Part 2: So, How Did You Hurt Your Back?

May 12, 2009 § 6 Comments

Since 1999, I suspect I’ve had to tell my “Back History” to a minimum of 17 different doctors,nurses,therapists,pharmacists who thought I was a drug seeker,brace makers,employers and reproductive endocrinologists.  I wish I could tell you that I survived a flaming car wreck whilst chasing down the perpetrator of various crimes against dogs, dragging my singed and broken body up a ragged, unforgiving incline, surviving on 8 tic tacs and a warm Diet Coke until rescued by handsome and compassionate paramedics, but that would be an exaggeration.

In truth, I slipped on the sidewalk outside my house.  Back in ’99, Chicago had herself a mammoth snow storm.  Not really a blizzard, just a steady, never ending snow that started New Year’s Day and ended some thirty six hours later with 23 inches of snow on the ground.  I remember opening the door to let our beloved dog Marge out to pee and the snow was packed up two feet high, OVER HER HEAD.  She looked at me, looked at the snow, and peed in the back hall.  Chicago returned to work a couple days later, and while the sidewalks were somewhat cleared, they were also crusted with a densely packed snow/ice frosting that looked safer than it was.  

The spine is a 13 year old brat.  Everything that happens to it is considered a personal trauma.  Nobody treats their spine with the reverence that the spine thinks it deserves.  Everyone supposes their spine can handle more than it can, some people even speculating that the rash of back injuries and pains in the world is as a result of TOO rapid evolution, and the unnatural pose of standing upright.   And sometimes, the tiniest thing becomes the micro trauma that broke the executive assistant’s back.  My right foot slipped forward and out and I lost my balance.  Instead of letting myself fall on my butt and maybe have a butt/back ache for two days, I decided to catch myself in a dramatic, wide legged lunge and jerk myself upward, back to a standing position.  Did my discs ‘herniate’ at that moment?  Did my vertebrae pinch against my sciatic nerve right then?  I don’t know…but I know that the next day I couldn’t stand upright.  I literally felt like if I stood up, my back would snap and I would crumble to the floor.  I took a cab to the hospital that was four blocks away and was given my first MRI that gave me my first vague news: herniated discs and inflammation, and hey, did you know you have scoliosis?

So that was 1999.  I was young spring chicken back then.  I remember that I could fit into a size MEDIUM top at Rampage.  I was only 27.  They sent me home, doped to the gills, told me to rest and that was that.  I got upright in a few days and didn’t have another flare up for a month or so.  When I was once again immobile, I called my doctor who called in a prescription for a muscle relaxant and vicodin, to be  taken together, I assume as a form of COMPLETE ANESTHESIA FOR NO LESS THAN 18 HOURS.  I took the medication as directed for about three days, felt better, and went back to work.  The bottle of 90 Vicodin sat in my medicine cabinet, nearly untouched for almost a year and a half.  

Then I took Ami to go see Rammstein.  The tales of my attendance to Rammstein concerts and their aftershow activities are significant enough for a post or ten of their own, but let’s just say that the music is loud and fast and grinding and the lightshow is seizure inducing and dangerous, and when you leave, you pretty much feel like you could rip a 100 year old oak tree out of the ground.  My husband was out of town for some reason, and after dropping Ami off at home, I was still bouncing off the walls, anxious to build a coliseum or perfect cold fusion or write.  I wanted to write.

But I also needed to calm down.  I needed to be able to sleep at some point, so I took two vicodin instead of my usual one, and from that point on, the chase began.  Within an hour I felt like my life was nothing short of perfect.  I was energetic, pain free, optimistic, creative, focused, clearheaded.  I took a hot bath, picked out some CDs and sat down at the computer to write.  Nearly five hours later I had written the best 23 pages of fiction I had ever created and it came to me as easily as breathing.  I had no notice of the time.  I was lost in creativity.

Talk to any addict and they’ll tell you that their story spiraled out of control from a desire to relive that first moment they experienced their own euphoria.  All they want to do is get that back.  But soon that fades, and all they want is to get back the feeling of NORMAL.  You’re no longer chasing a high, you’re chasing “getting through the work day” or “taking care of my kid on a saturday afternoon”.  Vicodin is a cruel mistress.  Your body builds a tolerance in a flash, wanting more and more and more, even manufacturing pain to get you to take more.  So, you say, “you WERE taking it to get high, right?”

But I wasn’t.  It’s a complex knot of impulses and urges and actual physiological symptoms.  As my back deteriorated, it went from being sore once or twice a week to a little bit every day, to every day all day, to the point where I could not remember NOT being in pain.  Have you ever had someone, an unruly toddler perhaps, grab a big hunk of your skin and pinch it hard, deep, between a fist of fingers?  Imagine that on the INSIDE.  Imagine nearly complete numbness and electric-like shooting pain down your left leg from the moment you wake up to the minute you go to sleep.  I took my painkillers in all of their various forms, with a hope of escaping that agony, if only for a few hours.  If only I could have a full work day of clarity and focus and laughing and motivation.  I took the pills because when I did I didn’t have to think about my back.  I could sit through a movie in the theatre, I could enjoy a day at the zoo with my daughter, I could celebrate Christmas morning.  The euphoria, so fleeting and brief, sometimes only half an hour or so…was just a bonus, but one that I cherished, and felt I deserved in a lifetime, nearly a decade of pain.

When I got out of detox, I prepared myself for back surgery, something my doctors had put off for years, hoping my back would fix itself.  I still am a bit bitter and just a touch amused at their attitude of pouring hundreds, thousands of pills down my throat for years as a way to treat the problem, but when it becomes apparent that I am dependent on said pills, they quickly snatch them away and expedite the surgery (a surgery I had asked for three times before).  I am now almost entirely pain free (physically), although I am still dealing with the aftermath of addiction.

If I could offer one bit of honest, unfortunate advice to all those folks out there who may be currently chasing some high, some buzz, some euphoria that they felt weeks, months or even years ago; it’s that you’ll never get it back.  You’ll never feel it again.  The first innocent high is a one time deal, like your free sample of crack.  And the other brutal honesty is that you will not feel it after you’re clean either.  You will not feel ‘high on life’, or at least not in the way I expected I would.  But what you will feel is like a weight has been lifted.  There’s nothing left to hide, there is no rollercoaster from day to day, no wondering where your next pill/hit/prescription/ounce/drink is coming from.  You can just live.  You can just get up in the morning with a clear, clean head.  You can enjoy what you’re meant to treasure, focus on what’s meant to be center stage, achieve what previously seemed impossible.

I’m still very much a work in progress, still struggling with depression, with a loss of creative passion.  But I’m also a better mother to my beautiful young daughter, a better wife to my incredibly dedicated husband, a better employee, a better daughter, sister and friend.  I pray that the rest will come in time.

lilacs

Part 1: Sometimes We Bring Heartache Upon Ourselves

May 7, 2009 § 10 Comments

There’s a phone message taped to my bedroom mirror.  It’s one of those pink “While You Were Out” message sheets that no one ever fills in correctly or completely.  It’s dated 5/8/09, 10:50 am.

From:  Your Husband

Message:  Everything is Fine.  I Love You.  Your mom will be in on Friday

It’s a little time capsule that I look at each morning as I prepare for work, each night as I go to bed, each time I pass by.  Just having it catch my eye reminds me of how the nurse handed me the message when I walked by the front desk.  She was an angel, that nurse, with her warm smile and her motherly hugs.  She told me that she’d seen my daughter earlier in the day when my husband had dropped off my suitcase and she thought she was beautiful.  I nodded and forced a smile, unable to talk about the daughter I was locked away from and she said, “Don’t cry.  You don’t have to cry.”

I was at a point in my detox when any kind word, gentle touch, emotional connection at all was met with a total breakdown.  Less than 24 hours in to my rehabilitation I was desperate to go home.  I’d been broken down in every way, forced to admit that I’d let myself lose control of my own life, escorted to a room with one bed, mustard colored walls, a barred window and a duffel bag full of clothes.  I had to give up my phone, my iPod, any connection to anyone outside the hospital, and the physical pain of withdrawal only made my loneliness worse.

I wanted to hold my daughter.  I wanted to pet my dog.  I wanted to fall asleep in my bed with my arms around my husband who’d been there for me through these worst of times.  I wanted to soak in my bathtub, listen to music, watch the Simpsons to help me forget.  I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t suffer through this rehabilitation in some sort of comfort.

Ironically, I’d checked myself into this particular facility voluntarily.  I had grown too tired.  I had spent too many hours on the phone waiting for refills, explaining to doctors why I’d gone through 180 percoset in 15 days, making appointments, getting referrals, waiting for nurses to return my calls.  I’d climbed far too high on the ladder of tolerance.  My back pain, which was unrelenting and vicious had become all but background noise, as I was now taking pills just to be normal.  There was no “high”, as I’m sure anyone I know can attest to.  I was in a pit of depression, exhaustion, anxiety and pain, wondering when I could take my next pill so that I could perhaps feel like I used to feel ten years ago, if only for an hour or so.  I never left the house without my pill bottle and if I forgot, I’d drop everything to go get it.  

In a short four years, I’d gone from taking 2-4 Vicodin a day (a habit that I managed pretty well, and without any craving for more) to taking 6-8 Lortab or Norco a day, and then Oxycontin, a whole different nightmare that signaled the beginning of the end.  When I no longer could manage my Oxycontin I was taking close to 400 mgs a day, as opposed to the 40 mgs I was prescribed only six months before.  Eventually I was wearing a Fentanyl patch, the grand daddy of them all.  But even this wasn’t enough, and I took Norco on TOP of it, which my doctor prescribed for breakthrough pain.

I was wearing my last pain patch on the day I called the hospital.  I remember I was sitting down by the Chicago river on Wacker drive.  It was a hideous day (May 6th), a sort of spitting rain and cold that perfectly illustrated my state of mind.  I was on my lunch hour, and when I went back to work, I simply told my boss that I was going to detox and I didn’t know when I’d be back.

The evaluation at the hospital was long and gutwrenching, a detailed history of my back pain and the prescriptions that came with it.  I was in the office for two hours before the rehab supervisor told me I could talk with Dr. B.  It was his decision as to whether or not I would be admitted.  I had finally cried myself into a sort of numbness (I thought) and all I wanted was to rest.  

Dr. B strode in wearing his crisp white doctors coat, and only asked me two or three questions before saying,

“I think we can help you.”

I started to tear up again and he said the one thing I’ll always remember no matter how many times I’ve wanted to strangle him since.

“You don’t have to cry.  You’re not a bad mother.  You’re still a good person.”

Well of course I was.  No one ever plans to become dependent on pain medication.  No one ever plans to leave their infant daughter for five days while she sorts out her life.  No one ever plans to slip on the ice outside their apartment, herniating three discs.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last ten years it’s that sometimes we bring heartache upon ourselves.

 

morning

 

Tomorrow Part 2: So, How Did This Happen?

A Year Long Mountain Climb

May 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Hey all.  Would you like to hear a story?  We’ll you’re gonna.  This coming Thursday, May 7th is a big anniversary for me.  It represents so many things that changed in my life, doors closing, windows opening, ears popping from the change in air pressure from closing and opening doors…and in recognition of this anniversary I’d like to tell you “My Tale” over the next couple of days. 

My family and close friends know most of the details, and when asked about my struggle with pain, depression and painkiller addiction, I’m all too happy to talk about it, but I’ve never really summed it all up in a way that may be helpful to others or at the very least an interesting time waster while you’re waiting to leave work. You know, those last twenty minutes of work when you don’t really want to start anything new, but you can’t really wrap things up because you’ll look like a clock watcher?  That sort of thing.

So, in short, stay tuned.  I’ll try to keep it funny, keep it upbeat and keep it brief.  But I mean,come on…it took almost 10 years.

now Im high on macro photography!

now I'm high on macro photography!

I’m expecting a dollar from the imagination fairy

July 3, 2008 § 6 Comments

This week I started therapy to get my brain in shape.  In two weeks I’ll start physical therapy to try and get my back, legs, hips, stomach, arms and neck in shape.  No need to work on the small distance between neck and shoulder, that’s in the top 1 percentile.

Two minutes into my first session, my counselor had me pegged as a catastrophizing major depressive.  Now I’ve been insulted before, on a number of occasions.  A man at Soldier Field called me the C-word AND he said I was fat, but really, CATASTROPHIZING MAJOR DEPRESSIVE?  You take that back.  With his notebook propped on his knee he asked me why I thought I’d started catastrophizing things (don’t know).  He asked me what exactly trigged my depression (don’t know).  He asked me what started my chronic pain (ice) and finally, what started my dependence and addiction to pain medication (well, ice and Microsoft Word, I guess).

The first time I was prescribed Vicodin, I had slipped on the ice outside our apartment, and rather than let myself fall to the ground, I caught myself and jerked my spine back up into a standing position.  I can replay that moment like a FILMSTRIP, hoping, praying, that this time I’ll just fall down and spare myself the nightmare years that followed.  After taking two days off of work, unable to walk, my doctor called in a prescription for muscle relaxants and vicodin.  I took one of each and fell into a peaceful sleep, so happy to have some relief.  After two or three days, I began to feel better, and the pills sat untouched in my medicine chest for months.  But as we all know now, that was not the end of my back problems nor the end of my prescriptions.

The difference was that the next time I needed my vicodin I wasn’t tired.  I was wide awake and hurting.  And what happened was that I experienced the greatest night of writing that I ever had or ever will encounter in my life.  I sat, painfree, at my computer and my mind filled and spilled over with ideas; poetic phrases, literary allusions, plots and symbols, people, places and things.  My depression was non-existent, pushed far away somewhere, and after weeks and weeks of coming home from work, barely speaking and then going to bed, I found I had more energy than I could ever imagine.  But it wasn’t a wild, manic, racing energy.  I was peaceful, content, optimistic, brimming with creative energy.  Potential.  For the first time in a while I wasn’t thinking about my back, or how I could have cancer and not know it, or my infertility.  I was just writing.

Twenty three pages later I realized it was three o’clock in the morning and, smiling ear to ear at my accomplishment, I went to bed.  

As time went on my back got worse and my depression persisted – feeding on 9/11, infertility, losing my job, weight gain and constant, unrelenting pain. I turned noticeably pessimistic, my sister’s depression had come and gone, treated and released, while mine grew unchecked.  But my Vicodin put me at ease.  With two pills I could feel my favorite sensations: relief,peace,contentment,creativity.

I’ve never understood people who get “high” on painkillers, and I’ve been on ALL of them.  I’ve also been drunk.  I know the tipsy, giggly, loud, uninhibited behavior, the freedom, the invincibility.  I know what it is to be “loopy”.  To be “flying”.  I never felt that with Vicodin.  It was quite the opposite.  I was focused, ambitious and determined.  I felt the “passion” for art that I’d had when I was younger and that I’d lost track of somewhere late in the nineties.

Soon I realized that I was taking this medication every day and I was afraid of being without it.  Not only because I couldn’t even sit in a chair without wincing, but because I had fully convinced myself that I couldn’t write or scrapbook or devise a catering business or teach myself German without it.

My therapist nodded as I told him all these things, things that I hadn’t told other doctors for fear of being labeled a ‘drug seeker’.  He told me that it made perfect sense.  One of the functions of painkillers is to act as a sort of antidepressant, a mood elevator of sorts, and that some doctors even use them as such, depending on the kind of depression the patient was suffering.  While this cleared up a lot of questions for me, I felt a tremendous sadness, knowing that way back then I had essentially found the antidepressant that best worked for me, but I’d ended up abusing it as my tolerance grew and now it’s gone.

A few months ago I told my aunt that I was afraid of being without painkillers not only because of the pain, but because I was afraid I’d never feel that passion and creativity again. I would, in essence, lose my imagination.  And whether it’s self fulfilling prophecy or not, it’s true.  I have no desire to write anymore and I don’t make time for it.  I have no desire to return to pottery, to paint, to act, to scrapbook, to cook.  I don’t want to throw parties.  I no longer walk the streets pretending that my life is being filmed.  I no longer pretend to be interviewed by Stone Phillips when I walk the dog. I no longer converse out loud with my characters while I drive alone in the car.  When I go to bed, I fall asleep, exhausted, rather than lie awake imagining what my dream bathroom would look like or planning an imaginary trip to Europe.

Sure enough, I have no imagination.

I don’t try to invent better ice cream containers or write letters to the editor.  I don’t make greeting cards or develop new recipes to send to Better Homes and Gardens.

And it’s time to realize that these things may never return.  I may never get that creative contentment back.  This is what I must come to terms with. Perhaps, like baby teeth, we are only granted our imaginations for a while, to steer us forward as we grow.  In the end, normal is to find satisfaction in your job, in your family, in reading a good book instead of day dreaming that you wrote it.  Normal is not talking to yourself in the car, or pretending your three speed bike is a prize racehorse as you coast down the “big hill” in your subdivision.

But I am not UNhappy.  I smile uncontrollably at my daughter; I feel safe and content in the arms of my husband.  My dog makes me laugh EVERY day. I have fun on vacation.  I sleep well.  My leg isn’t tingling with pain all the time.  I no longer have to worry about running out of pills, or getting my refill, or ruining my liver.

Through therapy I will train myself to believe that this is enough.  If euphoria can only be achieved chemically, then I suppose we were never meant to have it at all.

Longing For Nerddom

April 22, 2008 § 4 Comments

When I was a tween, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around the cold reality that I was, in fact, Western New York’s most hopeless nerd. I was always about 20 minutes behind the times, a lover of Garfield and wearer of clear acrylic glasses that would have made Harry Caray say “dial it back, sister”.

I carried a book with me everywhere. As soon as I sat down on the school bus I opened it, as soon as I got in the car, in the tub, on the toilet, as soon as I was finished opening NEW books for Christmas, as soon as I sat down to lunch, as soon as I washed off the blueberry pie that Jeanette Martin smashed in my face in front of the whole Home Ec class. I was probably the only child in the world whose mother scolded me for reading TOO much, ignoring people at family functions in favor of The Pistachio Prescription. My mother took great pleasure in selecting my outfits for school until I was FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. She begged me to wear blush or a little mascara…anything, lovingly slapping my face and pinching my cheeks to get a little color in the skin, perhaps to offset the blazing silver braces. I listened to WEZO, Rochester’s Easy Listening, Light Favorites from Yesterday and Today station because it ‘calmed me’, as if I were some sort of fast living day trader, riding the ragged edge of the fast lane rather than a twelve year old running down to the basement to check the progress of my rock tumbler every day.

So when I woke up one day and realized that people were making fun of me, that I wasn’t “cool”, that I had three friends total and I was never invited to parties or asked out on dates, it was like a punch in the gut. Because I genuinely believed what my family had always told me; that I was funny, and beautiful, and smart, and creative, and compassionate and just gosh darn it, the greatest thing on two feet. I was a great daughter, grandma’s favorite, the life of the party and so stuffed with potential that it was just assumed that I’d probably singlehandedly save the world by writing a funny poem, making meatloaf and diffusing Middle East tensions with a well placed joke.

I lived that way for a long time. Being around family and the eventual large circle of friends that I fostered was like having group therapy, daily affirmations and huge hugs all at once. I was sought out for advice, I cheered the lonely, made pie for the sick, I received compliments on my body, my acting, my sense of humor, my cooking, I felt great.

As of late, I don’t feel great. It’s as if once again I’m that twelve year old coming to a startling conclusion. I’ve felt the weight of the world on my back for months, a weak and stumbling Atlas, afraid of letting everyone down, determined to remain silently strong. Last night I begged Brian to tell me something good about me. Tell me something you admire. He laughed at the desperate tone of my request, and I mostly said it to make him laugh, because that’s one thing I’m good at.

But as of late, it feels like that’s it. Whenever I talk to friends or family it’s because they want to tell me what I’m doing wrong, how I’ve failed, how I can improve, what’s wrong. I drink too much Diet Coke. Dangerous amounts. I sleep too much, I weigh too much, I’m antisocial. I eat junk. I ‘identify’ with being depressed. These things are all linked. They all go with my back pain, which I’m dealing with wrong. I take pain medication and all anyone wants to know is when I’m going to stop. When can we stop being ashamed of you? When will you stop taking the easy way out? When will you lose weight so you don’t ruin your sister’s wedding? When will you be happy again so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable? Every conversation is an intervention, every observation a criticism. I feel weak, drained. I’m tired of explaining, of begging for time or understanding. Everything that is brought to my attention is something that already consumes me from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep, exhausted.

And when I sleep, I’m not in pain, and I’m not fat, and I’m not confused, or defeated or guilty or scared or sad.

I’m afraid that I’ll never be a nerd again, never thrilled by the finished product off a latch hook rug, never inspired to start a greeting card business with Leah, never excited to go clothes shopping or to put on makeup because a fantastic eyeshadow can’t hide my double chin.

A few years ago, the Chicago Cubs had a great ad campaign, playing off the fact that they were losers, a terrible baseball team, it was public knowledge, there was no use denying it. And all they said was The Cubs: We’re Working On It.

I’d like a t-shirt. A black t-shirt with white letters, bold, simple, speaking for me because I’m tired of saying it. All I ask of anyone who sees me deteriorating is check back with me later:

I’m working on it.

little bird

February 29, 2008 § 3 Comments

I wished I was smarter
I wished I was stronger
I wished I loved jesus
The way my wife does
I wish it had been easier
Instead of any longer
I wished I could have stood where you would have been proud
But that wont happen now
That wont happen now

Theres a whole lot of singing thats never gonna be heard
Disappearing everyday without so much as a word somehow
Think I broke the wings off that little song bird
Shes never gonna fly to the top of the world right now
Top of the world

I dont have to answer any of these questions
Dont have no God to teach me no lessons
I come home in the eveing
Sit in my chair
One night they called me for supper
But I never got up
I stayed right there in my chair

Theres a whole lot of singing thats never gonna be heard
Disappearing everyday without so much as a word somehow
Think I broke the wings off that little song bird
Shes never gonna fly to the top of the world right now
Top of the world

I wished Id a known you
Wished Id a shown you
All of the things I was on the inside
Id pretend to be sleeping
When you come in in the morning
To whisper good-bye
Go to work in the rain
I dont know why
Dont know why

cause everones singing
We just wanna be heard
Disappearing everyday without so much as a word somehow
Wanna grab a hold of that little song bird
Take her for a ride to the top of the world right now

To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world
To the top of the world

Top of the World
The Dixie Chicks

Bad Brain Days

February 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

I left class early, wondering why I was taking it in the first place. Intermediate wheel throwing. I wasn’t an art student, mind you, I was a thirty five year old woman with a toddler and a husband. I worked in accounting. Pottery was my latest tangent, if you didn’t count embroidery, which you really shouldn’t, trust me. I had been taking wheel throwing classes for a year, amassing piles of useless bowls and vessels and giving them away as gifts as if I were some coveted artist, a fanciful JMC etched in the bottom to indicate a “GENUINE JESSICA MCCARTNEY”. But where was it going? I stood in the train station staring at a yawning hole in the street below. A water main had broken in the brutal January cold and within seconds the street collapsed, sucking in cars and parking meters and young trees like a growing mouth of hell. It amazed me how swift the flood water current ran, only twenty or so feet below the surface.

By the time I got home from class, my daughter, whom I prayed and wished and worked for for nearly eight years, was sound asleep.. She’ll never know that I kissed her goodnight, or stared at her tiny limbs all curled up beneath her like a frog on a lilypad. We were both growing older, and I missed a day of her life so I could play with clay. I recalled my mother telling me that the moment we’re born we begin dying. For some reason she felt like this was an appropriate and harmless little ‘factoid’ to lay on a twelve year old. My mind is a wall of graffiti, and that sentence is bold paint, a bit worn with time, not as sharp, not as harsh, but right in the middle, surrounded by other bits of wisdom. My cousin Tommy, for example, told me that if the nuclear power plant near my childhood home were ever to melt down, I would live long enough to “watch my skin melt like water”.

I left my baby’s room and changed into pajamas, anxious to read a meaningless style magazine, watch a sitcom repeat. These were surefire ways to clear my head of “serious business”. A sharp headache pulsed behind my right eye. Dehydration? Sinuses? Tumor?

“I’m not going to be awake too much longer,” I said to my husband, noting that it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

“Bad brain day?” he asked, whipping through channels while playing poker on the laptop.

Bad brain day indeed.

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