Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Straight up

I never realized how often I drop things until it became too painful to pick them up. The once-automatic act of picking up after myself became a daunting task. Think of how many times you drop something - a set of keys, a piece of paper comes off the desk, a napkin off of the kitchen table. No big deal, right? You just swoop down and pick it up. Not me. As soon as that item hits the floor I go through a battery of considerations, do an impromptu risk assessment and then formulate a plan for how to recover the dropped item. You just don't consider how handy bending is until you lose the ability to do so.

I didn't know it at first, but what I was dealing with was two herniated discs and mild spinal stenosis. For weeks I just thought it was back pain and if I rested for a bit it would get better. In the meantime, living with it was horrible. On the first day I walked into my apartment and accidentally dropped my keys on the floor. I took a deep breath and just stared at them. I stared at the floor the way you would stare down the Grand Canyon if you had just dropped your cell phone and were working up the courage to rappel down and retrieve it. It's so far down. I'm going to hurt myself. I may not make it back up. What am I going to do? Can I live without my keys? Can I just leave them on my floor forever and have someone make a new set for me? Perhaps I should just make dozens of sets of keys and when I drop one I can leave it behind as collateral damage - leaving the world littered with sets of keys. That seems like a reasonable solution. Anything sounds better than bending over.

Of course, I did not make a dozen sets of keys - I would need the original key to cut the duplicates. I had to slowly bend my knees with my back remaining upright and feel around on the floor to pick them up and hang them on the nail. It was a laborious task. It didn't stop with keys, either. I started to wonder if I've always been a klutz and never realized it. Every day I would drop something. The worst was when someone else dropped something by my feet. The polite thing to do would be to pick it up and retrieve it for them. Sorry pal, you are on your own. If someone dropped something on the Metro and it slid below my seat, I would just kick it back to the person. I would try to explain that my back is screwed up and I can't bend over. But the damage was done. It's really not polite to kick something at a person after they drop it. Especially when you're as uncoordinated as I am, and the item would likely get kicked past them, or somewhere within a 3-foot radius of their location. Precision is not one of my talents. It sucks when it's painful to be polite. It was not completely debilitating. I could still go to work, I just had to get up from my desk and walk every couple of hours so I didn't get sore.

One day, after a long day at work, I came home to find that a delivery person had slid a menu underneath the doorway of every apartment in my hallway. What the hell kind of masochist would do something like that? That's just great. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get this off the floor? I am going to have a pizza menu on my floor for all of eternity. What was that delivery person thinking? It was as if someone had vandalized my apartment and I had to figure out how to fix it. Cruel, cruel delivery driver.

The pizza menu stayed on my floor for a couple of days. I finally went through the process of getting x-rays and an MRI on my spine to determine what was causing the pain and that's when I learned of the spinal stenosis. The orthopaedic surgeon showed me the MRI results and pointed to a white line leading from my spine to my right leg. "Do you see the white lines? Those are nerves. Now look on your left side. Do you see how that nerve just stops?" It was creepy to see what's going on inside my body, but it answered a lot of questions. The herniated disc was bulging right into the nerves and cutting them off. Along with the back pain being on my left side, I also had been feeling like my foot was asleep. I often untied my shoelaces and loosened them because my foot hurt, and I thought I had just pulled the laces too tight and cut off my circulation. It turns out that it was not a circulation problem, but my nerves were affected by the back problems. At times it feels like I am walking on something underneath my toes. I must have taken my shoes off and straightened my sock a dozen times because I thought it was my sock bunching up below my toes. But my socks were never bunched. I was feeling something that was not there. I guess that is how the jumbled nerves manifested themselves. It felt very uncomfortable, but not painful like the back pain. The back pain was the worst.

One thing that was very hard for me when dealing with back pain, was that it was all internal. I didn't have a cast on my leg or a brace around my neck that clued people in on my delicate state. If someone didn't know me, they would think I'm an able-bodied young woman in my twenties. Looks can be deceiving. What looks like a 25-year old body on the outside, feels to me like it's 75-years old. I take public transportation everywhere and I struggle with finding a seat during rush hours. I have started waiting until later and taking the train when it is not as packed. When I get to work, I now take the elevator to the second floor instead of the stairs. It makes me very self conscious because I'm sure it just appears to other people as if I'm lazy. Some friends have recommended carrying a cane or wearing a neck brace, just to make it easier to find a seat on the Metro and on the bus. I can't bring myself to ask someone to give up their seat. How do I know they are not suffering from some internal injury as well? Who am I to pick and choose who should give up their seat for my ailing back? I never do. I just suck it up and go on and it seems to get a little better every day. If I have learned one thing from this experience, it is that you can't always tell when someone who comes across as rude or lazy is actually just dealing with pain in the best way that they can. If I have learned two things, it is that bending is awesome and is not to be taken for granted.


itsjustme said...

I really loved this post. Its so endearing to hear someone else's story of how back pain can effect your whole life. I just thought you might like to know that I bought an adjustable bed and over the course of about a month, my back pain deteriorated dramatically. I am so much happier now.

policomic said...

This is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing--not that that makes your back hurt any less.