Top illustration by Tim Forkes
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I have given up any attempt at a nap. A little over an hour ago, I took four Vicodin and two muscle relaxants with the hope that the nauseating pain that has engulfed my body dims long enough to enjoy some part of the day. It doesn’t appear this will be the case.
My day began a little earlier than usual. I was up at 3:20 to take my morning meds. They will have to fill the hunger I feel until I get home later this morning from yet another epidural procedure. Last month, I had one in my neck and can’t say it did much good. I can’t be certain because my thoracic spine has been on fire, and I have been living with a headache that each day grows in size and level of pain. I want to see if today’s procedure helps provide more certainty about where the major source of my discomfort is.
At this time, it appears the highlight of my day will be the anesthesia I received. As usual, the nurses had a difficult time waking me up. I know they were trying, but I just wanted to sleep in solitude for as long as they would allow me because peaceful sleep is not something I enjoy often. When I get home, I know there are going to be seven dogs waiting for me, each demanding my attention.
My neighbor has been kind enough to pick me up from the procedure and sure enough, as soon as I enter the house, seven dogs all insist that I pet them first. Four of them are mine and the other three belong to my wife’s daughter. We are watching them for a week while she is out of town. I have no choice but to tend to her dog Bailey first because she equals the combined weight of the other six.
They get whatever pleasantries I have to offer, which are not much before I head straight to the kitchen. I need food. I have not eaten anything since 5:00 pm yesterday so I set about grabbing whatever I can while trying to stick to some level of healthy food. I grab one of the sweet potatoes I cooked before leaving the house and eat it cold. Next is a banana with some almond butter followed by a Swiss cheese quesadilla baked in the toaster oven and topped with some guacamole. I then make myself a large mug of coffee mixed with chocolate protein powder and head to my office.
I am followed by six of the seven dogs. Toby is wise to remain behind in the front room and curls up in his bed. Like me, he suffers from chronic pain and doesn’t need the aggravation the other six can cause him to feel. I relax at my desk and get caught up with the world as I know it while four dogs hop up to sleep on the small bed in my office and the other two curl up on the carpet.
My peace is short lived as I am soon consumed with another wave of dizzying pain. Whenever I have an epidural, I am required to stop taking any medication that thins the blood for the week prior to the procedure. This means no anti-inflammatory. My body aches in more ways than I can describe. The stiffness and discomfort in my joints are felt with every movement. My arms feel as if they have been locked into a medieval stretching rack and are slowly being torn apart, one muscle fiber at a time. However, the worst pain is in my neck.
There is this feeling as if a small knife has been plunged into my neck and it pokes at my spinal cord sending a burning sensation up into the back of my head. From there, it radiates up to the top of my head and out through my ears. Fortunately, I feel nothing at the site of my epidural thanks to the numbing agent they included with the injection. Unfortunately, the site of my neck pain is where my epidural from three weeks ago was.
It’s not even 10 a.m. and I am feeling a pain that has me bordering on frantic behavior. Whenever I get this way, my thinking goes out the window. Earlier, I tried to put away the almond butter only to realize it doesn’t belong in the dishwasher. That is where the knife goes but for some reason, I want to place it in the fridge where the sweet potatoes belong. I just want to get this shit put away and am in such a hurry I can’t think straight thanks to my discomfort.
By 1:20 in the afternoon, I can’t take the pain any longer. I swallow my pain meds knowing the dose it more than I am prescribed and decide to lay down in the bed in my office. The dogs have cleared out and followed me to the bathroom, so I have a brief window to crawl in bed without having to wrestle them for space. Before I can get the covers pulled back, three have hopped up and are waiting for my arrival. Two others follow behind me and join me and soon Bailey is trying to find her way up, not realizing she is not nearly as small as the others. Eventually, she finds a spot next to my head and curls up into a ball and I lay there hoping to doze off like they all managed to do in seconds.
While trying to nap, I find my mind drifting from thought to thought. Something startles the dogs and they all bolt to the backyard. A minute later they return and the process of finding space next to me starts over again. I know I am not going to nap now but stubbornly try. Besides, I hurt too much to try and force my way out from a bed I am pinned down in by a pack of canines. My thinking takes a dark turn while my pain level increases.
How much more of this pain can I take before I call it quits in this world? It’s a perfectly logical question for anyone to ask if they have lived with what I have for the last fourteen and a half years. If I call it quits, how will I go about it? Another logical question, at least I think it is. If I swallow all the pain meds I can, what happens if someone finds me, and I am saved? How will I live with this pain if doctors take away my pain medication? At the moment, the only thing worse than this pain is the thought of another thirty years of it without my medication.
Okay, pain meds might not be the right way to go. Maybe I can just jump off a tall building. Let’s see, the tallest one I can think of strangely enough is our hospital. Hmmm. Can I even gain access to the roof? Maybe if I wear my scrubs, I can pass as an employee. However, if I get caught, doctors will probably place a psych hold on me and most likely I will be destined to a future without pain medication.
I suppose I could throw myself in front of a moving vehicle on the nearby 101, but that would not be fair to the poor driver whose car would get ruined and who would end up with PTSD. Also, do I really want my final act to include shutting down the northbound traffic during rush hour while my demise is investigated?
There are more traditional ways like a gun, although I do not own one and am too cheap to purchase one. Besides, my vision is not the greatest and I’d probably miss the target, even if it is me. Maybe I could hire a hitman, but what is keeping him from running off with my money and not doing the deed? I am pretty certain I can’t find a quality hitman on Craigslist and if I get ripped off, it’s not like I can report him to the police.
I give up my train of thought and think back to June 16, 2007, the day my life changed in a way I never imagined.
Why? Why did that damn accident have to happen? Why me and not some chain-smoking drunk pedaling home after a bender? Why all this pain after all these years? Why did I survive something I had no business surviving? And why do doctor’s keep reminding me how lucky I was to survive when my reward is all this pain? It must be their way of throwing up their arms and telling me they have no clue what to do for me.
Eventually, as I run out of questions that begin with why, my mind drifts to a very old Fleetwood Mac song appropriately titled “Why.” I hear the beautiful voice of Christine McVie singing the words,
“There’s no use in crying, it’s all over, but I know there’ll always be another day. Well my heart will rise up with the morning sun, and the hurt I feel will simply melt away.”
The song is about loss and the pain that comes with it. In her case, McVie sings of a lost love, but love comes in many forms. In my case, I lost my love of being able to freely enjoy the pleasure I always received from physical activity. At 49 years of age, my future would include a great deal of pain and discomfort. I’ve rationalized it by reminding myself of all the wonderful memories I have of the one thing I could always count on to bring me joy. I have used it to motivate me through years of painful physical therapy with the goal of regaining as much as possible from what was taken from me. It’s helped me to redefine myself and find out who else I am and can become because nothing we have, no matter how much we love it, lasts forever.
Tomorrow is another day and with it the sun will rise, and I will have hope. Hope is a powerful drug. With it running through our veins, we can overcome what seems insurmountable. We can understand there are others worse off than us and others available to lean on. If there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is surely more than one way to define who we are.
Loss is an interruption to what we have become accustomed to. However, it is also a door left ever so slightly ajar and through it shines a ray of hope. It provides us with a chance to grow in ways we never considered and become someone those who know us best can look up to for their own inspiration during their times of need.
In the end, the question really should not be, “Why?”, but rather “Why not?”
Whatever I have lost because of my accident has been amply replaced when I stop to think about it. No one, most of all myself, needs to feel sorry for me. Life comes with a price and the fees I have paid have yielded far more good than bad. There will be more difficult days ahead, but I am not concerned. Why? Because I still have hope and that is all anyone needs.
Jim is a life long resident of California and retired school teacher with 30 years in public education. Jim earned his BA in History from CSU Chico in 1981 and his MA in Education from Azusa Pacific University in 1994. He is also the author of Teaching The Teacher: Lessons Learned From Teaching. Jim considers himself an equal opportunity pain in the ass to any political party, group, or individual who looks to profit off of hypocrisy. When he is not pointing out the conflicting words and actions of our leaders, the NFL commissioner, or humans in general, he can be found riding his bike for hours on end while pondering his next article. Jim recently moved to Camarillo, CA after being convinced to join the witness protection program.