I grew up as an only child in a house that happened to have four other children in it, with whom I shared both a mother and father, genetically speaking, who also lived in the same house. My relationship with my mother was relatively unencumbered by these two older brothers and two younger sisters, whom I began to appreciate as “people” only as we grew up. Even now, my mom jokes that she raised five only children.
Somehow, since we all turn into our mothers eventually, I suppose, I too began parenting only children. This was somewhat more complicated as my first children were (coincidentally, in their minds) born on the same day. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my neck, they were a healthy, boisterous pair of twin girls. They always wanted to be picked up at the same time, and they didn’t care or seem to even notice if I was already holding the other (whom they may or may not even have admitted to knowing, even casually).
It was okay when they were 10 pounds, 11 pounds, and still reasonable when they were 15 pounds… But as they reached the 18 to 20 pound mark I started to question whether carrying them downstairs together in the morning, one in each arm, was such a great idea, especially as they liked to gesticulate with their arms (and sometimes legs) to propel me forward, indicating before they could articulate, and sometimes even after they could “use their words,” something like extremely strong interest in breakfast, while I had to hold them back so we wouldn’t all fall over.
But invariably, if I left one upstairs, with the gate at the top step closed, the little girl left behind would cry, scream and screech as though her heart were breaking. She was, no doubt, fearful that I would not return in the 22 seconds it took to come back up the stairs to retrieve her. Of course, the other would snuggle up with joy at getting 22 seconds alone with both of Mommy’s arms, without the encumbrance of that annoying other girl who always seemed to be hanging around. And so I carried them until they were heavier than was healthy for me, because, with apologies to e.e. cummings, “I carry their hearts with me (I carry them in my heart).”
Around my daughters’ first birthday I started to get muscle spasms on the left side of my neck and shoulder (Happy Birthday to me?). It was a few months later when I first sought medical attention. I spent an entire summer having physical therapy to strengthen my neck and shoulders, but the spasms below my trapezius muscle never really went away. I got a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit, fancy heating pads, a physiatrist, a TheraCane (which I love), a massage therapist (who moved away, most likely not because of me, but I can’t help but wonder…), an automatic Shiatsu massager from Amazon (yes, I am that sucker!), a truckload of Advil (which I didn’t like taking too much of, for fear of damaging my kidneys), a lot of ineffective prescription muscle relaxers and an MRI (within which I discovered what claustrophobia is, and that I have it), which indicated I have a very straight spine indicative of muscle spasm (really?) caused by mildly bulging discs in my neck, which would likely never need surgery.
Almost exactly five years later, I still had muscles in spasm in my neck, and one in particular, that never, ever released. But it was sort of like a white whale that I gave up searching for (“Don’t call me Ishmael”?). I had occasional flare-ups, but it wasn’t all that bad most of that time, and while I was always open to new treatments or remedies, it was just sort of an annoying health issue that was somewhat constant, something that, like the need for reading glasses (which I also now need), everyone has to deal with at one time or another as we age.
Until three weeks ago.
I don’t know what actually happened, or whether there was even a specific incident that occurred. It was just a normal deadline-day Wednesday at The Jewish Link. In terms of lifting, I now have a joyous, energetic son who weighs over 30 pounds, and the girls still sometimes need help jumping from the car to the ground or the ground to the car, and they also seem compelled to pull my arm, hard, when I walk them places. (What can I say? Parenting is a contact sport.) But all I know is, the place where I usually have that horrible muscle spasm began to hurt, a lot worse than ever before, and it burned. I could not get comfortable and I was unable to find relief with the usual treatments. I bought a new heating pad, a new Icy Hot TENS unit (they’re really mobile now, no wires!), and put in calls to a new round of physicians.
So far, I’ve seen four or five new physicians, not counting my husband who is a pathologist (his joke: “You don’t want to see me. If you see me, you have bigger problems.”) and a close friend who is a neurologist, who, along with my PCP, have given enormous, life-saving help in dealing with the emergency aspects of my situation. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have tried five to seven new medications (and reading the lists of potential side effects causes fear to rival the scariest of horror films, but because I am an editor, they also cause me to criticize their vaguely written, yet absurdly dire warnings, my favorite of which is “Do not take this medication if you are allergic to it!”), and have had a frightening introduction to the “wonderful” world of benzodiazepines and opiates (which I mostly can’t take anyway due to the need to function, think and/or drive carpools), and unsuccessfully had exactly nine trigger point injections over the course of three physical therapy sessions. When I finally left that medical office, shaking in pain, with tears escaping my eyes after that last set of injections, I knew I needed a new MRI and a new doctor.
So now, as I wait for my MRI appointment this week, after having seen a neurologist and a division chief of pain medicine in an excellent Manhattan hospital, I note that I have been operating at maybe 20 percent of my actual capacity these last few weeks. I treasure my colleagues (and bosses) and friends who have been nothing but supportive and helpful, and those same colleagues and friends who have offered to (1) bring my family dinner (thanks Sara!), (2) do essentially anything (Thanks Nina!), (3) do grocery shopping (Thanks Shoshie!) or (4) have actually done emergency Shabbos-food shopping (Thanks Mayer!) and (5) actually brought lunch to my desk (Thanks Pearl!). Luckily, I am a talented online shopper and am a loyal customer of Cinch (formerly SodaScan); they do all my heavy lifting of paper goods, detergent and beverages for me, and it’s always delivered, like clockwork, within 24 hours (enjoy the plug, guys!).
For now, the only thing left to say is I think my next Editor’s Notebook piece will be about chronic pain and its sufferers. I never really understood the situation until now, and didn’t ever really consider for myself the philosophical or religious components of pain. Is there a reason for it? Is it meant to teach me a lesson, or to make me more empathetic? Or is it a punishment for something I have done, something for which I must atone? Or is it just a small price to pay for the very big bracha of my energetic children who run at me with the force of a hurricane? And also, of course, I really hope that I am over the worst of it, but I also have to be prepared if this is not the end. I also know that my short experience with chronic pain is nothing compared to what others have experienced.
Once I am back on my feet, I think I would like to shine a little light on those in our community who might need a little extra help and understanding. Got a story to share about chronic pain? Email me at [email protected]
By Elizabeth Kratz