The Ups and Downs of Chronic Pain

I always heard people complain about physical therapy, and now I know why. They expect your life to revolve around it. You want me to do 15 minutes of exercises three times a day AND go for a 10-minute jog? Get real.

But for me, who is so, so sick of living in pain and so, so motivated to not live in pain, I follow orders. Most of them. I’m not jogging 10 minutes a day, every day. I’m just not. Every time Ryan tells me to do it, I add, “pending weather.”

But I’ve got to say, I am crushing my exercises. Every week they get easier and every week Ryan adds on more difficult exercises. At first, it’s a lot of stretching; now, it’s a lot of strength.

Besides my neck and back, Ryan has inadvertently helped with my shoulder issue as well. In high school, I have this thing where my left shoulder won’t dislocate, but the doctors describe it to me as “the discs sliding.” It feels like my shoulder is coming out of my socket. It’s miserable, and it usually only happens while playing basketball because of the motion on defense of bringing my hand down onto the ball and the person on offense lifting the ball up.

Ever since then, I’m gun shy with any type of shoulder movement that might lead to my “discs sliding.” This prevents me from doing certain poses in yoga because I can’t lift my arms behind my head. In half moon pose, you stand with your feet together and clasp your hands together overhead, arms fully extended, elbows touching your ears. I think I’m doing it right, but my yoga instructor, Billy, recently notes that the only thing connected are my thumbs and fingers – my hands are spreading apart. I figure everybody’s hands do that. When I try to clasp them tighter, I can’t. Billy tells me to clasp them first, then extend my arms. When I try this, my elbows are completely bent. I can’t straighten them.

This is a defeating moment. I hate not being able to do something, especially when I think I’ve been doing it right all these years! Billy tells me that the most important thing is that my hands are together – not that my arms are straight. So I just have to do the best I can.

Well this sucks. I go back to physical therapy and Ryan shows me a new exercise. He uses the TRX straps and holds them in his hands facing away from the wall. He slowly walks away from the wall and the straps go up, lifting his arms to a position that I do not like. I immediately tell him, “My arms don’t do that.” As with everything, Ryan gives me no reaction. He just says, “Can’t?”

I grab the TRX bands and hold my breath as I walk away from the wall. Everything in my head is screaming to stop this motion, but Ryan here thinks it’s safe, so I guess I’m trusting him. I hate this exercise. But I can do it. Sort of. I don’t walk out as far as Ryan does, but by the 15th one, I can tell I’ve pushed myself further out.

He has me do another one. This time, lying on my back. I clasp my hands and straighten them, then slowly bring them all the way behind my head. The same script plays out. “I can’t do this.” Ryan ignores me and tells me to do 15.

Somehow, I do them. Breathing heavily and slowly and feeling like he doesn’t understand how DANGEROUS this is for me. But I do them. Weird. The more exercises that I do like this, the more I want to do them. The more I want to push myself further, because it makes me feel strong. I like feeling in control of my body. I like feeling like I have the power to make myself better.

So like I said, I am crushing physical therapy. I’m kind of on a high about it, until I wake up one morning in a lot of pain. I try to stay calm, and I do my exercises. All of them. And guess what? I feel BETTER. No way, how cool is that?! I just made my pain go away. If I thought I was on a high before, I’m really on a high now. I feel like I can do anything.

So I go to a pilates class in the evening. At the end of every class, the teacher tells us to roll our neck around. I never do this because I feel like I might hurt myself. But today is a new day and I’m on a high, remember? I can do anything. I roll my neck.

It’s a mistake. It doesn’t feel right. Shoot.

I go home, feeling some pain in my neck. Hopefully, it will feel better tomorrow.

It doesn’t. In fact, I wake up the next morning in so much pain I think I might cry. I lay down on the floor, on my back, and try to do one of my exercises. When I realize I can’t lift my head, I get scared. I roll to my side and push myself up. Try to breathe normally but I can feel the panic setting in.

Thank God I have an appointment to see Ryan today.

At the office, someone who works there wants me to fill out a form. It’s the same form I filled out on the first day. Sort of like a pain survey. They want to know how I’ve progressed from the first day until now.

Not the day for this, guys. You really don’t want me to fill out this form right now. I fill it out, circling whatever I have to circle to say that I’m in the most pain ever.

Finally, Ryan comes in to see me. I tell him I’m in the worst pain I’ve ever been in. I also tell him how the pain keeps moving around – started in my neck and now it’s in my back. As always, Ryan is calm as can be as he talks to me about my pain and how it works in the body. He keeps talking, talking, talking and I’m barely listening to him because I just want him to FIX ME! I do hear him say something about 48 hours. Every 48 hours something happens in our body where the nerves reset (something like that). I think I only hear this because it sounds like a promise that this extreme pain will only last for 48 hours. This must be what he’s saying. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so freaking calm about it.

After what feels like way too long of a lesson in pain, he has me lay on my stomach. When Ryan does “manual” work on me, it’s not some relieving massage. He presses on my spine. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it feels like nothing, and sometimes it hurts. Today, it hurts. He also does this thing where he presses down and it might crack. I’m trying to breathe through the pain because I hope that there will be relief on the other side, but it really does not feel good. I should probably say something, but I don’t. The last press really hurts, and does crack a little. Ryan tells me I can sit up.

I feel like sitting up isn’t really in the cards for me at this moment. But Ryan just told me to sit up, so Lindsay, sit up! It’s not hard. But I can’t move. I exhale a deep breath. “You OK?”

“Yup,” I tell him. But I am not OK. I can’t sit up! OK, Lindsay, you can do this. I exhale again. Now, I take my left hand and press down onto the table, hoping to leverage myself up. But I can’t do it. I collapse back down. Feeling like you’re paralyzed and can’t move is definitely one of the worse feelings I’ve ever experienced.

“OK, stay down.” Ryan takes my left hand – I’m still pressing it down on the table – and puts it down by my side. He takes me through a breathing exercise. “You’re going to breathe in for six counts, hold your breath for six counts, then breathe out for ten counts.” Tears are streaming down my face. I can’t catch my breath. Ryan counts, and I try to slowly breathe in. My breath is shaky. By the time he takes me through the exercise three times, I’ve caught my breath. “Better?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think you can sit up now?”

“Yes.”

I worry for a moment that I still won’t be able to sit up, but I sit up, as you do when you’re perfectly able to do something. I wipe my face. That was horrible. I’m so emotional. I’m scared and I’m in pain and I’m so pissed off that this is happening when I thought I was doing so well!

Ryan is talking again. He always makes it seem like everything that is happening to me is perfectly normal. He has me do a very simple exercise. It’s demeaning. I feel like someone just put the training wheels back on my bike after I’ve already been riding without them for a year. But at the same time, I’m happy I can even do the exercise.

We’re done for the day. Ryan has me lay down with some ice for twenty minutes. I lay in the dark room, alone, and tears start coming again. I feel so defeated. The ups and downs of this process are frustrating. I’m getting married in a month, and Stephen and I are doing a dance that involves jumps and flips. What if this pain creeps up during my wedding week?! This is not ideal.

But just like Ryan said, the immense pain only lasts for 48 hours. (It’s weird how he always knows.)

It’s only been a few months since I started going to physical therapy. I have to keep reminding myself that Ryan said it can take about a year to feel better. A whole year. I am making progress, I know I am. There will be good days and bad days. I have more of an understanding of what the pain is and that it’s not as scary now to feel the pain that I’m feeling, I have tools to make myself feel better in the moment, I have the knowledge to realize that if I can make my pain go away with an exercise, I shouldn’t immediately follow that with an intense workout, and I know that if I have a flare-up, it shouldn’t last more than 48 hours.

Slowly but surely.

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