is not the sort one should push through in a work out. A relatively easy, 15 minute work out has left me in extreme pain for the rest of the day. This is a bad day.

Too Wet To Go Out

As much as I enjoy rain, I am finding our current weather to be too cold, too wet, too damp, too dreary. I kind of feel like this:

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat there, we two. And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!” Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all. So all we could do was to sit! Sit! Sit! Sit! And we did not like it. Not one little bit.

~Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

Okay, so there is more to my sense of solitary confinement than just the weather. This injury, the constant pain, being on medical leave from work…these are the shackles that bind me. I feel stuck. Purposeless. Useless. Forgotten.

Every month, I’d cling to the hope that my return to work would be approved by the powers that be, and every month I’d be disappointed. Despite my constant pain, I was still stunned when my doctor told me earlier this week that I need to stay off work for another three months. The earliest I can return to work is the 4th of July, which means I will be off work for 7 months. SEVEN MONTHS! By the time I get back to work I won’t know anything. No one will know me.

I really do love rain, but these days I need the sun and the warmth it brings. The cold has seeped into my bones until it feels like I won’t ever warm up. I look forward to each evening when I allow myself to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my electric heating pad on my back. For the past couple of weeks, I have limited myself to using the heating pad only once a day, because the skin on my back has become mottled and rather disgusting looking from overuse. It is just too soothing to give it up entirely. But sunshine! Warm weather! I could drag myself outside more if the weather were nicer. Maybe I wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.

This morning I had coffee with a good friend. We sat in her car, parked with a view of the lake through the rain-streaked windshield. A walk would have been lovely, but my back was in too much pain to tolerate the exertion, and the rain eliminated the possibility of sitting on a park bench. Actually, sitting in the car for that length of time wasn’t comfortable, but it was still so good to connect with my friend and catch up.

The rest of my day was unproductive, even less than usual for me these days. It’s hardly surprising that my productivity (ha!) drops significantly when my pain level is high. I didn’t sleep well last night due to the pain in my back. I am so weary of hurting all the time, no matter what I do or don’t do, and I just want to reach the end of these dark days. Pain is grinding me down. On the inside, I feel like a twisted and deformed shadow of myself, and it isn’t pretty.

5th Month Anniversary

Happy herniated disc anniversary to me?!

Five months ago today, I competed in my ninth powerlifting competition, and I had a fantastic performance. Practically perfect, except for the injury. My medal is hanging on the wall beside three photos of my lifts. I see them every day. I have a plaque commemorating my World record squat which is still waiting to be hung on the wall, because I don’t have immediate access to the proper tool and parts needed to hang it and I haven’t nagged my husband about doing it for me. Despite being in pain upon finishing my final lift of the competition, I had no reason to think that the pain was anything serious. Certainly, I thought, I’d be back to normal in a couple of weeks and ready to focus on preparing for Nationals.

My bubble of hope was popped a few days later with a proper diagnosis and realization that recovering could take some time, but I held onto a sliver of hope that recovery would happen quickly. Five months later and I’m no closer to being better. Well, sort of closer, because the first month was absolutely brutal. There was some progress for a little while, but I have felt stuck for a couple of months now. In some ways, I actually feel worse than I did two months ago at the peak of my progress. With another three months of medical leave ahead of me, my sense of being stuck is only increasing. I am exhausted and worn down. I am weary of the paper trails I have had to navigate and must keep slogging my way through: employment insurance, functional abilities forms, short-term disability. My life consists of appointments, follow-ups, forms and phone calls, waiting, and always pain. It’s not much of a life, but it is draining.

Sometimes I wonder if my moment of glory was worth all of this suffering. For all my pondering, I still don’t have an answer. What I do know is that I wouldn’t change a thing about that day. My training and preparation had gone well, and I was healthy and ready. My attempts were smartly selected and all within my capability. Everything went according to plan, except for the surge of pain I felt as I lowered the bar to the floor after successfully completing my last deadlift. There was no way to predict that such an injury would happen, and I cannot imagine going through life avoiding anything that could potentially result in any kind of injury. That’s not the way to live. I do not want to live that way. Be smart, play safe…absolutely! But you can herniate a disc while doing a “safe”, routine task.

Five months ago, I never could have anticipated being off work for four months already with at least three more to go. I never would have thought I’d be experiencing such pain every minute of every day or that I would get a surgical referral. I was hopeful back then, but hope is a funny thing. It is easily crushed and bruised, and yet, it is difficult to snuff it out completely. There are so many dark and stormy days in the process of dealing with an injury. Finding hope requires digging deep, and there are times when all you hit is rock bottom. But hope is still there. Somewhere.

I hold onto the hope that all of this will pass into mere memory one day, that I will recover and return to living my life. My hope is often as shaky as my body after I’ve been standing for a while, but shaky hope is still hope. One day…I will get there.

Grey Skies with a Ray of Sunshine?

I am done for the day, mentally and physically. The day felt long and fuller than it was looking when I woke up almost twelve hours ago. Being on an extended medical leave of absence means that I have more time than I know what to do with. Going to the gym and my medical appointments gives me something of an anchor in time and space, but my days still tend to blur together. Today I had nothing on my agenda except two appointments. One with my doctor and the other with my chiropractor. Physically, I am hurting, because I hurt all the time and then I was poked and prodded and made to do uncomfortable things. And my head hurts. Is it just a headache, or is it connected to the mental fatigue? I don’t know. Maybe it is both.

I went to my doctor’s appointment expecting another revolving door with a comment about healing taking time. Lately, I’ve listened to my doctor hearing much the same senseless babble that Charlie Brown hears from his teacher. My doctor has made it quite obvious that he doesn’t truly listen to what I say nor does he actually pay attention to what he reads in my chart or test results. Each follow-up appointment feels like a waste of my time, but I have to continue to follow-up for this injury.

My doctor walked in and asked how I was. The same. Still pain in both legs and my back. He focused on “both legs” and expressed some surprise, as if this was the first time he’s heard this and not the seventh. “That’s a central disc!” he said before asking me what my MRI results had said. He is the one with my MRI results in my file on the laptop he carried into the exam room. But I am not a confrontational person, so I bite my tongue and let him continue. If falling over wouldn’t cause me more pain, I would have done just that when my doctor proceeded to say he was going to refer me to a neurosurgeon. Wow! All the way back in December, both my chiropractor and physiotherapist recommended asking my doctor for such a referral, and his answer was a solid not going to happen. He also gave me a medical note saying I need to be off work for another 3 months.

I walked out of my doctor’s office as one shell-shocked and numb. This was not what I had expected to come from this visit. The referral was appreciated, although there was bitterness in the needless delay. The additional three months off work was not expected. Next week I was expected to submit an updated functional abilities form to the leave of absence team, so that they could determine if I could be allowed to return to work safely. I guess it’s safe to say that my doctor’s note trumps the need for the functional abilities form now. While I didn’t know with any certainty that the leave of absence team would have given me the okay to come back to work, but at least I had a wisp of hope and that has been snuffed out. For three more months.

I got in my car and started for home. Somewhere along the way I let out a loud and long scream born out of frustration and despair. It felt good in the moment, to let the angst out so violently, but it didn’t feel so great on the throat for a while after. For the rest of the drive, I choked back tears.

At home, while waiting for my next appointment, I tried to return an important phone call I missed while with my doctor, a phone call about my application for short-term disability, which I now need more than ever. I scanned and emailed my doctor’s note to the leave of absence team.

My next appointment was a long one full of information and physical testing. It was painful and uncomfortable at times, but overall, I left feeling like it was productive and positive. And yet, I still feel as if I was hit by a large truck. It’s been a day.

On my way home from that last appointment, I stopped at the neighbourhood grocery store for sandwich fixings, since I hadn’t been home to make dinner and hadn’t thought to plan ahead. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I forgot to get buns or bread for sandwiches, which speaks to the current state of my head.

 

Today I’m Okay

A season of healing can often feel as if you are blindly groping your way through a dark maze filled with all sorts of perils. Once in a while, you might think there is a bit of light at the end of one tunnel. You strive with all your might to get to the light only to discover that it moved even further away. This is where I am at these days, striving and struggling and discovering that my destination keeps moving out of reach.

For the third time since I have been on medical leave, my return to work has been denied. The reason for being kept on leave has changed slightly each time. This time is due to the fact that I am not permitted to bend forward and twist while lifting. When I had emailed the most recent functional abilities form to the leave of absence team, I felt optimistic, but I could also picture their decision being the opposite of what I was hoping for. And so, when I opened the email this morning, I wasn’t overly surprised by the words within, telling me that my safety could not be guaranteed in the workplace at this time. I thought I was almost at that beam of light, but it moved further away.

In the same way, the pain and discomfort in my body seems determined to make my life miserable rather than diminishing with time. It’s been bad enough to feel as if healing has been stalled for almost two months, but lately it feels as if my body is taking backwards steps. Although what I’m experiencing is still a far cry from those first couple of months post-injury, the pain often feels worse than it did in January and early February. I made myself stay on my feet for two straight hours this afternoon, as I made dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and basically puttered around. Despite varying my position and movement as much as possible in an upright position, I was in absolute misery well before the end of that time span.

Even before I heard back from the LOA team this time, my husband has repeatedly asked me if I am certain that I am ready to go back to work. I desperately want to return to work. I miss being useful, having a purpose outside of my house, and feeling connected to life. Quite honestly, I simply want my life back, and going back to work, even with limitations, seems like a big steps towards that goal. So yes, I want to go back to work! However, in complete honesty, I am also realistic about the odds of returning to work and experiencing all sorts of pain and discomfort. I’m certain that accommodations for my limitations can be made when I do eventually get the okay to go back to work, but that doesn’t mean I won’t feel a heck of a lot of pain during a shift. As eager as I am to get back to work, I also know that doing so will be more than uncomfortable for quite some time. After all, I’m in utter misery after standing for less than two hours. How am I going to make it through even a 4 or 5 hour shift on my feet without being in incredible pain? I am both a dreamer and a realist. I am always hopeful and optimistic, and yet I am also a realist. For all my eagerness to return to work, I also realize that I might not truly be ready.

Still, it was disappointing to read the news this morning, and frustrating knowing that we probably could have worked around the functional limitation, but I have no choice but to accept the decision. And I am okay with it. Disappointed, yes, but ultimately okay. I think I am more bothered by the fact that I need to go through the process of having paperwork filled out by a health professional for a fourth time than I am about more time off work.

Here I am stuck inside the dark, perilous maze. It is indeed dark and I feel lost more often than not, but I am okay. For today.