The Emotional Impact of Physical Pain (Or why I’ve taken so long to write)

You know someone gets really social media famous, and has a good handle on their fame, when they start getting real. It’s often in the form of two photos side by side – one with perfect angles, lighting, and filter, and one untouched, no flexing, with three chins visible, and the text usually talks about the work that goes into curating a social media account, and how life isn’t actually all rainbows and “I woke up like this” tanks. I love these posts because I think that it speaks to authenticity, and is a good reminder for the rest of us mortals (especially those of us that struggle to crop our flabby upper arms out of our selfies) that social media is, by and large, a highlight reel. It’s not actually a detailed journal of our lives, but a pruned collection of our shiniest and brightest moments. I am not anywhere close to social media famous, but I thought I would start (since my 28 day hiatus) with the post where I talk about the hard stuff, the least shiny and bright.

In the last post before I started my unintentional hiatus, I aimed to be honest, but also upbeat, about my first recovery week. That week I was in considerable pain and discomfort, I had horrible bladder spasms that I couldn’t control, and all I could do was transition from my bed to the couch. The combination of pain meds and medication for my bladder spasms slowed my digestive tract down and I was constipated and bloated. (Sounds like a blast, right?) BUT, I had my mom in town, my boyfriend was working from home, I was able to sit around and recover for 9 days without being required to go anywhere except the doctor, and I had an end in sight.

Going back to school brought its own challenges – finding a way to sit on completely un-ergonomic chairs (the highest example of irony in a PT program), accepting my colleagues’, classmates’, and professors’ seeing me in a substandard state, and just dealing with school itself – 4 classes packed into 3 weeks, including labs that I needed to be up and participating in. My pain was less, likely from a combination of my urethra begrudgingly accepting shared real estate with a tube, and better pharmacological management. I’m still constipated, and sliding through 2 weeks of virtually no physical activity. I’m getting dressed every morning and staying connected to the world around me, primarily by counting down the days to Day 17 when I am supposed to get the catheter out and return to my life.

Day 17 was one of my worst days. They removed the catheter, did the imaging, found the incision to not be healed, and reinserted the catheter. I was devastated. I had been holding on to my countdown to healing like a lifeline. It was like starting all over from the beginning in terms of spasms and pain, except with even fewer emotional resources, and no leeway regarding my schedule. I was supposed to return to class after the removal, but it was all I could do to come home, take some Vicodin, and go to sleep. The best and worst thing about days 17 – 30 was that I had a very stressful and full schedule of things I needed to accomplish. I couldn’t go back to class on day 17, but I was there bright and early on day 18. My professor brought in an upholstered bench from the lobby of our building and put it at the back of the lecture hall because I couldn’t sit, but I could lay. I didn’t take any pain medication while I was in class because it made it impossible to stay awake, let alone learn. I didn’t drive for a week because the combination of the position I had to sit in and the bumpiness of the road was unbearable on my again vulnerable and inflamed pelvis. I bought a hemorrhoid seat from Amazon and brought it everywhere with me, like a security blanket. I stopped putting makeup on and trying to plan new outfits. I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, metaphorically and physically. I still couldn’t walk much farther than a quarter of a mile.

“I’m frustrated.” “I’m tired.” “I hurt.” I would respond when people asked. I would make jokes about bathroom lines and leg bags and the fact that my pee was smurf blue. When things were bad I just tried not to make eye contact and get through my day as quickly as possible. There were good things during this time too. There were visits with two long-distance friends, there was a baseball game, there was a concert. Even though these events didn’t look like I wanted them to, and required creative problem solving to get through unharmed, they were possible, and I did them, managing to find some form of lightness in an otherwise heavy time. In addition to the muscle relaxers, pain medication, probiotic, and multivitamin I took every night, I read a few pages from Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, a book gifted to me from a dear friend for my recovery. The words and advice directed to people writing for guidance, even those looking for things completely unrelated to me often gave me more relief than any medicine ever did.

Finally, I said it, just to one person, one time: “I think I might be a little depressed.”

It was easier than it could have been – people more easily understand physical ailments than emotional ones, particularly when they have a component as visible as a bag of pee on your leg. Saying those words out loud was still scary for me – scarier even than wearing a leg bag. I was scared that hearing those words would make someone think I was crazy or dramatic or weak. But there was solace in finally saying them aloud. There was strength in being self-aware and honest. It helped that I said them to the right person. “Yeah,” he replied. “With what you’re dealing with, I think that’s normal.”

I finally got the catheter out on Day 30. Rather than feel excited and hopeful as I did leading up to Day 17, I felt anxious. What if my body betrayed me again? What would it mean if I still weren’t healed? My body and I have a lot of making up to do, of the forgiving and trust building varieties. I’m not depressed anymore; I can tell by the way I view obstacles as hurdles but not road blocks. I can tell by my ability to recognize a difficult thing without being consumed or overwhelmed by it. I can tell by my ability to write about this hard hard time in my life with honesty and authenticity.

Life is, of course, all about change, and mine will be changing again soon as I move to Charleston this summer for a clinical affiliation/rotation. My surgical site is nearly healed (just 1 stitch left), but there’s some recovery still to do, both physically and mentally as previously mentioned. Going forward I expect to return to the land of sarcasm and quippiness, but this detour was one I have learned considerably from. On this detour I found 2 thoughts that kept me putting one foot in front of the other:

This is just a bad time, not a bad life. 

and

There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. – Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things

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