Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I'd Rather Have Had the Change in my Sofa Cushions

An article in Sunday's newspaper caught my eye. The author was contemplating whether or not one should air one's dirty laundry on a social networking web site. Specifically, the author was referring to folks who had been laid off from work: should they announce this unpleasant news flash in a Twitter or Facebook status update? Or is making one's bad news public in 140 characters or less seen as "desperation?"

I've struggled with this dilemma myself for the past several months. "To air, or not to air…" that was my question. I'd fallen off the blogging map for a while, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to talk about it.

To top it off, I'd been hit with a mind-numbing case of writer's block: I was numb from pain, numb from meds that were supposed to relieve the pain, and numb from wondering if this was going to be my life from now on. Had I just hit a bump in the road? Or was this going to be a permanent detour?

It started last March…

Ok, sure, I'd been quiet for a couple of months before that, not really writing regularly since before Christmas. We'd had a few hiccups in our household: my husband's company was downsizing and threatening lay-offs so we were holding our collective breath. I was busy with a variety of projects that were making demands too loud to ignore. And my daughter was almost 3. 3 is very busy age.

But things really started to change in mid-March.

My daughter and I returned home from the DAR State Conference in Santa Clara. We'd driven up there – just the two of us – and had a busy, girls' weekend together. A few days later, I bent over to pick something up and felt as though someone had stabbed me in the lower back with a hot fireplace poker. Oddly enough, I hadn't even touched the item for which I was reaching.

Over the next few days, pain and numbness began to radiate down my right leg. I could only get comfortable standing or laying flat on my back; sitting up was impossible. Desperate, I found an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in disorders of the spine. An MRI confirmed the diagnosis I’d heard pronounced for my mother time after time, but never, ever expected to hear in reference to myself: Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). Disc herniations at L-4 and L-5.

Was that really a picture of MY spine on the computer? Is it supposed to look like that?

I don’t recall hearing much after that. All I could think of was that my mother had died from "complications" four weeks after having a lumbar laminectomy to repair disc herniations at L-4 and L-5. My mother was 60. I was only 45. This couldn't be happening to me.

I must have looked like I'd seen a ghost because my doctor's demeanor completely changed. He promised that we'd take things slowly, trying steroids and physical therapy before any sort of surgery would be considered. "These things usually resolve themselves without surgery," he said. The disc swells, bulges out, nerves are compressed. If you're very unlucky, you've got pain that radiates into your extremities. Hopefully the swelling goes away – eventually – and takes the pain with it.

Small consolation when you're in pain.

But he was right: a few weeks later, the pain was pretty much gone, and we were mostly back to normal. I'd completed a round of steroids and started physical therapy. I was NOT going to wind up like my mother.

Unfortunately, that episode was just a preview of things to come. On Easter morning, I awoke with a cramp in my neck. "No big deal," I thought. I was sure it was just one of those "cricks" that people get from sleeping in a weird position. It would be gone in a couple of days.

I was wrong. As the week progressed, the pain began to radiate down my right arm and into my hand. Sitting up and standing became impossible; I felt as though my spine was crushing itself every time I stood up. It was impossible to get comfortable, even laying down. It was some of the worst pain I'd ever felt (and I'm no stranger to pain), and it was unrelenting.

By Saturday, I begged my husband to take me to the ER for some kind of relief. After initial x-rays, the ER doctor pronounced the same words I'd heard less than a month before: Degenerative Disc Disease. This time, a herniated disc of the cervical spine. He shot me up with enough dilaudid to put a horse to sleep and sent me home. I slept for two days.

The following week was a blur. I was back in the spine doctor's office, sent out for an urgent MRI, and then on my way home with another round of steroids. The MRI didn't show anything definitive, but my symptoms indicated cervical disc herniation. Perhaps it was the valium I'd taken for the MRI… or perhaps it was the pain… but this time I did not feel as if a ton of bricks had fallen on me. I honestly didn't care anymore. Just please make the pain go away.

For weeks, I was unable to function. In addition to excruciating pain, I'd lost a lot of reflex in my right arm, making things especially difficult because I'm right-handed. Activities I'd previously taken for granted, like typing, driving, cooking, or picking up my daughter, were now impossible. Even simple things, like sitting up and eating, were challenging. We braced ourselves for a long recovery. My poor husband was a trooper and never complained, although he frequently stared at me like a deer in headlights.

A CT scan with a myelogram (contrast dye shot up my spinal cord – that was fun) a few weeks later revealed what the MRI had not: a herniated disc and a possible cyst in my lower cervical spine. It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but at least now I knew that I wasn't crazy. I think even the doctor felt vindicated.

Was I ever going to get better? Or was this my life now?

Finally, the pain began to decrease, ever-so-gradually, and I saw a tiny bit of improvement on most days. Two steps forward, one step back. Recovery from DDD is slow, and nerve pain is difficult to treat.

I'd seen and heard it all before, with my mother.


In order to cope with change, you must get to a point where you no longer fear. You just accept, and go on. Your life has changed, and you will never be the same again.

I’ve accepted that I will probably never be able to lift my daughter again. This is hard to explain to a crying toddler demanding to be picked up… but we've adjusted. I was finally able to start using a computer again with the help of "Naturally Speaking" dictation software; I can now type like a normal person for short periods of time, but I still use NS for some applications. I can drive short distances, do light housekeeping (no lifting or pushing a vacuum), and my doctor has given me the green light to travel to Washington, DC, for the DAR Continental Congress in 2 weeks.

How did this happen? Well, age is a factor, but young people can get it, too. Plus, DDD is in my genes: both of my parents had it. My mother's condition was debilitating and could not resolve itself without surgery. My father decided that the pain was more bearable than "the thought of someone with a scalpel so close to my spinal cord." I'm inclined to agree with my father, but I suppose that if the pain returned and refused to go away, I would have to reconsider (I keep reminding myself that people have – and recover from – successful back surgeries every day). I'm not sure if my grandparents had it or not, but they frequently complained of back pain.

I still have pain every day, but it's tolerable, and mostly controlled by meds and PT. My life is slowly returning to a new sort of normal.

Hey, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?


I would like to thank all the people who helped us out during this difficult time, ranging from thoughtful ladies of the MOMS Club, who brought us dinners during some of my worst weeks, to the kind bloggers who left me comments and sent emails asking how I was doing. Just knowing there were people out there who cared meant so much.

P.S. The x-ray photo above is not mine. Mine is much uglier.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O'Neal

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L. A. Carter said...

That line about accepting change and that things will never be the same so you can move on; that really hit home for me. I just got laid off myself soon after I started blogging and writing is the only thing that keeps me on my feet these days. So even though I read the whole blog and it was amazingly honest and heartfelt, I want to thank you most for that line. It made my day today.

Hope all is well and things get better.

Miriam said...

Elizabeth, I'm so sorry you've been through all this, but so happy for you that you are now at a place where you can have some kind of "normal." I've missed your posts and look forward to hearing from you a little more often.

Lisa said...

I'm so sorry to hear about all that you've been going through, Elizabeth. I sincerely hope that you can find a way to cope with these challenges over the long term in a way that you are comfortable with.

I'm so glad that your daughter is at an age where she can begin to understand your limitations. I know that she'll grow to understand them more and more as she gets closer to four and five.

Please take care of yourself.

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Kathryn Doyle said...


Thanks so much for "airing" and letting us know about what you have been dealing with. I am so sorry for everything you've been through but know that many, many of us are thinking good thoughts for you and have you in our prayers. I'll remember to give you air kisses at Jamboree instead of a big hug!

Bill West said...

I'm so sorry you have had to go through all this.
Know that all of us are keeping good thoughts for you!


geneabloggers said...


I've been thinking of you lately and I know it has not been an easy road for you as of late. I look forward to seeing you at Jamboree later this week and as Kathryn said no hugs, just air kisses! And please let me know if you need anything while at Jamboree! You our geneablogger crowd is willing to help out!

Greta Koehl said...

I'm so sorry that you have had to endure this terrible pain and will keep you in my prayers. And I hope you enjoy the DAR Congress - the D.C. area is great for genealogy.


Elizabeth, I am so sorry to hear of your suffering. I think you were brave to write about what you have been experiencing. Perhaps your story, along with your courage, will bring inspiration to someone else who is going through something similar. You are in my thoughts.

Cindy Bergeron Scherwinski said...

One of life's blessings is that years from now all that Delaney will remember is her mother's smile - the stories you read to her and the love that surrounded her. We are all have a cross to bear, for some it is physical. Blessings to you, dear friend.

Virginia Travis said...

I may be late in commenting, but I've been thinking about you. I hope that your regimen continues to give you enough relief and allows you to look forward to each day. Take care!