On Being A Tough Old Bird

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I’m generally what’s known as a “tough old bird.” My doctors have often marveled at my ability to handle even the most intense pain. I suppose that can be a good thing or a definite flaw. Both of my grandmothers were like me, or rather I am like they were. One almost died because she carried on as usual with a ruptured appendix until the infection in her body sent her uncharacteristically to bed. The other grandmother ignored the symptoms of her cancer until the tumors had overwhelmed her body. Like them, I don’t like to complain about any aches or pains or strange symptoms I may have, so when my right arm began to hurt about a month ago I did my best to simply ignore the pain that seemed to increase just a bit more with each passing day. I had convinced myself that it was no big deal.

We were on a glorious vacation when the twinges first began, and there was no way that I was going to interrupt our joy by even mentioning my arm. During the daytime hours I was able to put the pain out of my thoughts, but at night I was tossing and turning while a worrisome throbbing kept me from enjoying my usual slumbers. I convinced myself to just deal with my situation in the hopes that upon my return to my more comfortable bed all would soon be well. I soldiered through without mentioning a word just as I usually do in such circumstances.

Our homecoming was filled with a flurry of activity. We had mountains of laundry, scheduled appointments, so many things that required our full attention. The daylight hours continued to keep my mind from becoming too obsessed with the pain that was gnawing at me twenty four seven. I began to think of people with chronic pain disorders and felt a sense of kinship with them that I had never before realized. 

My nights were horrific. In the dark I wanted nothing more than just to be able to sleep. I was exhausted and yet my body was screaming at me. No matter how I breathed or turned or meditated I was unable to find a comfortable spot that would allow me to doze for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I began to retire for bed as late as possible and arise while it was still dark outside. One night I even quietly left my bed and snuck to another room so as not to disturb my snoring husband. I cried like a baby, something that I had never before done, even after major surgeries and broken bones. I was mostly exhausted and grouchy and feeling hopelessly depressed. 

I knew it was time to contact my doctor even though I worried that I was just being silly and that he would think I was a neurotic hypochondriac. I wanted to be strong, but I felt so weak and surrendering was not my style. Nonetheless, I had to find a way to rid myself of the pain that would not release me. I became a grumpy growling bear in order to push through the delays for getting some kind of medical care. 

It took a week to get the answers I needed and in the meantime some wonderful friends unknowingly kept me sane by spending hours talking with me and no doubt wondering what had brought on my almost manic chattiness. Even I was worried that after dodging the mental illness gene from my mother and grandmother for decades, perhaps my days of being centered and sane had finally passed. I would look in the mirror and wonder how I had become this way. My moodiness and tendency to dissolve in tears was all so new to me. 

Last Friday I finally saw a doctor and his team. They were fabulous. They assured me that my pain was real and had been caused by a torn rotator cuff. They were kind, understanding, willing to take a great deal of time to listen to me even as I told them how I had worried that I was losing my mind. 

I got an injection of cortisone in my shoulder. The next day I began taking Methylprednisolone. I  swallowed the last pill from that pack this morning. Tomorrow I will begin to rely on anti-inflammatory medications for the pain that has already subsided significantly. I have an appointment with a physical therapist and a follow up appointment with the doctor. Even though the pain is not completely gone it has lessened enough to allow me to sleep. I’ve felt like a teenager as I’ve slumbered in nine to ten hour shifts. My calmness and and sense of strength has already returned. It feels good just to be able to accomplish a normal thing like just being the me that I have always been. 

I feel more understanding after my ordeal. I have thought of myself as a woman of steel. I often wondered about people who seemed unable to pull themselves through difficult times without falling apart. I prided myself in being logical and unwilling to surrender to emotional outbursts, and yet a bit more pain than I had ever before experienced pushed me right over the edge, even though I hid my reality from most of the people I encountered. 

Sometimes the most courageous thing that we might do is to admit that we are hurting and in trouble. Allowing our pain and concerns to fester until we are on the brink of a mental crisis is a very dangerous way to be. I knew that to be true because of my years of caring for my mentally ill mother, and yet I fell into a trap of self deception and hid my fears. It was only the grinding physical agony I was feeling that pushed me to humble myself by asking for help. 

It would behoove each of us to embrace both our strengths and our weaknesses with honesty. The beauty of our bodies and minds is that they both send signals to our brains when we must seek help. There is nobody on this earth who does not at one time or another have to surrender and admit to being less than perfect. 

I’m better now and feeling exactly like the person I have always been, but I know that I have somehow changed. I’m going to feel a bit more compassion for anyone who is beaten down by either physical or mental pain. I will be more inclined in the future to be honest about my own feelings as well. There are good people just waiting to help us when we are in need. Being really tough means that we are not too proud to accept their aide.