The Truth About the Pain

“Maura woke to a huge claw squeezing the back of her neck and a knife buried between her shoulder blades.  Unfortunately, that was how she awoke every morning, and multiple times throughout the night.”

These are the first lines of my current work in progress, Out of the Depths.  It’s also an accurate description of the constant pain I’ve been experiencing for the past two-and-a-half years.  A few days ago I had an appointment with my neurosurgeon.  I had myself so worked up over it that when he walked into the exam room and said, “How are you doing?” (or something equally non-threatening) I burst into tears.  I don’t mean I teared up, or sniffled a little.  I’m talking gasping, heaving sobs.  You’d have thought they had the graveside scene from Steel Magnolias playing on a continuous loop in the waiting room.  It took my kind and compassionate doctor only a couple of sentences to ease my fears (Yes, the pain will get better, he just doesn’t know how long it will take) but I’m not one of those people who can just turn off the tears.  Once I get started my eyes stay red, my chin quivers, and my nose runs for at least an hour.  And if anyone talks to me, looks at me, or, God forbid, asks, “Are you OK?” . . . well, the heaving, gasping sobs start right back up.  I managed to calm down enough to call my husband, my mom, and my boss to tell them the good news: There is still reason to believe the pain will decrease; and the bad news: I won’t be returning to work next week as planned.

Since I first herniated a disc in my neck in January 2009 (no car wreck or skydiving accident involved – I just woke up one morning in pain) I have had four neurosurgeries.  I’ve done physical therapy, aquatherapy, special spine-only physical therapy, and massage therapy.  I’ve had cervical traction, two epidural injections, and a half-dozen trigger point injections.  I wore a TENS unit and pain relief patches all day every day for over a year.  I took muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, steroids, various neurologic meds, and weird custom-blended medications I had to buy at a pet pharmacy.  In my search for answers I had five or six MRIs, two cervical myelograms (more painful than the surgeries), and Xrays without end.  I saw two neurosurgeons, two pain management doctors, and various therapists in addition to my regular primary care doctor.

I was back at work full-time three weeks after my first surgery, and four weeks after my second.  I showed up on time for work every day, and gave it my all.  Some days I had to excuse myself from patient-related conversations and dash to the nearest restroom to throw up because the pain was so bad.  Some afternoons I closed my office door and lay down on the floor in order to avoid passing out from the pain.  I carried heat packs and cold packs to work and placed them on my neck and back between supervising stress tests.  I hauled a cervical traction setup to the office and lay in it on the floor while I returned pages.  The pain was often so bad I couldn’t think clearly and when co-workers would ask me questions about a patient I couldn’t understand the question, let alone formulate an answer.  I forgot things.  Lots of things.  All the time.  I made mistakes that could have caused patients irreparable harm, but, thankfully, they were all caught and corrected.

I don’t talk much about my pain issues on the blog, because it’s boring as hell.  Yes, it has been the focus of my entire life for over two years, but it even bores me.  However, I felt a need to share the story today, because last Thursday’s doctor’s visit changed my life.  My FMLA is exhausted, you see, and my boss has to post my position – the position I’ve held for nineteen years.  Thankfully, I have good short-term disability insurance, and long-term if it comes to that.   I’m on strong narcotics and muscle relaxers around the clock, and I can’t function at all without them.    But I’ve lain awake night after night, thinking, “I have to go back to work.  I have a family to support, and we can’t go without insurance.  I have two children to put through college!”  And then I’ll think, ” It would be so easy to make a mistake that could get someone killed.  Or even if the worst didn’t happen, I still wouldn’t be doing my job properly.  Sooner or later that would catch up with me, I’d get fired . . . and I’d deserve it.”

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on posting regularly about my neck pain (although I do plan to write a celebratory post when and if it gets better).  I just wanted to share what’s been going on for those friends, family, and co-workers who might be wondering, “Why the hell isn’t Angie back at work yet?  What is she, some kind of slacker?!”  No, I’m not a slacker, I’m not a wimp, and I’m not milking the system.  I’m just trying to get through a pretty horrific situation the best way I know how.

I’m linking this post up to Wordful Wednesday (God knows it’s wordful!) on Parenting by Dummies and Seven Clown Circus  and to Mama Kat’s Writers’ Workshop for the “bad day” prompt (only because there wasn’t a “bad two years” prompt) and Pour Your Heart Out (for obvious reasons).

Mama’s Losin’ It

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26 thoughts on “The Truth About the Pain”

  1. Angie – Since I recently started reading your column, I knew you were sick, but had no idea how much pain you were in or how much you’ve been through in the past. Thanks for sharing. You’ll remain in my prayers.

  2. I’m so sorry Angie. You are in my prayers. Your health is the number one issue … not work!! God always puts us right where we are supposed to be. I truly believe that.

  3. I know this is a gigantic adjustment phase for you — but I have confidence you’ll tackle it like you do everything else in life. Head ON!

    I love you!

  4. “Write what you know.” How often have you heard that? You’ve got several books in this experience, and way too many people who can relate. There’s a silver lining in all this somewhere, and I know you’ll find it.

  5. Angie,
    I miss you at work. I miss your smile and even though you have been in terrible pain for the past 2 years, there were only a very few times when I saw it get to you. You are an inspiration to me. I wish I was as strong as you. You have a wonderful family and friends who will help you and support you and love you no matter what. Don’t worry about the job, just take care of yourself. God has a plan, just pray and follow HIS will.
    I’ll say prayers for you and the boys (all of them) too.
    Stay strong girlfriend!!

    ps is the plant still alive?

    1. Thank you, Mitzi! It’s comforting to know my pain wasn’t obvious to everyone most of the time, although I do recall you were there for my most memorable at-work meltdown. sigh. It’s funny you should mention the plant. He’s healthy and happy and sitting in my kitchen window. I think of you and smile every time I look at him 🙂 I can’t believe I’ve kept him alive this long, maybe I have a teensy bit of a green thumb after all 😉

  6. And I thought my chronic back pain was inconvenient! What you’re going through sounds awful. I’m so sorry.

    And by the way, if you need to blog about what you’re going through sometimes, no one should fault you for it.

    Take care!

  7. Dearest Angie, my heart breaks for you and for all of us who are missing you. I cannot say your name without crying. I still relate you to Job in the bible…the guy that is born with so many riches and then God places all these impossible, horrific obstacles in his way. I look at all your riches and see so much beauty, giving to others ALWAYS, brilliant, crafty, hysterical sense of humor and know that God is going to reward you because of your patience. Thank you for being you to all of us when it has not been so great these past few years. I love you!

  8. Angie that sucks so hard and I am so sorry you are going through this. My mom had the same thing and After trying to support her through that I know how difficult it must be for you to even have regular and enjoyable family times let alone hold down a steady job with any semblance of normalcy or accountability. Hope you find relief and joy soon.

    1. Thank you so much, Amanda! You really hit the nail on the head about it being hard to even enjoy regular family times – SO frustrating! But “relief and joy” – that’s such an apt pairing, and that’s EXACTLY what I’m working toward 🙂

  9. wow. i’m a first time reader from mama kat’s… but i’m so sorry you’re going through so much pain day in and day out. i look forward to your celebratory post!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I swear I’m not usually such a Debbie Downer 😛 If you drop by another time I promise you’ll find something more upbeat 🙂

  10. When I was sick this year for like 3 weeks with strep I felt so helpless. I couldn’t help with anything, I couldn’t get online, and I couldn’t hold a conversation for longer than 10 minutes. After week one I felt like people were thinking, “okay girl we get it, you’re sick…but seriously pull yourself together we need you functional.”

    I spent a lot of time thinking about how easily just one little bodily malfunction makes humans completely miserable. We’re miserable, we feel guilty, and we can’t talk about how miserable we are.

    I can’t believe how long you’ve been dealing with this!! You have an online community here who adores you…you’re pain is NOT boring it’s RELEVANT! Let your online friends support you through it Angie.

    Lots of love for you girl!!

    1. Thank you so much! Throughout this whole ordeal I’ve been thankful for the support of my friends and ESPECIALLY thankful that this didn’t happen until my kids were old enough to fend for themselves to some extent. If I’d had little ones to take care of I just don’t know how in the world I could have done it!

  11. I literally am typing this from bed, because my stupid back went out this morning and I am unable to move. If the pattern repeats itself from past incidents, with muscle relaxers and an ice bag and lots of bitching, I’ll be better in about 5 days . . . so I can’t even imagine what it must be like for you to live with chronic pain. So sorry.

    1. Thanks! I can still remember the day SO clearly three years ago that I said to myself, “I can’t believe I can’t get rid of this stupid back pain.” I went to the doctor as a total LAST RESORT, never imagining it was anything serious. UGH!

  12. Your description of a knife in the back is exactly how I described my pain to my neurosurgeon. Why is neck pain so hard to get rid of? I had two herniated discs and a subsequent ACDF two level with plate and screws a little over two years ago. The pain has never gone. It consumes every single day of my life. I miss the day before I woke up with the pain. I understand where you are coming from. I talk about chronic pain on my blog mixed in with makeup posts to make it less depressing! I would rather have no use of my legs and use a wheelchair than feel pain and take expensive meds and be the financial burden that I am since that day a little over two years ago! No offense to anyone who uses a wheelchair! Hopefully that makes sense.

    1. I SO understand what you’re saying! In many ways I’m sure it’s more difficult for people with more obvious disabilities, who have a wheelchair or a guide dog – because they can never hide it no matter how hard they try. But those of us with less visible disabilities (and there are a lot of us) have to deal with most of the world looking at us and thinking, “Well it can’t be that bad – she looks OK.” I know it’s flat-out mean of me, but there have been times when people have minimalized my pain when I’ve thought, “Oh, if you could feel for just five minutes what I feel all day long every single day you’d never, ever say that to anyone again!”

  13. I feel bad about what I said about the wheelchair. I really hope that doesn’t hurt anyone. At the time it felt like the right thing to compare to having chronic pain.

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