I started a 10K training program a few weeks ago that included running, weight lifting, and strength training. I was excited to be devoted to a program with an end-date (10 weeks) and a goal (getting my mile time back down). I was hoping to tone up and lose a bit of weight before heading to the beach for a Memorial Day wedding in Mexico, although those weren’t my specific goals for the training.
Lo and behold, at the end of the first week I tweaked my back doing a core workout. My sacrum bone hurt a lot. It hurt to bend over or sit down. I figured it was muscle soreness and pushed through, taking my rest days as prescribed and stretching more.
During the second week I had a very hard time doing my strength exercises. I tried incorporating more stretching — child’s pose, back bends, etc. but to no avail. I went to a movie Tuesday night and could barely get out of my chair at the end. By Wednesday I couldn’t bend over at all and I couldn’t sit comfortably. So I called a doc, who sent me to urgent care.
I have rarely if ever had such horrible pain in my life and I have never felt so helpless. It was an excruciating, terrible, miserable dull ache that would spike anytime I bent at the waist or hips or leaned over or reached out. It gave me nausea and made me sweat because it hurt so bad.
The urgent care doctor gave me generic BenGay gel, two automatic disposable heating pads, a back brace, and a prescription for muscle relaxants. The doc also told me I should look into a TENS machine on Amazon and doing the McKenzie stretches. He also gave me a referral to physical therapy, which was right next door.
None of these prescriptions alleviated the pain. The heating pads made my back sweat. The muscle relaxants just knocked me out. I got a massage that Thursday, which helped some, but made me sore in other places before anything could heal.
Everything I read and all of the advice from the doctors was to stay as active as possible, but it was hard to walk. Sometimes I’d land wrong on my foot and my entire spine would shock me in a horrible spasm of pain. Sitting in a car was awful the entire time, but getting out was worse. The only comfortable position was lying completely flat in bed, and if I moved slightly I would be reminded what a bad idea that was by the same spasm of pain coursing through my hips and spine.
I hated it.
I hated that my exercise routine was scrapped. I hated that I wouldn’t have as much of a chance of being fit for the beach.
I hated that I couldn’t go for a run or a bike ride or do any form of cardiovascular exercise to increase the dopamine and endorphins in my veins and make me feel better.
I hated that I couldn’t put my dog’s leash on, or lean down to pick up his poop, or pet him.
I hated that I couldn’t get into child’s pose, let alone do some form of stretching yoga to feel better.
I hated that I couldn’t sit through a movie without wincing. I hated that I couldn’t get in and out of a car easily.
I hated that I couldn’t reach down to pick up the toilet paper other people had carelessly left on the floor in the public restroom to throw it away and leave the place a bit tidier — a contribution I always make to women’s restrooms.
I hated that I couldn’t dry my legs after a shower or put lotion on.
I hated that if I dropped something on the floor, it was lost to me forever.
I hated that I couldn’t make the bed, unload or reload the dishwasher, water the plants, do laundry, or really do any housework.
I hated that I walked like an old man and made gasping noises anytime I moved.
I hated having to ask for help.
I hated that the doctors didn’t give me anything to alleviate the pain most of all. I hated more that I knew there wasn’t really anything that could alleviate the pain, just opioids to mask it.
I have always had sympathy for my friends with chronic pain. Most of them are women who experience endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, or other debilitating chronic pain. They’re usually told by doctors that they can’t help them, or that the pain can’t be that bad, or that it’s all in their heads. It’s infuriating. This is very normal — doctors take women’s pain less seriously, especially women of color.
But I have utter empathy for these friends now. My experience was only a minimal glimpse into what they experience every day, their entire lives. They are brave, fierce women who face their conditions every day. I don’t often see the frustration they experience, or the depression, or the resignation. I understand they must go through that, at far deeper levels than I did.
I realized I was living like a friend of mine who has undiagnosed mysterious pain that she has done everything to treat, including having her uterus removed. “I like naps,” she said with a shrug when she came to visit. We took Lyfts or Ubers to places I would normally walk and she spent many hours lying in bed with a heating pad or in an Epsom salt bath. That was my life for this week of pain. I wondered if her secret of having 16 pillows on her bed would be helpful for me, too.
The biggest difference between my pain and hers is that mine is going away. Yesterday I was able to dry my legs and put lotion on after a shower without help. I feel even better today and bent down to pat my dog on the head (slowly and gingerly, but I still found a way to do it) this morning. Everything I’ve read has said that my “lower lumbar strain” will probably heal within two weeks. And with physical therapy, I’ll have new ways of preventing it.
This past week, I’ve been meditating on what it means to be in pain, and how pain is alleviated. For me, solace came from eating ice cream and popcorn and pasta — emotional eating, which is a bad habit, but was a quick way to get any form of happy chemicals back in my brain.
I also thought often about my friends who suffer from pain. Their strength was a sort of touchstone for me to come back to, reminding me that there are ways through the pain, even if you can’t see the end of it ahead of you.
Now that I’m clearly healing, I’m thinking of ways I can help take other people’s pain more seriously, and help alleviate it somehow.
And for my friends in pain: I see you. Thank you for being strong and inspirational, even though you may not know that you are, and even though it may be extremely difficult.