Two Saturdays ago I was attacking Himalayan blackberries by the roots, crawling under bushes to get to their thick giant canes with my Hori knife and clippers, feeling like a conqueror, until I tweaked my back trying to toss the canes out into the yard from inside the branches of the bush. I said a lot of “ouch, ouch, ouch” while my back rebelled as I clipped the roots from the final canes before maneuvering out from the branches, and hobbling into the house. I took a dose of ibuprofen and one of my prescription muscle relaxers and felt fine until late that Tuesday night when my husband and I were pushing furniture around our living room in order to set up a ladder to determine the source of a sudden roof leak. I felt a sharp twinge when I stood up from the couch, but forgot about it by the time I went to sleep.
Wednesday morning dawned, and I couldn’t stand straight when I got out of bed and couldn’t put weight on my right leg. So I hunched way over, bent my knees, and shuffled to the bathroom. It was a painful trip downstairs to the couch, where I spent nearly all day, except for the agonizing moments when I hobbled to the kitchen or bathroom. That evening, my husband drove me to Urgent Care where they suspected I sprained the iliac ligament on my right side, causing inflammation of my sciatic nerve, through the groin and down my leg.
I was given a shot, prescription anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxer, crutches, and instructions to rest—bed rest, but I can’t lay down comfortably, so I ensconced myself on our reclining couch (as I had all day) with pillows and blankets, pills and a water bottle, heating pad, earplugs, all within arm’s reach so I might get a decent night’s rest, which I couldn't.
I was supposed to spend the following day in real estate classes, but Thursday came and I felt worse not better, I couldn’t imagine trying to hobble around the MLS office on crutches, or sit up straight and lean toward a monitor, when any motion caused pain. And so I spent that Thursday much as I had Wednesday, trying to remain as still as possible, waiting for my husband to return home from work to take me to the ER where I got stronger painkillers and steroids. At home, I watched TV and typed on my laptop only my fingers in motion, no shifting or fidgeting, movement only as a last resort. And most of my typing involved cancelling activities: not just the real estate classes, but a trip to Florida to see my soul sister as well.
For the past two weeks I’ve experienced what friends and loved ones with chronic pain experience daily. And in my temporary disability, I can say that pain makes me tired, grumpy, weepy. It’s not a contemplative stillness that leads to creativity, but a stillness that when breached brings waves of bodily insult and the hard accompanying breath of trying not to crumple in place, or break down in sobs, or give into hopelessness of ever feeling better. Pain is a thug, threatening to pummel if we’re not completely obedient to its demands.
I’ve been told the only way through pain is acceptance, to embrace it—and I thought that meant psychic and spiritual pain, and that seemed true enough. But I've always tried to dull physical pain: I take Chinese herbs and rub arnica on my neck at the first sign of a neck or headache, and I try to “stay ahead of it” with painkillers after surgery. I’ll do anything to avoid physical pain, but there are moments when my “pain body” (to use a phrase from Eckhart Tolle) is all consuming, when my consciousness is solely focused on my pain, my world spun so small it’s no bigger than the sensation of spasm and heat slicing through my thigh.
I know I’m supposed to ask why this injury showed up or what it has to teach me, but I’d much rather distract myself with HGTV home renovation shows or reading all those links about literature and life I save from my Facebook feed and forget about. Only when my body is completely still can I find pain-free moments. Media helps me forget about my circumstances—being unable to walk or work, and having to cancel a trip this weekend to Whidbey Island with the Chrysostom Society, an amazing group of Christian writers.
Sitting on my couch reading these past few weeks, with only my own mind’s chatter to contend with, I've taken an awful lot of naps; another method, I suppose, to cope with pain and disappointment.
My dear husband has been preparing all my meals and waiting on me, bringing down clothes and toiletries down from our top floor bedroom, in addition to working full-time. When I try to care for myself, pouring a cup of tea, or carrying a plate, my body rebels with a sharp zing, a high voltage warning that I’ve overdone it. So I sit and stare at the growing pile of clutter on our kitchen table and floors in need of vacuuming, and I resist the urge to clean.
It is though I’ve been given a prescription for stillness along with my cyclobenzaprine. Will I follow the instructions, and if so, what will my life look like when I’ve been healed?