My chronic pain journey started in 1999 with my first back surgery. As with most stories, however, no singular event was responsible, and many years of stubbornness and bad habits contributed to the actual point of no return. To understand the hows and whys of what went wrong, it’s important to know a couple of things about me. I was born last into a family of outgoing, athletic, overachieving siblings who were simultaneously blessed with high drive and cursed with bad connective tissue holding our bones and joints together. Genetically we had my dad to thank for both, and the fact that he was an orthopedic surgeon by trade didn’t help matters, as the inevitable breakdown of tendons, ligaments, and cartilage would usually result in a surgery… or two or ten. When my dad died at the age of 83, he had undergone 20 orthopedic surgeries, and the back surgery in 1999 was my third orthopedic surgery of a current seven.
When I hurt my back in 1999, I was training hard for my fourth attempt at a marathon. I had been trying to complete, or rather start, my first marathon since moving to Bellingham in 1993. I had successfully run a handful of half marathons, but what I would find was that each time I got up to the distances required to train for a full, I would experience some type of injury or bodily breakdown that would force me to withdraw before I even started. I was plagued by severe blisters, shin splints, a bunion (surgery #2), chronic knee problems (due to surgery #1, ACL repair), a chronic hamstring issue, and other assorted difficulties that I couldn’t ignore or overcome enough to even start a marathon. I was relentless in my pursuit, however, and really believed I had the right ingredients as I trained for number four.
This time I signed up with Team In Training, a fundraising marathon for the Leukemia Society of Washington. I firmly believed that if I did the marathon for charity, raised all the money, and had a good altruistic goal, I would somehow be spared the previous struggles with overuse injuries and surgeries. I started training in January 1999 with a qualified coach and reasonable training program for a June marathon. I hung in there pretty well until the 16 – 18 mile training runs, and then something went very wrong. I can’t say exactly what happened, but over the course of a few short weeks I went from running fine to not being able to run at all. On a short 4 mile Fun Run in April, I experienced sharp and intense pain in my left hip and gluteal muscles, and an absolute knowing that something was very wrong and that I couldn’t run or even walk that race. I stopped 1/4 mile into it, and began to face the reality of another injury or setback. The orthopedist I was seeing at the time had previously tried injecting my hip a few times with cortisone, with no positive results. When I went in again to see him after the botched Fun Run, I was in such pain I couldn’t even sit in the waiting room. At that point he suggested an MRI of my back, as the nature of my complaints didn’t seem to fit with any possible diagnosis we had come up with. Turns out he hit the nail on the head…I had somehow extruded a disc in my back at L1-2, a high lumbar disc, which is not only quite rare, but also rather difficult to do just by running. Why it happened didn’t even matter so much to me…getting it immediately fixed so I could return to running and my marathon dreams mattered most.
I was married to a doctor at the time, and I persuaded him to convince a Neurosurgeon to operate on me right away. There wasn’t a lot of forethought to this decision. I just wanted to be fixed and move on with my life and get back to running and all being well. I was using running to escape the stresses of a difficult marriage, and also to avoid looking at the core issues of who I was at that time, what mattered to me, and what I really wanted in life. The only things that seemed to have meaning were running and successfully raising kids, and I was deathly afraid of losing the first, and secondarily afraid of losing the second if my marriage fell apart. So I underwent a laminectomy (where they cut into the bone to remove the squeezed out portion of the nucleus of the extruded disc to remove pressure on the nerve root) in June of 1999, about a week before the scheduled marathon date.
My single minded post-surgical focus was to get back to running as soon as possible. I had my surgery one day following the events of the pipeline explosion here in Bellingham, and the two are inexorably tied together in my mind. I would spend my days walking around the roped off areas of Whatcom Falls Park, a half mile from my house, trying to make sense of the boys who had died where my kids had so often played, and trying to will my body back into a place where it would do what I wanted it to. But that surgery had changed everything. The way of being that I had before and the way I was afterwards were completely out of sync. I can’t explain it in any other way except to say that nothing was predictable or the same physically after that surgery. I felt like I had to relearn everything…how to walk correctly, how to stand, how to sit, how to balance, how to sleep. And worst, the pain was relentless, especially the nerve pain. While most back surgeries of that sort immediately relieve the pain, mine seemed to increase it’s breadth and reach. I was both amazed and intrigued by how off I felt, and also extremely frustrated by the amount of pain I was experiencing. My walks were efforts at normalcy that mostly fell flat. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, like the boys lost in the fire at the park, I had lost something that I would never be able to fully recover.
I hung in there with both my seemingly futile recovery efforts and my marriage until December of 1999. At that point I took my two kids, ages 7 and 9, and left the marriage and security of it and went out on my own. I was deep in the depths of despair, discouragement, and pain, but also hopeful that I could start new and fresh and begin to feel and function better in my life. As with the events leading up to this event, the events following were fraught with difficulty and challenge. Had I known how hard it would be to do chronic pain alone, I may never had had the courage to leave the marriage and embark solo on the next phase of the journey. I am ever so thankful that I did, as the next 10 years or so, of living with and adjusting to chronic pain, were completely life transforming ones. My next blog will tackle those years.