Running on Empty

“It’s hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God’s will. It’s hard to know what to do with your emptiness when you’re not supposed to have emptiness.”

~Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness

This isn’t intended to bash husbands or anyone. It is not knocking faith in God or His will for one’s life. Many years have passed since I read the book this quote is taken from, so the original context is lost from my memory; however, I read this quote and agree with it and in ways that differ somewhat from grieving.

It’s hard to _______________.

I think that blank could be filled by many things. Feel pain. Be injured. Be physically sick. Be mentally unwell. Be poor. Be weak. Be lonely. Struggle with X, Y, or Z. Be sad or frustrated or angry or hurt. I am certain to have come up short on my list of potential fill-in-the-blank options, and I suspect everyone’s experience is unique.

Today has been a bad day for me as far as my pain levels go, despite having a fairly low-key day as far as activity. My eyes are leaking as I type, slow, random tears that trickle down my cheeks, which will leave a crusty salt trail in their wake. I am in pain all of the time, but I can tolerate it most of the time. Not so much today. During dinner I mentioned to my husband how much pain I was in, and he asked why that would be, what had I done to cause it?

Now I was already in a grumpy mood, but I refrained from making a sarcastic comment about herniating a disc months ago and simply said I didn’t know. That’s true…I don’t know. I hadn’t been sitting. I hadn’t spent too long standing. I hadn’t done any physical activity that I know I shouldn’t. I had done my nerve flossing and rehab exercises, but those have never resulted in this level of pain. Was it one brief moment that occurred in the middle of the night? I got up to use the bathroom and had only taken a step or two from the bed, when I felt a strong pain and “off” sensation in my lower back. I don’t think I had done anything out of the norm in getting up out of bed, but my back didn’t feel right for a few minutes. Was that the culprit for today’s increase in pain? Maybe? I don’t know.

I understand why my husband asked me that question, but it made me think of this quote in the context of my injury. I am injured, hurting, and not even close to living up to my potential. It feels like a heavy weight on my shoulders, this injury and all that has flown out of it, the good and the mostly bad. Whether intentional or subconscious, it often feels like more pressure is placed on me by others expecting me to fit into their little boxes.

When my husband asks what I did today, I feel guilty for not having cleaned the house from top to bottom or cooking a gourmet meal. I’ve been home all day, every day for months…I should be doing more.  I know that is not driving his question, and my reaction to it is completely internal. But that’s where my brain goes.

When someone says they’ll pray for healing for me, I do appreciate and welcome it. Yet, I often wonder why. Some of those people barely know me, and even some of those who do know me seldom interact with me. I am a person of faith, but I can also be cynical. Is saying that you’ll pray for me to make yourself feel good or because you are genuinely concerned about my well-being? If you’re genuinely concerned, then why don’t you show more interest in who I am beyond this injury?

How do I respond when someone asks how things are going today? If it is someone I see regularly? Will they understand what I mean when I say it’s been a bad day? Will they understand what it means to have a herniated disc with all the symptoms? Will they look at me seemingly normal and healthy and question the truthfulness of my reply? Maybe I will be regaled with a sad tale of their own pain or even herniated disc. I could be lectured on all of the things I should be doing to get better.

My doctor seldom seems to actually listen to what I have to say, and I have been required to see him frequently since the injury occurred. He seems uninterested in deviating from his old-fashioned, slow approach to treating a herniated disc, which probably wouldn’t be so terrible if he would listen to me. In essence, it feels hard to heal when everything is my doctor’s will. Let’s misdiagnose. Let’s lecture on the perils of opiates. Let’s make multiple mistakes on paperwork. Let’s push a form of treatment that causes me more pain. Let’s ignore the expanding symptoms and paramedical recommendations for surgery until you decide surgery is warranted. I can’t just change doctors. I need my doctor to access pain medications, diagnostic imaging, and a surgical consult, but he isn’t making the healing process any easier.

Even in the process of grieving the repercussions of this injury, I feel the truth of this quote. I’ve lost a goal I had worked hard for two years to achieve. Four years of hard work and strength gains is being obliterated, and I know that getting back to where I was will take time and more hard work. It wasn’t an easy decision to go on medical leave, even though it was the correct decision, and that grief is still tender, knowing how much I have already missed out on. Any goals or expectations I might have had for this year have had to be discarded or held lightly, tentatively. Want to have an actual holiday this year? That depends on my ability to sit long enough for travel or potential surgery date. Want to compete in powerlifting this year? Not gonna happen! My daughter wants to make a trip to Ikea. The vacation wrenches apply to that Ikea trip, too. I am a planner. I like to know where I am going and when. I like to make my lists and cross them off. It’s hard to do that when so much uncertainty has invaded my world. Does that make sense to anyone else? Can they understand what I’m feeling about my losses? Grief is different for everyone. As a society, we don’t always know how to handle someone else’s grief, especially when the grief is not associated with death.

I don’t know where else I was going with this, but I hope I’ve made my point. Whatever that was! I did say that today has been a bad day for me…

 

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Know Yourself

“Who you were, who you are, and who you will be are three different people.”

~unknown

 

Two recent conversations have left me thinking about who I am in this season of injury. The first conversation was with my husband, and he made a comment about me still looking to find my own identity. The other conversation was with one of my best friends and was about parents wanting more for their kids, while the kids are generally satisfied by enough.

Since herniating my disc six months ago, I have often felt lost and adrift without purpose, usefulness, or potential. Of course, those feelings have never been completely true, and yet, I struggle with the pain and physical limitations I am forced to endure. My life has been turned upside-down and inside-out. The activities I used to enjoy doing, I cannot do. I am on medical leave from work, so I feel the loss of being a part of my work community, and I stress about the loss of income for months on end. After competing in nine competitions since 2014, this will be the first year without a competition. Some of my powerlifting goals were crushed into dust the moment I hurt my back last November…a bitter pill to swallow. Although I have all the time in the world at home while on leave, my ability to do things is still hampered. Housework can only be done in short bursts of time, because standing too long results in lots of pain. My housework abilities are also limited to what is safe for my back. I wash dishes, sweep the floors, tidy the bathroom, fold laundry, make dinner, do grocery shopping in small, manageable trips. The rest of my time is spent going to appointments, going to the gym to do safe exercises and rehab, going to Starbucks for coffee and to soak up a bit of connection with my co-workers, and varying my position between standing and reclining as frequently as necessary. It’s a boring life and frustrating. I feel like I should be doing more and living a real life, not this paper doll existence I am living. With the warmer weather, I want to be outside and active, much more active than my body will agree to, and I fear that I will miss out on spring and summer just as I missed out on winter.

My husband’s comment took me aback a little, because I was confused as to why he would think that I was still in need of an identity of my own. Didn’t I already do that? In my opinion, that’s what I had done between 2010 and 2017. I had hit the bottom and clawed my way back to the top. Hard work, determination, and the right people in my corner allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin and to be sure of who I was. Through powerlifting, I discovered something within me that I could never have expected, and I loved being strong both physically and mentally. There is no doubt that I had grown substantially over the course of those years, and I learned to weather the storms and grow through them. Who else could I possibly be? What was missing?

The conversation with my friend revolved around parents and kids, but I instantly grasped how the concept of ‘wanting more’ and ‘satisfied with enough’ could apply to me as I mulled over my husband’s statement. From the time I started going to the gym and focused on powerlifting, I have wanted more. This desire for more was focused on my performance and goals within the sport far more than it ever applied to the rest of my life. I’m an easy-going and low-maintenance kind of person. I’m not interested in keeping up with the Joneses. Even when there is something I would like to improve in my home or have as an experience, I am still easily content with what I can realistically have. Enough is perfectly fine for me, unless I’m in the gym and setting goals for future competitions. I don’t need to be the strongest or the best, although I will always strive to win while knowing there are others better than me. Most of the time I succeed at my goals, but not always. The sting of failure hurts for a little while, but I always manage to learn and grow through the experience. That is enough!

But here I sit (figuratively because sitting hurts like hell), not knowing what my future holds, where it will lead me, or when I will reach the next stage of the journey. When I realized the nature of my injury, I fully expected to be back to normal within a few weeks, maybe a couple of months. Six months later, I no longer have a clue when I will be back to normal, if that will even happen. I’ve been stuck in limbo, playing the waiting game with my body, my doctor, and now a neurosurgeon. My doctor has repeatedly said this will take time and that there are proper steps to follow in treating such an injury. Time, I understand, even proper steps, but I chafe at the unnecessary delays created by the medical system when a slightly faster pace could potentially create improved health sooner (and less of a burden on the health care system, my workplace, and employment insurance costs). I feel alone, forgotten, cast aside, and broken.

I believe that I am still me. This injury hasn’t erased the woman I had become in recent years. In many ways, I think this injury will only make me a stronger person. But in the meantime, I feel stripped of so much of what makes me who I am. Is that true though? I am a barista. I am a powerlifter. I am a wife, a mother, a friend. Those are things that I do or titles that apply to me, but they are not who I am. Last year I learned that lesson after a disappointing competition after a disappointing and frustrating several months of training. Powerlifting is what I do, not who I am. So, I know who I am even though I feel lost, but I am beginning to realize that this injury can shake up my assumptions and put them back together as something entirely different than what I had imagined. I don’t know what that means for me yet, but I suspect it will add another layer to claiming my own identity. In the same way, I also believe that the theme of being satisfied with enough will weave through that layer in a most wonderful way. It’s not always easy to sit in these days of uncertainty, but I am excited to see who I am at the end of it.

Windows

windows

I took this photo of my kitchen window this afternoon. The left side of the window makes me happy, while the right side leaves me feeling annoyed. I washed the windows in my kitchen and dining room yesterday, but the slider on this kitchen window proved too challenging for me to remove. At first, I couldn’t even figure out how to remove the slider, because this window is only two years old and not the same style as the others. Once I did figure out how to remove it, I quickly realized that I simply shouldn’t. This window is right above the sink, which means I would need to stand on a stool, bend forward, and awkwardly lift the heavy pane over the tall faucet. The old me wouldn’t have a problem tackling this task, but current me has a low back injury which makes the task more challenging and potentially risky. Since I also cannot figure out how to remove the screen, the outer pane of glass on the slider remains grimy until my husband has time to remove it for me. A similar situation applies to my living room windows. Although I washed the insides yesterday, the outside needs to wait for some male assistance.

I do not enjoy having my vision distorted, not by a dirty windshield, window or a smattering of raindrops on my eyeglasses. Even when my husband is driving and I am a passenger, I have been known to reach over and activate the wipers, because my husband is not bothered by peering through raindrops. I like to see where I am going. I like to see clearly whatever is before me.

With spring finally here and green things popping out everywhere, I find my vision frequently turning to my now clean windows, where I can clearly see the yellow blossoms budding on my maple tree. But that one dirty window taunts me. It is a reminder that I am figuratively peering through grimy glass as I try to see what the next few months have in store for me. When will the constant pain end? When will my doctor finally send in the paperwork that was requested three weeks ago? When will I get an appointment with the neurosurgeon? When will I actually be able to return to work? When will I be able to resume real weight training? When will I be able to compete again? I have no answers for any of those questions, and, for all my asking and wondering, no answers can actually be given to me by anyone. All my swipes at this dirty window only succeed in making it more difficult to see through, which means I must wait for clarity of vision. It’s not easy to do, but there really isn’t any choice.

So, I will enjoy looking through the windows that are clean and clear, watching for the first signs of leaves on the maple.

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.