Broken, but Still Good.

There's a line in Lilo & Stitch where Stitch says "This is my family. It's little and broken, but still good."

That's kinda how I feel about my body -- broken but still good.  Or at least that's how I want to feel about my body. 

In June 2007, I attended a lecture called "Battling Back Pain" at The George Washington University Hospital given by Dr. Warren Yu.  I swear, I was the only one there under 60.  The most disturbing part was that at the time (at my very worst), I had so much in common with these older folks.  The majority of us all walked the same--leaning forward to alleviate the pressure on our compressed nerves (as we're all walking with grocery carts in front of us and we're leaning over it).  We all had the same fears of having back surgery (that it might not solve our problems, or worse, it might cause more/different problems).  We all had the same desire to be active in our lives.

I was so upset after attending this session not only because I had the back of a senior citizen, but that after months of being in pain, I was finally among a group of people who understood what it was like to be in that specific pain.  I didn't need to explain myself.

It is with great humility that I admit two things:
  1. my mom had back issues too (the chiro said 3 herniated discs in her cervical spine and 3 in her lumbar spine), and as a child I just didn't understand why mom would spend hours in bed, couldn't do things like other moms or why she'd drink rum in the morning.  I understand now.  And more than understand, I can now empathize.

  2. While I can sympathize, I can only venture a guess at how it feels to have more serious diseases (MS, CF, Crohn's, Fibromyalgia, cancer, lupus, etc.) that are similar in that they can't be completely healed, only managed.  (See Spoon Theory for a great read on what it's like to have a chronic illness.) 
You might not see me limping around all the time, but trust me, more often than not I'm in pain.  I might not have crutches. I might not be in a wheelchair.  I might not be wearing a back brace.  But trust me, I'm in pain.  I have come to realize that I have good days and I have bad days.  I try not to overdo it on the good days, so I don't incur more bad days.  My bad days have a range to them.  I explained it in a comment

1-10 pain spectrum; 1 being the least pain and 10 being the most pain

1-2 is pretty standard [0 would be no pain...]

3-4 will make me ease up on physical things [like going to the gym or playing sports]

5-6 means I'll use pain meds (valium [muscle relaxant] and vicodin [for pain]) because lying down hurts, as well as ice my back 5-6 times a day

7-8 is when it is hard for me to sit; also has me shuffling to the doctor to talk about (1) if I've done further injury (2) steroids (3) future treatment

9-10 has me laid up in bed, unable to move, mad at the world.

I spent 3 months at 7-10, and went to work 90% of the time (wasn't able to go during 9-10 days)
I can throw my back out doing simple things like washing dishes, shaving my legs, tying my shoe laces, getting out of bed, picking up a cat, etc.  The nerves that are compressed control a variety of other functions.  So if I sneeze, I have to be really careful (1) not to throw my back out and (2) not to pee all over myself.  And since we're being honest here -- or at least I'm being honest and am expecting you to return the trust -- I'm absolutely petrified of being in intimate situations and getting injured.  How mortifying is that and what man wants a broken woman? 

My point to all of this is that sometimes I come off as unsympathetic when friends pull a muscle, strain an ankle, break a nail, have to be on crutches, or sit out a ski season.  It's not that I don't feel bad for them.  I do. I know how much it sucks to have an imperfect body.  Trust me.  What people see as unsympathetic is me wishing that I had their injury and not my own.  I wish my injury had an end in sight, a heal-by date, a remedy.

It's ironic when you're in limbo and yet the thought of bending backwards is absolutely out of the question.

18 comments

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I had a chronic pain condition: migraine-type headache, similar to a transformed daily migraine but I have a cyst in my skull complicating it, that lasted 3.5 years straight, without a day of break. (I still have it many days but not daily.) For 3.5yrs I was in tears or on the verge of tears around the clock. I tried not to get upset when well-meaning people suggested I try tylenol (really? thanks, doc!) or gave me relaxation tapes (which I did try.) Chronic pain really alienates us from our friends and loved ones. They don't understand that out of necessity we have to learn to operate under conditions that would have most people hiding under the covers. (I came to work on my usual pain level 7-8 days, like you. No one knew how I did it. I don't know either, I just did. I was single, and I had to.) They don't want to hear about our pain because it gets old, and they feel helpless because they cannot fix us. And we get tired of lying when we know they don't really want to know how we are when they ask.

As you said, it's also hard to remain sympathetic to people who are experiencing pain that either has an end in sight (broken bone) or is manageable with medication. (My headache wasn't.) The fact that they are in pain doesn't lessen our own. It's not a contest. But sometimes there just isn't a right thing to say, and it's hard not to envy them for feeling good most of the time. It's natural to be angry about our bad luck or bad genes, and it's no wonder that depression and anxiety are extremely common in people with chronic pain conditions.

I hope you get to a place where it becomes more manageable for you. It seems like you're doing everything you can to strengthen your body, feeding it well and treating it kindly. It sucks to be in the prime of your life and feel like a convalescent. You are a strong woman, you will persevere!

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I remember the first time I went to a doctor b/c of the pain I was feeling because of my uterus (turns out it was hemorrhagic ovarian cysts!). I told the doctor "Kill me or cure me." And I was completely serious.

I have a high pain threshold, but being in constant pain constantly? Not a fan.

I have no idea how you did it. I had migraines for a month and went to the hospital twice before they figured out what was causing it. Both times I was appalled at the lack of sympathy and the lack of people thinking my pain was sincere.

I'm not making this shit up. I'm not looking for pain meds. And no, aleve/tylenol/motrin/a heating pad/a massage does not fix it.

I love it when people ask me "Have you tried ______" exercise or "have you tried losing weight?" **eye roll** The only thing i haven't tried is punching them in the face.

You nailed it on the head. "Chronic pain really alienates us from our friends and loved ones. They don't understand that out of necessity we have to learn to operate under conditions that would have most people hiding under the covers."

That's exactly how I feel. Or that by asking for help, I'm a burden to them and have failed to support/take care of myself.

Thank you for your understanding, your support, and your well wishes. I hate feeling like I'm bitching and complaining, but well... that's exactly what i need to do sometimes.

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My back gave me problems for years - not chronically, but at 25 I threw my back out for the first time, and then about every 3 years until 2007 when I got acute sciatica and COULD NOT WALK. It was unbelievable, really fast onset and completely debilitating. I had surgery (which works well in acute onset, but not so well in chronic) and woke up without pain (after weeks on morphine out of my mind).

I definitely get it regarding feeling broken - out for me forever are the "high risk" sports like skiing etc - the way the surgery is done leaves you permanently fragile to future injuries...

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Sarah: my doctors basically told me "use it til you lose it." In other words, doing a surgery right now might not alleviate any of the pain and might cause more muscle damage than it's worth.

I don't miss the sciatica. Though I loved randomly falling over in public. That was fun.

My first injury to my back was at 15 or so -- and it took about 10 years for the doctors to (1) agree that it wasn't in my head and (2) be able to pinpoint what was wrong.

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I am sorry about your pain. I have been getting migraines since I was about 3 years old, so I kind of understand what you are going through. And they didn't even realize that it was migraines until I was about 17. So there was a lot of poking and prodding there. And because of the kind of headaches I get, I can't take any pain meds that will stop the pain. I am just now trying to figure out how to manage the headaches and how to figure out what causes them so I don't get them. But I know I will stil get them in one or way another forever. So it can be hard to be sympathetic towards other people sometimes when they are sick or hurt. It can be hard to be optimistic in the face of pain and when it seems like your body is letting you down at every turn. I hope you find some sort of relief soon.

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Ugh, since you were 3?
How did your doctors/parents explain that to you?

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I'm so sorry about the pain. I don't experience a chronic pain so I can't fully relate. I just wish I could be there to bring hot chocolate or brew some tea when it was getting bad.

A friend of mine does suffer from chronic pain. She was in a terrible accident and now needs to be very careful about seizures among other things. But she wrote a book about living with chronic pain called Pain Pain go Away. I don't know if you would be interested in reading it, but if you are it is free here.. http://chronicpainbook.com/Home_Page.html

I hope the coming days are good days.

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Oh girl, I hope you are back to your baseline soon.

I am incredibly grateful that for whatever reason my back has decided to support me rather than hinder me for the time being. My chiro and I have decided not to brag on it for fear of cursing it! But even now with it being relatively "normal", I have to be careful so that I do not end up back in that 7-10 pain zone. It sucks dealing with a chronic injury. Mine usually flairs when I overdue any activity and it moves straight into non-stop spasms.

I had to laugh at your reference to the elderly population. Put my x-rays up and those of an 80yo and then try to figure out which ones are mine. My doc accused me of bringing in my mom's x-rays. Sigh....great my back is old and decrepit.

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Crystal -- i'm willing to bet that you make a great hot chocolate! Thank you for the book suggestion! I will add it to my reading list! ((PS, did you know Mrs. Garzione wrote a book?? Did you have her as a teacher?))

Brigitte -- without even asking, from what you write i'm absolutely positive you understand what I'm talking about. 7-10 days SUCK, don't they?

My chiro was the first person who figured it out. For that he'll always be my hero.

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My husband has a bad back, it is somewhat better now but he was laid up for a long time with it and it really does affect every aspect of your life, it sucks!!
I suffer from migraines and people who only get "headaches" don't seem to get it. Good for you that tylenol helps your headache, I'll see you in 3 days when I can get out of bed without vomiting and crying because the light hurts my eyes.
Hang in there!

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ugh. I am photosensitive and vomity when I get migraines too. You'll often find me with a sweatshirt tied around my face. It's a very attractive look.

Suffice it to say, people in good health just don't know how lucky they are sometimes.

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I totally don't know how to relate to what you've said here. I'm lucky and have always had good health and few issues with injury.

I just wanted to say that although I've been following you on Twitter, I took a moment to read your blog for the first time today, and it's well written, interesting, and I'll definitely keep reading.

Also wanted to say that this:
"It's ironic when you're in limbo and yet the thought of bending backwards is absolutely out of the question," was absolutely morbidly hilarious!

Cheers!

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Keeping you in my thoughts!!

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Fallon: Morbid humor is just about all I've got. Well that and lots of love and support from my online friends. I'm glad you had a second to read my blog.

Emily: thank you!

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I definitely feel you (literally)! The bad times are totally wretched. The worst is when you can't pinpoint how you returned to that state. I'll be like well I moved and then oh sh*t broke loose. Sometimes I don't even need movement. It could be just standing or sitting too long and wham, bam thank you ma'am. I am learning to listen to my body more and realize when it's cranky so as to avoid full on bitch mode! However, way easier said than done....

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It's so utterly anti-climactic to have someone ask how you hurt yourself, and they're expecting something like "Parachute didn't open" and all you got is "I sat in my chair."

I'm listening to my body, I just don't like what it's saying.

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My boyfriend is an Iraq veteran and he was medically discharged 18 months ago due to his back issues - three bulging discs and sciatica. He also has a lot of joint pain in his hips, knees, and ankles. He has patches and creams and pills; surgery is out of the question because he's too young and the VA won't do it until he's at least 40. He uses the patches and creams but refuses the pills. He lives in constant pain and I feel so helpless a lot of the time. I get upset sometimes when he complains of being in pain but refuses to do something about it - sometimes I get mad, but mostly, I'm sad I can't do more for him. It brings me to tears knowing I can't do more for his pain. But I know I can do something: I can apply the patches and creams, give him massages when he needs them, and be emotionally supportive. I remind myself of these things whenever I start to get upset.

My mom also learned recently she has 2 bulging discs and 1 herniated disc in her neck. They are treating with physical therapy and pills for now, but who knows what will happen in the long run. Another really tough situation for me...

I follow you on Twitter - but first time commenting, as I didn't know you had a blog! :-) I'm adding you to my Google Reader now!

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Erin: first -- kudos to your boyfriend for being a Vet. My friend just got back from Iraq and he too has back issues. The military just has no clue about back injuries, eh?

I try not to take the meds if i don't have to. I try to save them for my really bad days when I can't even see straight b/c the pain is too great.

Try not to get mad at him when he's in pain and refusing to do something about it. He's not asking you to fix him or even empathize. He is just venting the frustration of it all. I get that. He's probably like me -- someone who is very active and now feels very limited because of it.

Try not to get upset. Just find out ways to distract his mind when his body is failing him.

I will suggest that ICE is the best thing ever. It numbs the nerves that are crying out in pain.

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