At this point, I’m not sure that there are words that exist to describe how I feel. It’s a cross between pain, exhaustion, gratitude, emotional overload, uncertainty and hope. It’s a cocktail of feelings that I have been drinking up for the past two weeks.
[After reading my last blog post, it is clear, at least to me, that I was most certainly on painkillers when I wrote it. And it doesn’t get any more authentic than that.]
My life, in 2016, has been an unyielding series of events that I never, ever expected. Within a time span of six months, I have had three major surgeries, two of which were on my spine. This last one came out of left field and knocked me off my crutches into a very deep, dark hole.
On November 1, after weeks of experiencing increased pain, paralysis on my right side, and a rather startling clunking in my lower vertebrae, I went back into the OR with a medical team led by the man who is nothing short of a hero to me, Dr. David Feldman. The rods in my back replaced, bigger screws anchored into three vertebrae and my fusion extended down one more level.
When I say that the first three days of my hospital stay were a blur, I mean it. Nothing; I remember little to nothing. For whatever reason, my pain levels were so high after this surgery that I was drugged 24/7. People that I talked to on the phone – no recollection. My Florida family coming in to visit me – nope, don’t remember that either. I had no idea that Tiff came to see me and only a vague memory of Dr. Feldman coming in to check on me as I could barely keep one eye open to see him let alone hold a conversation with him. What I do remember is crying, a lot. Mom would leave in the evening, the night nurse would come in, check on me and as soon as the door closed, I knew that I had a solid two hours to cry. Apparently I chose to cry on the phone to people, too. Pleading for them to change my circumstances and take away the pain. Amidst all of the tears, I did manage to take my first steps out of bed. My determination was still there.
By day four, changes were made with my medications and I was able to gain a little bit more clarity. From there, I recall binge watching Downton Abbey, attempting to nourish my body even though I didn’t want to eat, continuing to sob on the phone to multiple friends about how lonely I felt and how much I missed my life as I once knew it, the amazing team of nurses who went above and beyond to ensure my comfort, waking up to find one of the PA’s who I have so much love and respect for, sitting in a chair at the end of my bed. Both drains in my back were pulled out – NOT FUN. My back brace and I were learning how to get along and help each other out. And yet, the pain attacks continued. One minute I was fine and the next minute I was screaming in pain, curled into the fetal position.
The thing is, I know pain. I know pain very, very well. We have been well acquainted for years. And this time, pain, she made her presence very well known. Everyone says there are lessons to these moments in life. Mine? I learned to give myself permission to succumb to feelings society defines as illness. Those deep, dark moments where you’re so far below the surface that it seems near impossible to reemerge. Yes, I went there. It seemed that I needed to. What I learned is that you can’t just wait for the light at the end of the tunnel. You have to create it. The light doesn’t have to be big, even the tiniest bit of willingness cracks open your soul to let in a little bit of light. And it is REALLY FUCKING hard. Hence why it didn’t start happening for me right away. When it did, when I said yes to conquering the pain, accepting help and admitting to life’s difficulty – the heaviness began to lift, slightly, I cracked and let a little light in.
All of the little things that were happening, that I was doing: controlling the pain, laughing, getting out of bed… they were BIG wins. HUGE actually. And they were my little rays of light.
By day five, we thought we had things under control and I was discharged. Yet, the pain medicine regimen I was on, narcotics, made it difficult to regulate my body temperature, kept me drowsy as hell causing me to slur my words, become even more hyperemotional, irritable, and my insides were screaming at me. Sleep was a stranger, as it has been for months, and I entered an emotional downward spiral, sitting in my dimly lit hole, waiting for the light to come to me. Not good. [You have my word: I could never, ever become a drug addict. EVER.]
Then last Friday (11/11), I had a meeting with a friend at the clinic. That morning, another friend and staff member from the Paley Institute texted me asking how I was doing and I was 100% honest with her – I was not ok. Word spreads like wildfire and soon after walking through the doors of the Paley Institute I was told that I needed to go down to the clinic.
After a full set of x-rays, including a full body standing EOS scan, I sat in the little room awaiting Dr. Feldman. As I sat staring at the floor, in my dark hole, I thought about how badly I wanted to tell everyone that I was better. That I was making progress. That my pain was under control. My eyes began to swell with water and amidst my loud thoughts I had failed to notice that Dr. Feldman and John, a physician assistant, had walked in.
“I need you to look at me and I need you to listen to me,” Dr. Feldman’s voice took me by surprise as he was sitting right next to me. Looking into the eyes of the man who had undoubtedly worked tirelessly to keep me on my own two feet since May, I started to cry. “You are not the woman I met back in May,” he said. And he was right. I wasn’t. Words failed me as I continued to allow the tears to fall and listen to him talk.
Here’s the thing, he was talking to me, not at me. It wasn’t a lecture, it was a loving conversation. [One that I still can’t quite wrap my head around.] After a hug, he looked me in the eyes and explained that he was concerned about and cared for my wellbeing. The tears began to fall more readily in that moment. This was my surgeon. I have seen a lot of doctors in my day and to have Dr. Feldman sitting beside me, talking to me in such a compassionate manner, it was a first. We agreed, no more narcotics. He expressed his knowledge of how shitty my year has been (fuck you 2016; namaste) and asked me if I would go talk to a therapist and I agreed. The x-rays of my spine looked wonderful and he was happy with how the surgery turned out. My tibia had healed so I was promoted to ‘weight bearing as tolerated’ status. As my advocate, he was not going to allow me to leave the state of Florida until I was back to baseline and my spine completely healed. If at that point, I needed to find a job, he would help me find one. I continued to cry.
Needing to return to the operating room downstairs, he squeezed me once more. “We’ll get there,” he said. “I believe in you.” This man, my doctor, saved my mobility and now he was continuing to fight for me?! Eternally indebted doesn’t even come close to covering how I felt and continue to feel. He walked out and I just stared, in complete disbelief, at John who was writing me scripts for sleeping meds and physical therapy among other things. Leaving my appointment, shuffling down the hallway in my back brace with my walker, I found my physical therapist, Dayle. “How’d it go?” she asked. Once again, no words, just tears. Knowing how I roll when shit gets real, she wrapped me in a hug and I did my best to recount the events of the past 12 minutes. Nodding and hugging in agreement, she was also in it with me and has been since May. My army, the team of people dead set on seeing me succeed, was pulling me out of my dark place through love and believing what they knew to be possible.
Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, I was getting visitors that evening, three of my best girls from Charleston.
Friday night, bourbon slushes, friends and laughter cracked my heart and soul open even further. The light was brighter. My pain was still there and I didn’t care, the tears in my eyes from bearing witness to their hilarity was more worthy of my attention. And there was more to their trip than what met the naked eye. My two worlds had officially collided. The life I had known for the last six months and most everything that came along with it was now familiar to people I loved, other than my parents. I didn’t realize it until after they left – it holds huge importance in my heart that they now know what continues to be my reality.
Pain has dug a huge hole in my heart. The result? My roots are deeper. Stronger. Ready for growth.
For now, my healing continues. Backed by my army, I am careful to remember that baby steps, though small, still move me forward.