It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything for my blog. There was lots to say in 2018, but I mostly felt unable to process and form my thoughts around actual words to write through the year. My family, like all others last year, experienced both highs and lows. Our highs felt really high, and our lows felt especially low.
We dealt with some medical emergencies for one of our children, were shown an outpouring of love and support from our people, developed some new relationships, reconnected with old friends, lost some relationships, and grew together as a family.
Early into the year I began experiencing a new level of chronic pain I’d been having in my neck/back for years. Chiropractic treatment had been a staple for me for a number of years, but by spring 2018 I began feeling that it was no longer effectively helping my pain levels. The pain continued to escalate throughout the year, and began impacting my daily life. I reached the point I could no longer do the things I enjoy the most: hike, paint, play with my kids, spend time with my wife. My mind became cloudy and I felt like my body was betraying me. I got stuck in a terrible pain cycle that led to lots of anxiety and depression, but at the time I couldn’t realize how those issues were related. Like lots of men, I downplayed the pain and tried not to let on how excruciating it actually was. Call it ego, foolishness, denial- I dunno. I see how ridiculous it was now.
We took a trip out west to vacation with friends mid-summer, and upon returning, my pain levels shot up yet again. Things continued to devolve through the rest of summer, and by the end of August I was experiencing new symptoms, including constant numbness/tingling in my arms, muscle spasms and twitching throughout my body, weakness, unrelenting nerve pain, insomnia, and finally, loss of feeling in my legs. My wife, a physician herself, finally declared that it was time for me to get an MRI and find out what was going on. I was resistant, thinking somehow that everything would just resolve on its own.
I booked a white water rafting trip for us in mid-September. We had a blast and made great memories, but for someone having unexplained neck pain and neurological symptoms, crashing through white water rapids was a foolish thing to do. After that trip my pain escalated yet again, so much so that I was no longer able to drive. I was finally willing to relent to my wife’s insistence that I get an MRI.
That’s me in the front. Probably not the best activity for my neck. But an incredible day!
Around the same time, my wife and I listened to this super interesting TED Radio Hour podcast, “Getting Better.” It somehow helped validate what I was feeling, and pushed me towards finally getting some answers. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer than I did. My MRI revealed severe cervical radiculopathy, spondylosis and spinal stenosis. Basically, the nerves in my neck were obliterated by my vertebrae, due to degenerative discs, and my spinal cord was being crushed. Some of my symptoms didn’t even make sense with my diagnosis, but I’m convinced my body’s nervous system was just completely overloaded and acting erratically.
I met with a neurosurgeon the same day I had my MRI. It was clear that surgery (ACDF- Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion) was the only option available to me. My surgeon would remove what was left of the disc between C5-6, remove some of the bone spurs I’d developed, insert a bone graft which would eventually fuse the two vertebrae, and secure everything in place with a metal plate and screws. Delaying would lead to continued pain, increased weakness, and eventual paralysis. We booked my surgery for the end of October.
There were no complications with the surgery; everything went as well as it possibly could. I woke up from the surgery with muscle spasms, but could tell immediately that the pain was gone. A rush of relief and gratitude washed over me in that drug induced euphoric moment.
I’m roughly 2.5 months post surgery now, and things are so much better. I keep having to check myself through the recovery process, though. My expectations were really high, and while I have experienced drastic pain relief, I hadn’t really prepped myself for the long road of recovery. A follow-up Xray last week reveals that I’m roughly 60% fused now. My neck still feels pretty weak, and my muscles are super tight. My energy levels are still in flux. Some days I feel great and energetic, like I could conquer the world; other days I crash by 1 pm.
I’ve mostly been able to return to activities I love: a few hikes, lots of painting, activity with family. I’m continually discovering my limits. Two long days in a row of painting sent me into painful muscle spasm last night, so I’ll avoid repeating that mistake for a while. I have noticed that my anxiety and depression are gone. I feel like myself again.
I’m feeling positive about 2019. It’s off to a good start for our family. I know things can change so quickly, and that life often throws curve balls we are not expecting. There were ample lessons to be learned last year, and I hope I learned them well. Don’t ignore pain, and don’t mask it through self-medication. Your body is sending you signals that shouldn’t be ignored. Be open with your spouse/significant other about your experiences. Don’t downplay things that you know deep down aren’t right. Ask for help. Accept that help. Life isn’t meant to be lived in isolation; silent suffering isn’t good for you or for the people in your life.
Be patient with your body, and extend grace to yourself. Through this whole ordeal I’ve gained weight; I’ve lost both strength and endurance, and I’ve also come to terms with that. In the grand scheme of my life an extra 20 lbs. doesn’t amount to anything. I’ll keep trying and will eventually get back in the swing of things. In the mean time, I’ll refuse to beat myself up about any of it.
I’ve got some scars from 2018, both literal and figurative. And, hopefully, more tools in my toolbox to deal with 2019 and beyond.