About three and a half weeks ago I spent an hour cleaning out the basement: vacuuming, mopping. I felt pretty exhausted afterward, but otherwise no cause for alarm.
When I woke up the next morning, though, I felt a searing pain going from the middle of my upper back and down my left arm to the fingertips. It was hard to move around, but I figured it was nothing a hot shower and a couple Advil couldn't cure. But by that evening, I was considering a trip to the hospital. I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning with pain and then hit the Portland Clinic's urgent care facility first thing in the morning.
The diagnosis, courtesy of a doctor who spent several seconds inquiring about my case, was a pinched nerve. I was prescribed muscle relaxers, told to take lots more Advil, and sent on my way. I had to take a taxi to the pharmacy because it was too painful to walk. By that evening, it was too painful to brush my teeth, cut my own dinner with a knife, or put shoes on. Just taking a shower ellicited more grunts than a discus thrower.
It's often occurred to me in the last few weeks that my injury is actually a lot like Mr. Spock's famous Vulcan nerve-pinch on Star Trek. The pain comes from that same shoulder-neck border area. I never dropped to the floor unconscious like Spock's victims, but I also haven't awakened a few minutes afterward good as new. The pinch still hurts. A lot.
After the doctor visit I spent most of the next two weeks lying on my back. I'd wake up around 5 or 6AM, at least two or three hours before normal for this spoiled writer, and simply move my pillow and blanket to the living room sofa. If not for my i-Pod, Food Network and visits from our fat cat Ruthie, I'd have gone stir crazy. At the same time, having had my busiest work period ever during April and May, I couldn't help but feel fortunate that the injury came after my book deadline and a stack of other assignments. It seemed as if my body held out until the coast was clear, and then broke down.
Especially given that my injury happened through the course of fairly routine housework, I felt like the pinched nerve was somehow the inevitable flat tire or busted carbeurator on a car driven for too many miles without a stopover. I'm not normally given to lamenting getting older, even though at 36 it's clear my physical prime passed a few years ago. I like getting older because it brings, for the most part, more career advancement, more emotional contentment, and hopefully more compensation. Even so, I wondered: is this the beginning of something, of an era in life where physical breakdowns inevitably happen?
For several months, I've caught myself checking the time when it's either 1:11 or 11:11. In numerology the number one signifies change. Although I don't automatically believe stuff like this, it has still given me pause to wonder if there's a course change or chapter switch of some kind coming. I hope the end of good health isn't it. Although it'd be too simplistic to make it so cut and dry anyway. I've been having headaches for over 15 years anyway after a car accident the day after Bill Clinton was elected. My normal roommate who drove me to the subway station was home sick after too much champagne the election night before, so a different roommate, who had had her driver's licence only a few weeks, drove me instead. We never quite reached the station.
Even so, my headaches are now pretty manageable. This pinched nerve, on the other hand can totally lay a person out.
Although it's totally unrelated, I've also connected this incident in my mind to the apparent end of the affordable airfare era. In the last few years I've had a traveler's dream come true: four visits to London, two to Tokyo and Kyoto, and single visits to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bruges, Edinburgh, and Beijing. That on top of domestic trips to New York several times, DC, LA, SF, Houston, Austin, and Charlottesville. I'd really hate for chronic pain and unaffordable airfares to represent the end of this period of exploring the world.
It's now 25 days after the basement cleaning that pinched the nerve. I still can't sleep on my right side, but that's a big improvement over not being to sleep on either side after a lifetime of doing so. But a couple of accupuncture appointments have helped.
I've actually been able to measure the progress of recovery by the fingers on my left hand. When the injury initially happened, they all went numb. Over the next several days, the thumb got its feeling back, and that progress extended finger by finger across my left hand until all but the pinky had returned to normalcy. But the pinky has always remained numb. Overall I think the progress is the same. I'm probably 80 to 85 percent better. But will that last 10 to 15 percent ever come? Will I be in chronic pain the rest of my life?
I'm still inclined to be optimistic. And if I do get my health back completely, I'm going to count blessings. Since this happened I've talked to a lot of people, and been told several stories about friends and relatives who must live with chronic pain. The other day a gallery owner told me about a friend who begins every day swallowing four or five Aleve. I also think of my grandma who is up every night with arthritis pain. I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but good health is a real gift.