Written by: Cindy Gaillard
Date: June 25, 2015
Managing one condition is straightforward. Two is challenging but when the medical conditions begin to add up, one on top of the other, managing all of them, sometimes all at once, gets tricky.
Not that you can see any of one of my medical issues up front. Nope, on the outside, I’m perfectly normal, healthy looking woman. People have commented on my freakishly high arches but that’s about it.
But on the inside, well that’s a different matter.
When I was eight years old, I was pinned underneath a garage door. The year was 1969 and garage doors at that time were heavy and when they broke, they were dangerous, if not lethal. I’m lucky I was hit in the back and not my neck. I was told that nearly twenty minutes passed before my panicked babysitter could find enough of her older brothers to lift the door off of me.
Our family doctor didn’t find anything broken. In what I realize now was a morphine induced high, I asked my mother if I could display my back at show and tell the next morning because I thought the bruise on my back – an indigo black bruise from the base of my skull on the right side to the back of my right knee – looked like the shape of Africa. She was kind and reminded me that lifting my dress up so they could see the full glory of it was probably immodest.
Throughout my life the right side of my body – the side that took the impact – has presented major issues. My persistent TMJ was finally diagnosed in my thirties as a condyle break on the right side of my jaw. In my forties I underwent both a reconstruction ankle surgery (2006) and a complete hip replacement on the right side (2008). I suffer from sacroiliac joint dysfunction in my right pelvis and piriformis syndrome along the right glute muscle and I recently found out that a major nerve responsible for digestive health, a nerve that also runs along the right side of the body, is compromised, causing idiopathic gastroparesis, a frequent paralysis of the stomach muscles.
While I cannot, with complete authority and stamp of approval from any medical professional, tell you for certain that all of my maladies stem from one pivotal accident in my youth, the evidence is compelling to suggest a clear pattern.
Every day, one or all of my conditions or old injuries need attention. Sometimes a yoga class will work out all the kinks. Sometimes I’m flat out on the couch on painkillers. What have I learned managing all these conditions? Plenty.
1. Accept that every day is different. Every day I wake up in the morning and take inventory of my body to find out what I’ll need to address that day. It can be a demoralizing exercise because something always needs attention and while I’m only 54 years old, I occasionally feel like one of those stereotypical geriatric patients who have found a raspy unmelodious tone in recounting their aches and pains. Ultimately though, recognizing the weather patterns of my body helps me create a plan of action for that day. And I have accepted that my plan of action can change day-by-day, or month-by-month depending on what part of my body needs some TLC.
2. Be your own best coach. For my body, moderate exercise is the best form of preventative medicine. With my physical therapists I’ve researched the proper cardio and strengthening exercises that are safe and give me great results. The work though is up to me. So I’ve gotten to know my emotional state over the years and when I’m whining that I’m too tired, too bored, or just plain procrastinate, I coach myself to step it up. The best trick I use is to tell myself that I don’t have to do anything but put one foot inside the door of the gym. If I get there and truly do not want to exercise, I let it go. Most times though, once I get there, I usually put in a workout. It might not be the prettiest, or the longest, workout, but that’s okay.
3. Divide and conquer. I think of all my different conditions as characters in a play. I know their quirks and their kryptonite. Heating pads for one, ice for another, propping and stretching for a third. And yes, it’s inconvenient to stop and pay attention and find out what all their needs are but if those pains are ignored they’ll take center stage and gang up on me, leaving me helpless backstage. Thinking of them as discreet injuries rather than one overall, all-encompassing injury helps me feel in control.
4. Knowledge is the best defense. I know my body. I know the names of the muscles and bones that have been injured and how they function now. Health professionals will work with you on legitimate research about your condition but be diligent and open minded, especially when doing a general search on the web. Resist the urge to self diagnose, self medicate or plan your recovery on your own without the guidance of a professional. Create a working vocabulary of your body and it’s conditions and your doctor will be more than happy to help you learn more about your conditions from reputable sources and websites. Physical therapists are also more than willing to go the extra mile in your recovery when you are a compliant, willing patient.
5. Adjust Expectations. I will never, ever, run a marathon. I will never again ride motocross motorcycles. There are yoga poses I will never master. Yes I’ve been bitter over the loss of who I could become if I were allowed to push my body to its extremes. We live in a culture that values those individuals who take on physical challenges in a very public way and I am constantly disappointed that I will never participate in any of those activities. So, I allow myself to be disappointed and then I move on. Ignoring my disappointment isn’t healthy for my mood and I’ve finally accepted that the waves of disappointment will never go away, but I can ride them out. Then I can focus on my other hobbies, like cooking or hiking, that I enjoy without pain.
6. Fail. Then start again. Fail again. Start again. Just because I won’t run a marathon doesn’t mean I don’t have goals that are appropriate for my body. Walk a 5K a month. Attend yoga classes every week. 30 minutes on the elliptical everyday. And like most folks, I make a training plan to attain those goals. Then I re-injure my SI Joint and go into healing mode instead of active mode. Or my headaches get so bad I lose a week of exercise. I constantly fail at my exercise goals. Failure stings. It makes me feel helpless. But when I’m able, when the pain allows, I get up and exercise. Then something else happens and I fail again. Then I get up and start exercising – again. It’s a constant challenge and I’ll be honest, sometimes I just don’t want to start again. The alternative though is to spiral down and let the pain dictate my life. As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I may not succeed to complete my goals in the manner I want to, but I would rather fail better than fail completely.
7. Prevent the avalanche. Not infrequently every one of my maladies act up and I will confess, it is a humbling experience. What I’ve learned is that I haven’t worked hard enough to prevent the avalanche of pain. I haven’t exercised, or eaten right or I’ve let stress get the better of me. It is imperative for me to take care of myself every single day, to stay mindful of every ache and pain so that they don’t mushroom out of control. In our culture it is difficult for us to take ‘me’ time because we feel it’s selfish. I’ve learned to look at it differently. The time I spend taking care of my body helps me be productive at my job, helps me listen to those I love who need my energy, and adds to my longevity so that I can spend my retirement years active instead of crippled. My body is like a bank account – the more I put in now, the more I reap later. And the more I pay attention to the little things, the better I can prevent the big avalanche.
8. Map your attitude. Pain is sneaky. It can ramp up from nothing to mind numbing over the course of the day before I know it. I’ve learned that my attitude is closely linked to my pain level. So I pay ultra close attention to how I’m feeling. I find that when I don’t want to socialize, or I struggle to get to work after lunch, then I need to take another inventory of my body. And I’ve also learned to honor the emotional roller-coaster that comes with multiple physical conditions. Everyone reacts differently to pain. Chronic pain can impact your sense of identity, your relationships with family, and your mental health. The anxiety of wondering if pain will ever leave, or if an absent pain will reoccur, is debilitating. When I feel an emotional spiral coming on, I remind myself that I’ve been here before – I know this place and I can navigate my way out. I have a support system both for my physical conditions and my state of mind. The important thing is to actively remember that I got better the last time I visited this landscape and there’s absolutely no reason I won’t get better again.
9. Take a vacation. A visit to my massage therapist is nirvana. I forget everything. Getting lost in a favorite activity is also a vacation – I take my camera around my Clintonville neighborhood and photograph flowers that come into bloom throughout the spring and summer (all the photographs posted with this blog are from my walks). I’ve learned that these vacations – both physical and mental – are necessary for my overall well-being. A break allows me to reassess and just let my mind clear.
10. You are not your injuries. It’s easy to fall into the trap of identifying myself through the filter of my conditions. But I am not the sum of my broken parts. I am a joyful person who practices gratitude for all of life’s gifts. I love to cook and enjoy action movies. I am blessed with a wonderful partner and many friends. The more I concentrate on the good parts of my life, the less my conditions weigh me down. I am injured, but I am also whole.