Thursday, August 17, 2017

when things fall apart

Writing all of this down has been circling in my head for the last few months.  To be honest, I was waiting for the point when I would climb up out of hell, and then I could casually talk about it in the past tense through a veil of optimism & strength, oh yeah, sure, it was hard but I got through because I'd be beyond it, finally spit out the other side.  But, without being melodramatic, I'm not sure if or when that is going to happen, and spouting my overly-wordy crap in this space is one of the few coping mechanisms I have left.

It didn't start, as many injuries do, with a thunderclap.  It was more like a splinter, so small I barely noticed it. Then another piece cracked, then another, and then one day I woke up and everything had fallen apart.  It began in April.  I noticed in the pool that the back of my shoulder felt a little bit tight and that the last two fingers of my hand were going numb.  I chalked it up to the fact that 99% of my swim training for the last six months could be described as, maximum effort & still getting lapped and made a mental note to get a massage.  It came and went, barely noticeable, forgotten once I was out of the water and dragging myself home to eat, work, and then scrape into the next as hard as I can session on tap.

Later that month, I woke up one morning and couldn't turn my head to the right.  A crick in my neck, I thought, we've all done it, slept a bit weird and then spent the day popping your jaw and Advil both.  I had an appointment with someone the very next morning, he worked on my neck and shoulder and upper back, frowning and harrumph-ing and saying more than a few times, this is really quite bad.  It fixed me right up, though, I treated myself carefully the next few days as it eased off and then got straight back to it.  Anything to be great, right?  

But a week later it was there again, worse, sharp, shooting down along my spine and up into my skull, into my shoulder, through the rotator cuffs, wrapping around the ribs, wrenching me into tears should I momentarily forget and look over my shoulder to change lanes in traffic.  I started ringing the alarm bells into the village I've grown here in Colorado, talented intelligent people who have been key to letting me continue to do this crazy thing that I love for so many years now.  And that's where it all just gets a bit blurry and difficult to trace.  Everyone was able to provide relief - for a few days, and then it would come crashing right back in.  Four months later, I've seen three orthopedists, one sports medicine specialist, seven physical therapists, two massage therapists, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist.  I've taken a dictionary of medicines, I've been through a glacier of ice, heat, don't even fucking twist your mouth to ask me if I stopped training, stretchy bands, injections, strength, walking, yoga, meditation, therapy.  Nothing has changed.  Without exaggeration, I am in pain all of the time.  That's incredibly hard to type, to admit.  As athletes we are meant to be strong, stoic, tough; we silently agree to never admit to weakness or suffering or distress until it is long over, and then only in flip references to how much it absolutely sucked.  But I am not past it.  It is not over.  And it stopped being about swim bike run quite some time ago.  It became simpler than that - breathe.  Move.  Live.  Many days - just survive.

I've had two MRIs - loudest nap ever!  Both have shown something pretty seriously wrong but somewhat common to athletes of my age, which means the only thing that practitioners can really agree on is that surely it must be something else.  The sports medicine doctor (that I trust inside and out) sent me to the shoulder specialist to get scheduled for surgery, who instead immediately turfed me over to the neck specialist so they could quibble about who would stick needles in me first and where, which pretty well sums up my journey through our healthcare system.  It reminds me of a time about four years ago when cycling was causing knee pain.  The physical therapists all told me I needed a new bike fit and the bike fitters all told me I needed physical therapy and I recall venting in frustration to my friend Scott, I need a physical therapist who also is a bike fitter just so that he can't kick me out of his fucking office.  And somewhere in the beginning of all of this, a saddle-sore-turned-cyst reappeared, ruptured and needed to be surgically cleaned out.  Then a huge hematoma developed so on top of everything else, I've been frightening a completely different set of MDs about my seven-week-old purple donkey testicle that refuses to die or be swallowed back into my body and honest to God I would love it if I could go just three days in a row without someone asking me casually and without humor, how's the vag today? 

Chronic pain is different from an injury.  This isn't, my knee hurts when I run after fifteen minutes.  This is, my neck hurts when I breathe.  How to baffle all the, well if it hurts when you do that, don't do that doctors around!  It's nerve pain, I think we are nearly agreed.  It's chronic, it moves around, and if I could amputate my neck and the entire right side of my body above the waist, I would do it.  That's where I'm at.  Being in pain this long has changed me, not for the better.  All my dials are cranked up to 10.  You know that morning, the one where you oversleep and forget to eat breakfast and then drop your coffee cup on the floor in the garage where it shatters but you're late to work so you have to leave it and then someone cuts you off in traffic and instead of giving you the finger gives you the smug little wave, you know the flash of pure rage you get in that moment?  That's how I feel, all of the time.  And I may be a dramatic person but this is not drama talking, this is honesty stripped raw, any filter or fluff worn away by how plain old hard the last few months have been.  I'm angry at how I ended up here, at how no one has fixed it yet, at the people who I feel like have abandoned me along the way because they can't be troubled by a complicated problem that doesn't have a clear answer or an athlete who dares to feel pain, at the fact that I can't do something as simple as get out of bed in the middle of the night to pee without wincing.  And I don't think anyone really knows how bad it has been, other than my husband, who is destined for some sort of mega cotton-candy-naked-lady-wine-coolers-and-cocaine-bounce-house afterlife after the last five months (not to mention, seven years) of surviving our marriage together.  He knows, he feels it too, he would do anything to fix it and he might be the one person on the planet more angry than me about what has happened here; I know how hopeless he feels, every day, that he can't take away my pain.

I know I've retreated from the world, it's hard to have the energy to support the friends you love when everything is though a haze, and that is a horrible truth for someone who loves people the way I do.  Eight.  My pain is an eight.  Each new doctor, therapist, everyone I see asks the same stupid fucking question, where is your pain today?   I've spent a lot of time facedown on a lot of tables repeating the word fuck and counting to three because I can't process any more numbers than that, I've had a lot of really horrible close-to-blacking-out treatments and a lot of those things have worked.  For a day.  Maybe two or three, which is just enough time to shake myself off and believe that I'm at the end of this hell, just enough time to breathe, and then sure enough, it slams back into me and I go down.  Again.  That's even worse than whatever the fuck is going on in my body; this rollercoaster of hope and despair is what is actually going to break me down completely.  When someone asks, hey, are you okay? what they are generally hoping to hear is some version of, yup, hanging in there!  Because after a while it becomes too depressing to repeat all the time, nope, not okay, still in pain, horrible actually, I feel completely broken, my body has failed me, I'm falling apart, I can't bear it, I don't know what to do and I'm not actually sure I'm going to make it here.  The truth is awkward, it's exhausting, no one likes to be the friend that's in crisis all the time, no one wants to complain constantly, so at some point it just becomes easier to lie, or to simply not reply at all, to hide just a little bit more in the blazing nightmare that your life has become.  I know that there are people in the world dealing with chronic pain much worse and longer lasting than what I have been through and I am here to say that I honestly do not understand how they do it.  I'm not sure I could do it, I don't want to live like this, I can't, I won't.  

It would be easy to blame it all on ironman, of course everyone wants to dump it on either the distance or my own stupidity, but here's the thing.  On the inside, I work hard to do this right.  I educate myself, I do the strength training, the recovery, the sleep, mostly the nutrition (cookies have never herniated a disc or compressed a nerve bundle or torn a labrum in any research that I have read), I don't cut corners, I do the 1%, I don't do this alone, and after so many years in this sport I know that you do not get to nine finish lines if you are being a jackass about it.  I surround myself with people that I trust in order to protect myself, to protect my life in this sport that I love, to protect my own body, and while sometimes I have been really incredibly wrong about the people I have chosen to trust, this seems like a pretty harsh way to learn that lesson.  

When things fall apart, everything gets pared down.  Friendships, travel, adventure, joy, it all gets cut away.  I don't like who this has made me, this fat angry person who cries all the time and flies off the handle at nothing because my sympathetic nervous system is so beyond wrecked that I have no ability to tolerate even the smallest amount of stress.  This isn't who I want to be.  I want to be a person who rips into life full tilt, with humor, joy, gratitude, patience, the girl who bounces off to Hawaii on three days notice, who drags you up a mountain at 4am just to see the sun rise like it doesn't happen every day, who shows up with tequila when life takes a rotten dive, who is up for any adventure, who tackles fear by running straight at it, who will maybe always have five pounds to lose, the girl who works hard to love life so damn hard.  I miss it.  I miss that life, I miss movement, it's as simple as I miss my bike.  I miss my own happiness so much that it's hard to breathe if I stop and think about it for more than a moment before doggedly cracking on, calling another doctor, getting another opinion, pulling the ice pack out of the freezer with a sigh.  Which is why I had hoped that I could write about this once I came out the other side, because then I could rationally discuss the science of everything that happened and how it was solved, only show the highlights, the patience and grace that everyone talks about as a virtue of devastating injury.  But that's not where I am.  Instead, I am here.  I am broken.  I am in pain.  I am not okay.