In 2012, I was living and working as a ski instructor in Australia when I took a wrong turn on the mountain and experienced the sharpest, worst pain in my life. On a scale of 1-10, this was an instant 15, and I honestly had no idea what to do. Fortunately, however, this was an on-the-job injury in a country with much stronger worker compensation protocols, so while I lost almost two weeks of pay, I didn’t have to pay for the medical evaluations, physical therapy, or prescriptions that would have cost me more money than I earned over those three months.
It did, however, mark the beginning of a long, hard slog of chronic back, neck and shoulder pain that I’ve been dealing with ever since, not to mention the headaches. The initial recovery period however – the time it took to go from essentially unable to move a muscle to basically (if painfully) mobile and able to go back to work – was just shy of two weeks.
In the three and a half years since, I’ve found physical therapists and chiropractors on three continents, tried everything from deep tissue massage to acupuncture, and finally settled into something of a pain control regimen. Between daily strengthening exercises to prevent back and neck pain and pharmaceutical solutions to the chronic headaches, I have managed to turn my constant and sometimes debilitating pain into a regular but manageable nuisance. I’ve learned the nuances of my back and neck pain and can tell when a stiffness is best treated with heat or ice. I’ve worked with enough experts to know when lower back pain is a lower back issue and when it is a result of muscle tension or spine misalignment somewhere higher up. I’ve mastered the art of keeping my spine aligned by bettering my posture, but also by learning the exact order to tighten certain muscles in certain positions to bring things back to normal. I’ve resumed skiing and dancing, rejoined sports teams and even signed up for an aerial silks course. (Yes, Mother. I joined the circus.)
And then it struck again. As class was ending on Friday, I felt a familiar jolt of pain in my lower back that meant I wasn’t moving for a while. I slowly bent myself into child’s pose and tried to stretch the back muscles out even as they were spasming. I carefully stood up and painfully got dressed and took an hour longer to get home than normal.
I cancelled my plans and found my heating packs. Spent the evening lying on my back, with a lacrosse ball rolling slowly along either side of my spine, putting painful (the good kind of pain!) pressure on my muscles to work out the tension. I slept with my knees bent over a pile of a half dozen pillows, and repeated the heat/massage/heat/stretch routine again this morning.
Unlike last time, when I was on opioids for a week, I didn’t take any pain killers today, and although I took a lot of ibuprofen last night, it was as much for the anti-inflammatory effects as the pain-killing ones.
Unlike last time, when the pain was so bad that I couldn’t focus on anything for days, I wrote two essays today.
Unlike last time, when I didn’t get off the floor unless absolutely necessary, I met friends in a coffee shop today, and then went out for drinks tonight.
Unlike last time, when I had no idea what was going on or how to fix it, I have the tools to relieve the pain and to mostly address the underlying issue.
I’ve just finished a half hour of rolling more tension out of my back, and I’m currently lying on my heating pad. When I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be doing it all again. But then tomorrow at noon I’ll be performing in a tap show, and though I know it will be painful, nothing bad will come of it.
I have chronic headaches. As of today, I officially fulfill the definition, and I have the documentation to prove it. For anyone who cares, the definition of chronic headaches is getting a headache 15 days/month, for at least 3 months. Okay… so, technically, I don’t have the documentation to prove it… just to prove 15 days this month. (Yes, I am fully aware that it is the 16th. I magically didn’t have a headache on the 7th. My new headache journal tells me that.)
My New Year’s Resolution, along with the annual “read more _________” , and the fun one (learn to frost cakes and ice cookies!), is to figure out my headaches. It isn’t a SMART goal, per se, but it does get broken down into pieces:
– keep track of when I get headaches, how bad they are, why I think I get them (hence the journal)
– get an appointment at a headache clinic, and have professional help in the fight against my own head
– ultimately, collect enough information to reduce the frequency and intensity of the headaches
We’re barely two weeks into the year, and I’m already making good progress. Today was the day I decided to deal. I’ve been calling a headache clinic in Boston every so often for about a month, and I hadn’t gotten any responses. Which, in addition to being very frustrating for me, was frustrating for my parents, who just want the best for me, and started offering to call and play the ‘mom card.’ As an almost-fully grown human, this is something I no longer want to depend upon, so I took action.
With a free afternoon, since I finished classes for the day at 10:30 and don’t have any real homework yet, I decided to schlep my way out there so I could talk face to face with someone. Now, it’s one thing to travel 45 minutes each way for an actual appointment, but another thing altogether to travel just to walk up to the desk and inform them that their phone system clearly isn’t working. Which must be what’s happening, because the very kind lady seemed genuinely concerned that I’d been calling so long with no response. Or perhaps she was just surprised that someone had the gall in this day and age to actually walk into an office to make an appointment.
Either way, she was very helpful. I got all the paperwork I needed to fill out, including a 9 page survey on my headache history I’m supposed to bring to my first appointment, once the office gets all my information from my doctor and then calls me to get the information about my insurance and then calls me again to actually schedule the aforementioned appointment. But progress is being made! I got the email from Kaiser with the form I need to fill out so they can release the information; I called my chiropractor and they’ll be sending Dr. Paul’s notes as well.
Needless to say, as I sit here typing in my room lit only by the diffuse light caused by aiming all my lights at the ceiling with a headache I’d score at a 4/10, I’m actually feeling hopeful that perhaps I’ll actually see a doctor who cares  before I have the documentation to self-diagnose chronic headaches for real.
1. 2013: Read 52 books (check!) 2014: Read more nonfiction (more than zero is more, right? Check!) 2015: Read more works in translation. I really enjoyed reading Czech authors and Japanese authors last year; this year I’m aiming to expand my repertoire, so to speak, with South-East Asia and Africa, and wherever else I feel inspired.
which was read 52 books in 2013 (check!), read more nonfiction in 2014 (more than zero… so check!), and is read more works in translation, especially South-East Asian and African for 2015 (check back soon!), and the pointless goal, which this year is learn how to frost cakes and ice cookies)
2. My doctor back at home is, I’m sure, a fine person. But she has always seemed a bit incredulous when it comes to my head/neck/back pain, as if she doesn’t believe someone my age can actually have such sustained pain, or as if she doesn’t think back pain and headaches are connected. Needless to say, I’m ready to talk to someone who starts the appointment assuming I’m not lying about symptoms.