I can’t manage my back problems by myself anymore. My physical therapist stated the obvious as we were going through a pattern of exercises designed to stretch out my hip flexors and prevent them from over-rotating, which is one way my body compensates for its limited motion between my shoulders and my hips.
“You’ve done a fabulous job of staying fit and flexible,” he said, as he pushed his fingers around my hip bone and held the muscle in place while I slid my leg slowly up and down the table.
I turned on my left side and relaxed my right shoulder so he could reach under my shoulder blade and pin down the muscle under my scapula. I raised my arm from the elbow up and down, slowly, as if it were a new part of my anatomy I was testing. I started sweating as the muscle throbbed through the rotation.
“I’ve seen a lot of patients in much more pain who’ve had considerably less surgery. You’ve got a lot going on in that back, with all that hardware and the muscles that haven’t moved on their own for years. I think you’d benefit from being stretched out this way several times a week,” he said, burrowing his fist deeper into my shoulder. “You’re contracted across your upper back, and by having someone help you lengthen the muscles several times a week you can counteract that effect.”
I was silent, remembering the last time I had to rely on someone to help me with physical therapy. Before my first spine surgery, my mom and I got up early every morning to do a series of exercises intended to stave off the need for surgery. My mom handled it perfectly. She’d wake me up and we’d head to the den, with my mom clapping and singing all the way, like the only thing she had to do or wanted to do all day long was hold my feet and arms in various awkward positions while I twisted and turned, trying to strengthen the muscles on either side of my stubborn spine.
I’ve known this time would come. For the past several months I’ve had to lie down each afternoon to rest my burning muscles. At night it’s difficult to sleep when the nerves in my arms and legs tingle and my fingers and toes get numb. And I know it could be worse. I remember thinking before that second surgery that I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40 if I didn’t do something drastic. The surgery was drastic, certainly, but since my recovery I’ve been able to resume most of my activities and Jazzercise without falling on my face or crying in agony. I’m much better off physically than I have any right to be.
All the same, it was a humbling afternoon when Jon, Bill and I met at therapy so Bill could learn how to work my hips and upper back. Jon stretched my left hip flexor, then showed Bill how to do it. Bill’s hands felt familiar, of course, but less certain than Jon’s.
I had to close my eyes and concentrate on the muscles Bill was holding, telling him to pin deeper, or higher, and I reminded myself that while I felt helpless, he was feeling the pressure to get it right. He had on his “Bucy face,” his look of greatest concentration. I named this look after a favorite, challenging law professor of ours twenty years ago. He wore that face every minute of her class, as if he thought that relaxing his jaw and eyebrows would make every bit of criminal law he’d retained magically disappear.
We’re embarking on a new era, one in which I’ll have to depend on him to help me manage this body, with all its frailties and kinks. Our plan is to try the exercises at night, and to look around for a massage table so that we won’t have to get on the floor to work out. I have a hard time getting up and down from the floor, and it’s easier for the therapist (or husband) to perform the maneuvers in a standing position.
I’ve talked with the boys and told them my back just isn’t as strong as it used to be. I might lie down more often in the afternoons, or need a bit more help around the house, particularly with lifting laundry and groceries. I explained to them that Daddy and I would be working on my back so I could stay strong, and that if they wanted to watch or to learn how to help with the exercises, I’d love it. I grew teary when I talked to them. I’m used to being the savior, not the saved.
Finn was sympathetic, hugging me, telling me it would be fine, pointing out all the activities I could do. Drew listened and reminded me that he loves to chop ingredients for dinner as long as he has a good knife. Porter assured me he’d still snuggle with me every morning while we listen to NPR.
And so this Flashback Friday, I’m looking back at our family as it was , and how we are now. And I’m wondering how the future will be. But I suppose that’s true for all of us.
Family Portrait 2000
Me and the guys, 2009
Me and my new therapist
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Today I wanted to write about our recent adventures in Costa Rica or post pictures of the anatomically correct chalk drawings Drew and Porter decorated our driveway with recently.
Instead I’m writing about pain– physical pain– as it’s had me in its jaws for the better part of three weeks.
Longtime readers know that I’ve had two spine surgeries, one for scoliosis and a second to address complications caused by the first. My spine is fused with a combination of rods, hooks and screws. Here’s a diagram of a spine.
The spine is divided into the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions, and each vertebra within a region is given a number. The green line shows where I am fused, from the fourth thoracic to the fourth lumbar vertebra. Those of us in the know call this T4 to L4. The red area shows the vertebrae and discs that are not fused: L4-5 and L5-S1. Because these two discs handle all the movement of my upper torso, while the spine is designed to spread all the pressure evenly across the back, my bottom two vertebrae are in bad shape and are the source of most of my back pain.
During the last thirty years, back pain has been a fact of life for me. It’s been worse at times and better at times, but it always lurks nearby. I’ve used back braces, pain patches, physical therapists, chiropractors, medications, a muscle stimulator and gin and tonics in my fight against pain. I visited my trusty brace man to fashion a brace to support my belly during my pregnancies and relieve the pressure on my spine, but I still had to take painkillers during pregnancy to make it through some days.
Generally I’m a rockstar at handling lower back pain. If your lower back felt the way mine feels on a normal day, you’d be shooting tequila and hollering for your mama.
Sometimes, however, there’s pain that no medicine can touch, and that’s what I’ve been fighting most recently.
It originated near the blue dot on the top diagram, which, coincidentally, is right by the top hook under my right shoulder.
This upper back pain is a new kind of pain for me, and I haven’t been managing it well. It radiates up into my neck, down my shoulder, and makes my arm and fingers numb. The muscles on the left side of my lower back are burning, perhaps because they are compensating for the fact that I’m trying to move my right side as little as possible.
I hurt when I stand and when I sit, but I hurt the most lying down. I’m beginning to dread night time.
Pain affects me physically, but it also gets inside my head. I’ve been yelling at the boys. Around 5:30, when it’s really throbbing, I feel like I’m seeing my family through a haze, and I fear that I’m losing my grasp on reality. I tell Porter to sweep up his cookie crumbs, but impatiently, because I think I’ve already told him once.
“Yes, ma’am,” Porter says, and he sweeps and then goes outside to write “Porter is cool” in Morse code on the driveway.
I ask Drew if he’s finished his homework.
“You already asked me that,” he says. I don’t remember.
Dinner is agonizingly slow, but no one else seems to notice.
“Finn, eat or don’t eat, but let’s get this over with,” I hiss.
“Honey, I’ll deal with the kitchen. You go lie down,” Bill says.
It’s a kind offer, and he means well, but it doesn’t help. Alone in our room, I cry. I’m frustrated. I’ve had a shot in my back and I’m scheduled for an MRI. My doctor has prescribed a different type of pain pill, but I still can’t sleep. I wonder if my boys will remember me as a bedridden mom, alternately weeping and shouting orders.
As the hours stretch on and everyone sleeps but me, my pity party is in full swing. I cry over the years I’ve spent recuperating from surgeries and liver disease. I sob about the things I can’t do, like turning cartwheels and somersaults. When I get good and worked up, I weep about my big feet, my small breasts and the paint peeling in the bathroom.
I know this season will pass. Tonight I’ll try not to scream and be impatient with the boys; to keep my hurt hidden until they’re tucked in.
I’ll try to remember what my mom told me: “My feet might be big, but they sure do hold me up.”
To be honest, I never was that good at cartwheels, either.
Three years ago in My Tiny Kingdom: Get Me Out Of Here!
The theme for this week’s Flashback Friday is OOPS! Feel free to join in– we’re having a marvelous time digging through old photos and blogging about the past. Instructions are here.
My therapist has been paying me all sorts of compliments lately, telling me that I’m a strong woman with a well-defined sense of right and wrong. I figured that was just good business sense on her part. With the economy in free fall, a therapist who makes her patients feel good about themselves, (but not too good), will ensure herself a decent income in the coming months.
But then she asked me where my strength came from, and I realized she wasn’t just buttering me up. She was truly curious.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, on the first day of sixth grade. Within a couple of weeks I’d seen an orthopedist and was being fitted with a Milwaukee brace for my back. Over the course of the next eighteen months my doctor tried another type of brace and put me on a strict exercise regime. My mom woke me up at five each morning to help me go through a workout designed to strengthen certain muscles and prevent my back from curving further.
I did all the exercises. I never took the brace off for more than the allotted hour a day. I suffered through the hurtful comments my classmates made. I had a crush on a guy a grade ahead of me, and one day his sister told me he thought I was an ugly dog. It was one of the only times I remember crying, but I sobbed all afternoon over his cutting remark.
My mom wasn’t impressed. “It’s just words. Ignore him.”
I tried to tell her that it was impossible to just ignore someone you’d been fantasizing about kissing, but she wasn’t listening.
I thought I couldn’t endure any more, but I was wrong. The curvature progressed, and I had spine surgery during seventh grade.
My doctors inserted rods on either side of my spine, and took chunks of bone from my hip to graft the rods into the vertebrae. My scar runs from the bottom of my neck to the top of my butt. I was in the hospital and then home for weeks, captive in yet another brace I’d have to wear twenty-four hours a day for nine months.
My surgery was in January. The brace would come off in November. Most importantly, tryouts for the high school dance team, known for its high kick line, were in March.
I spent those months catching up on school work and learning how to walk and move in a strange body that was anchored by a stiff spine. My physical therapist assigned me exercises to do once a day. I did them all, and sometimes I went through them again, hoping I could achieve greater flexibility. I could bend from the waist and the neck, but not in between. When I reached over to touch my toes, my back looked like a tabletop. Arching my back was out of the question.
Some of my most wonderful high school memories involve the years I spent on the dance team. Twenty-nine years and another spine surgery later, several of my former teammates are now sweating with me at Jazzercise. Sometimes I close my eyes when I’m dancing and pretend I’m in a stadium during half-time.
The other night I was at a restaurant and I saw the guy who’d called me an ugly dog. I ignored him.
I told my therapist that my strength comes from the fact that I’m a bit like a superhero, a woman equipped with a titanium spine reinforced with screws and bolts. You can’t see them, but in my mind I’m wearing bright gold boots, and I’m confident that they can kick anything that gets in my way.
One year ago in My Tiny Kingdom: Prank O’ The Day
Drew and Porter brought home their class pictures yesterday. Obviously I inspected my boys first to see how they’d fared in front of the harsh lens of the grade school photographer. Porter was doing his shy chipmunk face and his mouth is chapped beyond his lips, giving him a clownish look. Drew was sitting slumped to one side in a dirty shirt, with a solemn look on his face. The modeling agencies weren’t going to be knocking on the Glamores’ door.
As I perused the rest of the kids, I realized that there are some ages that are plain awkward, and I was holding the proof in my hands.
I had a run of bad pictures myself. Sixth grade was particularly hideous. That was the year that my teeth, eyes and spine all betrayed me. My bodily frailties converged, and I was forced to attend school wearing not only the questionable fashions of the late 70’s, but also braces, glasses and a back brace. I was sort of like Joan Cusack (“Girl in Scoliosis Brace”) in “Sixteen Candles” but without a stage mother or payment for my discomfort.
People always asked me about the brace, and no one knew what scoliosis was, so I struggled with what to tell them. Not my mom.
“Just tell them you fell out of an airplane. That’ll shut ’em up,” she said briskly. So I did. The answer stunned them long enough to give me plenty of time to walk away.
I had some really close friends then. They were able to see past all the metal and plastic, fortunately for me, or I would have been awfully lonely.
These pictures are from my birthday in 1979.
You can’t see the silver of the neck brace so much because my mom and I experimented with all sorts of ways to camouflage it. It’s covered in moleskin, which was fuzzy and pink, but a lot closer to the color of my skin than harsh metal.
I’ve edited out my best friend’s face. She doesn’t look nearly as bad as I do, but there could be some Advanced English students at the junior high who’d like to see a picture of their teacher when she was about twelve, and I’m not giving them the satisfaction.
I loved the two bunnies and named one Roquefort Coconuthead. But Lord – stuffed rabbits? These days I bet girls this age give each other sassy panties with writing on the back, glittery lipgloss or fake belly button rings. We were such nerds.
This picture with my sisters was evidently a big damn deal, because I only wore my contacts on special occasions. Getting those hard contact lenses to stay on my pupil was a challenge. If there’s anything worse than a brace-face with a back brace, it’s that same girl rolling her eyeballs back in her head while she fishes around in her eye sockets for her lost contacts, which are somewhere between her forehead and her brain.
Join in with YOUR Flashback Friday below! For instructions see here.
1. pendy (mother/daughter inner beauty)
2. Observations of an Earthroamer (Kim)
4. Sir Nottaguy-Imadad
6. Andi (bordering on a mullet!)
7. Holly (In My Overactive Head)
8. Marissa (Awkward Begins At 7)
10. jen (inner beauty)