Chronic: Pain We Don’t See, Chapter 10

Top illustration by Tim Forkes

Normal Comes With Scars

Sunday: July 19, 2020

It has been two and half weeks since the epidural and I am still enjoying great relief. Besides providing me with a much needed break from constant pain, I have been able to return to doing strength work in my gym with greater frequency. Prior to the epidural, it usually took four days between very limited arm sessions before I felt like my arms could handle any strength work. My arm workouts might only include two exercises; pushups and front lat pull downs, but they left me feeling as if I cycled through numerous exercises and resulted in soreness in my shoulders, biceps, triceps, and forearms.

I am now able to include a half dozen or more exercises every other day to go along with my core and leg work. I am seeing improvements in my strength while being left with less post workout soreness. I am also able to do more work in the yard following a strength session without feeling a wave of throbbing nerve pain and weakness immediately after.

There are fewer weeds in the front and back yards because I am able to use my weed eater and hula hoe without either one making me feel like my arms are being ripped from their shoulders.

My mind is thinking about some projects I previously would not be considering because of the pain I know they would inflict. All of this makes me feel good about what lies ahead for me.

I am also down to my final three sessions of TMS. Next week, I go in twice and then my final session is on the 27th. I was not sure at first if I was making a wise investment, but now that TMS is concluding, I am happy I did. My head feels clearer, my thoughts are more positive, and I feel like I have the upper hand on my depression again.

However, just like pain management, I know I will need to keep up with depression management. The worst mistake I can make is thinking I am fixed or healed because depression like mine is something that never goes away. It requires remaining on top of things. Unfortunately, like pain, depression has a way of re-entering my life slowly. Over time, it subtly adds a little more weight for me to carry and it is easy to trick myself into thinking I can handle it.

Now comes the emotional part I have held off on. Actually, I have not held off on my emotions as much as I have learned to stifle them. I am just beginning to unlock the feelings I trained myself to not express for a variety of reasons, not the least of which I was raised at a time when children were taught not to express what they were feeling. Worse, in my family, we just did not talk about what anyone was experiencing.

My father was a terrific example of modeling one emotion, anger. Mom was often busy with a baby or shuttling kids here and there while making sure dad came home to a calm environment. This meant having a nice dinner prepared, a cocktail ready and waiting for him, and kids who were not adding to his stress as a physician. She was a real life Donna Reed.

If I was experiencing a problem, I never felt like I had anyone to turn to for help. I basically observed my older siblings and learned from their mistakes. If I wanted to avoid dad’s heavy hand, I either did not do the things my older siblings did that landed them in trouble or I learned how not to get caught. However, it did not make for a feeling of comfort when around my father. In fact, I have no recollection of ever feeling comfortable in his presence.

I was not demanding as a child. My lack of attention was often more comforting because it usually meant I screwed up if I received any. When you are sixth in line, there is not much you can do that others have not already done that deserved positive recognition. Older siblings of mine already shined in the classroom, excelled in athletics, played music, or had mom or dad wrapped around their finger. It was difficult to be unique enough to gain any positive attention. Consequently, no attention was my preference than negative attention.

I taught myself how to live in my own world and create my own joys, but they were usually the sort of thing no one else could relate to. My imagination would take me away to places far away from home life and allow me to entertain myself for hours on end.

It almost always involved sports in some form. I would go out to the back yard and play the part of two opposing pitchers and pitch both sides of a nine inning baseball game; just me, a ball, and our retaining wall. Bob Gibson vs. Juan Marichal was a favorite match up of mine.

A basketball and a predetermined amount of shots per quarter would allow me to play the parts of both sides of an NBA basketball game or NCAA tournament game.

There was also a lot of time spent kicking a ball. I loved soccer and it was the one sport no one in my family played and I excelled at it. However, my father did not understand the game or show the least bit of interest in it so he never saw me play. He was not there when my team in sixth grade won the local sports league’s first ever soccer championship. He did not see me captain a team in eighth grade when we hosted a visiting squad from Guadalajara, Mexico even though I was featured on the front page of the Contra Costa Times newspaper and we hosted one of the team’s players.

He never made it to any of my high school games, but always managed to serve as the team doctor for my high school’s football program. By then, I no longer hoped to see him in the stands because I already knew he would not be there. I also knew he would ask me about the game and then let me know why he could not make it. I do not know who he thought he was fooling, but it sure was not me.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was a kicker on the varsity football team. As the team’s physician, my dad would see me, but he never made mention of the games. I was just a kicker. Not only that, I was the school’s first ever soccer style kicker, or in those days, a sidewinder. My older brother Chuck had previously been the starting quarterback and team captain, things to be proud of and brag about when meeting your friends at the weekly Rotary Club luncheon.

In those days, football and soccer seasons were played at the same time of year. While I was kicking on the football team, I was also playing on the varsity soccer team. On Fridays, I played a soccer match when school let out and then had to hustle to get dressed into my football uniform for that night’s football game. During the rest of the week, after soccer practice let out, I hurried over with just my helmet to catch the last half of football practice. I would fill in on the scout team, participate on special teams, and then run wind sprints with the entire team at the end of practice. I was exhausted at the end of both seasons.

That year, at the fall sports banquet, I was given a special Block A for my letterman’s jacket. The coaches announced how I lettered in both soccer and football simultaneously and it was something no one had done before at the school. I had no idea I was receiving it. No one from my family was there to see me get the honor. In the past, my father made sure to be there for each of my brother’s award banquets. Now that he was in college, my dad no longer attended mine.

I never bothered showing anyone the letter for my letterman’s jacket because I knew there was never going to be one to wear. My dad made it clear when my brother Chuck talked him into purchasing one for him only to blow a gasket when it was stolen shortly after. I was the little kid who could not be trusted to hold onto a dollar bill and walk to town to buy something by myself.

There was no way I was going to be allowed to have a letterman’s jacket if my older, smarter, and more responsible brother could not keep his from being stolen. My dad made himself heard loud and clear which was his way of keeping anyone else from wanting to convince him to change his mind.

By the time I was in high school, I already mastered the art of withholding my emotions and preferring life without the idea of my father being present in it. It was easier, less stressful, and from my perspective, the way he wanted it. I already felt he had low expectations of me, unlike he had with his three oldest sons, so for him, the less involved he was in my life, the less likely he was to feel disappointed in the one son who struggled early in school. He never talked to me about going to college because I felt he did not see me as college material.

So here I am, 62 years old, and I have logically made sense of all of this, but from an emotional standpoint, I have yet to process my feelings. My therapist says if I am ever going to learn to express my emotions on any level, I need to dig up the trauma of my past and experience what I learned to bury as a child. Until I do, the anxiousness I carry will remain and the path forward as an emotionally healthy person will remain blocked and filled with detours. At my age, I am tired of these obstacles. Removing them is long overdue. No matter how difficult or uncomfortable it is, I am determined to do so.

With a clear head and body out of pain, now is the perfect time.

Thursday: July 23, 2020

All good things must come to an end and in my case this means a return of my nerve pain in my arms. The past three days have seen me tackle a project in the front yard. Before my epidural, there is no way I would have done this job, but because I have been feeling so good, I decided to take on a task I have been thinking about. I built a series of raised beds that terrace downward along our front walkway.

The job entailed raking and removing bark, leveling soil, hauling lumber and sacks of soil, transferring dirt from the backyard, and removing gravel. The work is exactly the type of stuff I enjoy doing, but have had to give up because of my pain and fatigue. It required the better part of three days’ work and after yesterday and today, I was in need of medication for the throbbing nerve pain in my shoulders, elbows, and hands.

I am hopeful now that the job is finished, my pain will leave. Yesterday, my medicine did a great job of knocking out my pain. However, so far, today, the pain is persisting. If not, at least I received nearly three weeks of relief from the epidural which is more than I was expecting this time around.

It is very peaceful for me to work on a project like the one I just completed. I am learning to take things slow and make sure I do a quality job rather than rush through in fear of oncoming pain.

Working my brain and my body has allowed me to feel less angry than I was last week. I am also not climbing the walls which I normally am by this time of the week.

Still, the level of discomfort I am feeling today is easily double what I felt yesterday. If the pain is returning, I need to do all I can to knock it out again. I meet next week with my pain specialist to see if another round of epidurals is required. All I know, having been without this pain for 24 days has been enough to remind me just how bad it is now that it has returned.

Also, my final TMS session is next Monday. I will meet with the doctor in mid-August to discuss whether or not he wants to taper me off my antidepressant. My head is in a much better place and I feel more hopeful I can tackle the challenges of my chronic pain without it getting the best of my mindset.

I am constantly learning and adjusting. The last three days have taught me how nice it is to wake up and have something I enjoy doing to look forward to. However, it has also taught me I still need to practice moderation. I may have to accept a happy compromise and enjoy doing less than I did before my pain got the best of me while also enjoying doing more than when controlled by my pain. Time will tell.

Sunday: July 26, 2020

I am slipping fast in the pain department. This last week has provided me with more than a glimpse of what I love about life when not riddled with pain, but has ended with me in full flareup mode. Yesterday, after a morning run, I mowed and trimmed the lawns as usual. Then I completed a simple and non-taxing sprinkler job that had me extend a line four feet. There was no heavy work involved because the line was above ground. There was no digging involved and everything was easily accessible.

When my work was done, I was quickly done in. My tank was back to being empty and I lacked the energy to just sit and do a crossword puzzle. Lunch and two drinks infused with caffeine and B-12 did not improve how I felt plus the pain that set up in my arms let me know my days of pain free life were crashing to a halt. All I could do was hit the medicine cabinet and then take a nap and it was just noon.

One benefit of having three weeks without pain is when it returns, my Vicodin works much better than when I have to take it around the clock. By three in the afternoon, I felt much better and I was able to enjoy a nice date night in the backyard with my wife.

This morning, my left shoulder woke me up before four. It took a while for it to loosen up, but when it did, I was already feeling nerve pain in my elbows. I headed out to the gym with my workout all planned, but for the first time since my epidural, I questioned whether or not I was up to the task of completing it. It turned out I wasn’t.

I modified my plan and eliminated my leg work. I also rolled out my shoulder before testing it with some light work. When I finished, I was pleased with the one hour session, one-third of which was spent just working out the stiffness I also felt from the previous days of yard work.

Next, there was a quick trip to the hardware store and another simple sprinkler extension. I then transplanted two agapanthus next to the sprinklers. When I finished, I took my dog for a short twenty minute walk before testing the sprinklers to make sure they worked. All was well and I cleaned up my mess and was finished by 9:30. I still had the entire day ahead to do whatever I wanted.

Unfortunately, I was totally gassed, worse than yesterday. In the shower, the pain became so intense it was all I could do to rinse off without curling up in a ball of pain. Exhaustion and nerves firing a mixture of signals, some throbbing, some burning, and others making me feel like my limbs were being ripped from my body. Through all of this, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. At 12:30, I was deep asleep in my recliner where I remained for two hours until a wave of pain in my arms reminded me I had not taken any pain medication.

Now I am rested and waiting for my drugs to kick in and relieve me of my pain. I know when they do, I most likely will not feel like eating any dinner. I will also feel drowsy which will mean I won’t feel like doing much more than watching some TV.

This week, I have six medical appointments. Tomorrow is my final TMS session and then it is off to see my primary doctor for a checkup. I also have appointments with my therapist, chiropractor, dentist, and the pain clinic. The co-pays add up despite the fact I have a good insurance plan which makes me want to work so I can get back to earning enough money to pay off my medical care without having to dip into my savings.

Less work equates to less pain, but it also brings boredom and anxiety from being stuck at home while my wife works. I keep telling myself somewhere there has to be a balance that will allow me the benefits of being part of the working world without it resulting in a life of pain. My epidural earlier this month taught me I am still filled with much to offer and when I am not in pain, I am not just a happier person, I am more productive and still desiring of enjoying a working retirement . However, when I am lit up like I am today, I can’t help but question how much of this shit I can take because this is not a life I would wish for anyone.