Chronic: The Pain We Don’t See, Chapter 18

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Top illustration by Tim Forkes

Chapter 18: The Pandemic Hits Home
Thursday: December 3, 2020

The past week has been a blur. It has been filled with way more work than I signed on to do, but it is work I am enjoying and because we are shorthanded thanks to COVID-19, most of the maintenance has fallen on me while the guy I work with has been pulled to work the front desk.

The work days go by fast. There is no such thing as a dull moment. If it is a slow day, I always know I have doors to paint. I am about half way through adding a fresh coat to the exterior to all the doors. Toilets, showers, broken beds, and countless other tasks fill my day. On top of them, I am tasked with reorganizing the shop and then creating an inventory of all the things we have.

Each evening, I am exhausted. It is usually followed by a painful night of sleep, most of which is shoulder and arm related. My mornings are spent trying to get my body to function and feel pain free. Then it is another day where sometimes the simplest task like drilling in a few screws can hurt like hell. It’s mainly due to my hands and forearms having lost so much strength. As long as I remain busy, any pain I feel is short lived. However, by the end of the day, my spine is burning.

Tomorrow, I have an appointment at the pain clinic. I will discuss this with them and see whether I should get another epidural. It has been three months since my last one and overall it has done a good job. I will also see if it is time I get another MRI for my neck and thoracic spine. I know I need to have them monitored to see if any of the irregularities have worsened.

I have to make sure I do not get carried away and work too much. It feels good to have a job I enjoy doing, look forward to going to, and know I am valued. However, I have to keep in mind what is best for my long term interest. Doctors can only give me advice, but ultimately, it is up to me to make sure I do what is best for my health.

So far, I feel good about things. Time will tell if I hold up this well once the colder and wetter weather arrives. I also have to make sure I do not put myself at high risk for catching COVID. The last thing I need is to get a bad case of it. Worse, I would hate to bring it home to Charlene and see her get seriously ill.

It’s all part of the self-monitoring I need to be diligent about. As long as I am, I like my chances of remaining ahead of the pain and fatigue battle.

Saturday: December 5, 2020:

Windansea Beach, Ja Jolla, CA
(Tim Forkes)

Yesterday, I had an appointment at the pain clinic. I am being scheduled for a thoracic MRI and x-rays as well as another epidural. Thursday night was a rough night. Even though I did not lift any weights with my Thursday or Friday morning workouts, I woke with the feeling of muscles being torn and tiny knives stabbing my arms. When I mentioned my increasing thoracic spine discomfort, it was decided it was best to get the tests done before I begin a new year on my insurance plan.

Last night was also another long one for me filled with pain and discomfort that felt crippling. Mentally, I am handling it better, but the level and amount of time I spend dealing with it has me concerned. There is no getting comfortable for me by nightfall. My spine is lit up and my arms are worn out even though they were never tasked during the day.

Lately, the pain has spread to my rib cage. Lying on my back and sides is painful. The only thing that is not certain is how far into the night it will be before the pain becomes too much for me to remain in bed. It not only affects my sleep, but also affects Charlene’s as she is awakened by my painful moans and thrashing about as much as I am.

Despite my night, I completed a surprisingly strong and challenging ride that lasted nearly two and a half hours. For some reason, I am able to ride more comfortably on my road bike than I am at home on my spin bike. At home, every two or three minutes I am forced to change my grip on the handlebars because of pain or numbness. I also find my elbows become very sore and tender. On my road bike, neither happens. My only discomfort comes from how my legs feel after a hard climb. It has always been this way since I resumed riding after my accident in 2007.

Unfortunately, the relief is short lived and usually within a half hour of finishing a ride, I am reminded of the stiffness and sharp pain in my hands, arms, and shoulders. In fact, after my ride, I cut my walk with Peanut short due to my thoracic spine.

Since Charlene was off at her daughter’s for the day, after showering, I headed out for a massage. It was an incredibly relaxing experience that left me feeling like mush when it ended. However, trying to get up off the table and dress myself was another reminder of just how fast my body locks up on me. None of this seems normal. Yes, I am older and I should take time to recover after a hard workout. Still, I should not be hunched over in pain and be so stiff it hurts to straighten up my body.

Tomorrow, I will have to rise early no matter how well I sleep. I realize I need to set aside time to loosen up and move my body parts before I head off to work for the day. Given we are short handed and that this is a Saturday night, I am already planning for tomorrow to be a challenging day on the job. I will be shocked if I am not exhausted and in a good deal of pain by the time I get home. At least knowing this likelihood helps me to be ready when it happens and I will take that over being blindsided by pain any day.

Monday: December 7, 2020

As someone who majored in history and taught it for decades, it is impossible not to know the significance of today’s date, a day of infamy. In the early hours on this day in 1941, America was pulled into World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Before long, we would find ourselves involved in a global conflict we tried to remain out of and by the time it was over, we would emerge as a world superpower.

Today, we are in the midst of a different kind of conflict, but one where it remains to be seen how we will emerge. COVID-19 continues to claim the lives of over a thousand Americans a day and will total over 300,000 dead by year’s end. Whereas in 1941 we saw bold and decisive leadership from the top down and unity as a nation while we sacrificed to defeat an enemy that wanted to take away the right for others to be free, today, we see a lack of leadership from a defeated president who has decided to poison the American well for his successor while leaving citizens pointing fingers at one another on one hand while crossing them on the other in hopes they do not catch a virus that kills.

Life is random. No matter how hard a person works to control the events of their life. We seem to be constantly at the mercy of other forces. In 2007, I survived what should have killed me. Being thrown off my bike at 30 mph head first into a trunk, snapping my neck so violently I damaged a major nerve that began the process of shutting down my body’s organs. It tore my ribcage from my sternum, blinded me temporarily, left me bleeding internally and gasping for air as the pressure from the blood slowly deflated one lung. If not for a dog alerting its owners of what it heard, I would be dead.

It is not the only random act in my life. My life has been filled with them, many good and a few resulting in close calls. We all have a life filled with randomness. We never know when randomness will jump up and change our lives and most of us seem to prefer it did not so we can go about thinking we are in control of our destiny. We aren’t.

Some will say our lives are the results of a God who watches over us. Others claim it is all a form of karma. Then there are those who will say it is all a series of chain reactions that constantly unfold and play out in real time. Whatever you think it is, it all ends up being random in my book.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

Yesterday, while I checked in on my neighbor who recently had two disks fused in her low back, she informed me of a random conversation we had last spring and how it changed her life. I was sharing with her my experiences with TMS, acupuncture, and working with a wellness specialist when she mentioned she had always been interested in alternative approaches to health. She informed me because of our conversation, she has decided to go back to school and pursue a degree in health and wellness. Had I not survived my accident in 2007 and ended up here in Ventura County after a quarter of a century in nearby Riverside County, she and I never would have had that conversation.

All of my injuries, my five years of physical therapy, and all my pain have not just changed my life; it has changed the lives of countless others along the way. They added to the strain of my first marriage, changed my career in teaching, and have sent me on a journey I never asked for much less planned out. Maybe a god chose me for all of this, although I do not believe so. Perhaps this is all payback for the decisions I have made, but again, I do not think this is the case. Personally, I believe it is all part of the randomness of the world — no, universe — we live in.

Still, there are things I do control as I navigate my way through the pain, fatigue, and depression that has had its way with me. It was my choice to try TMS no matter how I learned about it. That decision has helped my frame of mind immensely and now allows me to work my way through my bouts of pain and fatigue with a clearer and more positive mindset. I say this because as my most recent epidural has worn off and I find the end of each day filled with some of the worst pain imaginable, it no longer paralyzes my thinking.

I feel good again because I am able to get out of the house and work a job that is physically demanding even though I do not have to work to get by in life. The job is also mentally stimulating as I am constantly having to solve problems that randomly pop up while keeping up on tasks that need to be done on a regular basis. I can plan all I want to for work, but once I am there, there is no telling what will unfold.

Today, I am up before three in the morning, once again because my body’s stiffness, soreness, and discomfort makes sleeping later impossible. I will be at my job before eight and in between will do a light workout in the gym, that much is planned in advance. I am prepared for my spine to be burning up in pain, my neck to be tight, and my arms and shoulders to be spent by the end of my shift. There is nothing random about it because I know this is how I would feel if I spent the day in my recliner doing nothing.

I also know today could be the day I am exposed to the coronavirus or come down with symptoms of it. I can wear my mask and gloves and wash my hands all day, but there is a randomness to when, how, and who it strikes. One small mistake on my part can result in not just my life being forever changed, but the lives of anyone I come into contact with and those who they come in contact with and before you know it, through science, god, and karma, scores of other lives are forever changed.

History has taught me that nations that sit back and wait to see what happens are often left behind under the rubble of what plays out. Change is constant because change is not just planned, it is also random. What all of this pain, fatigue, and depression has taught me is it is important to take control of the things you have control over and to not worry so much about the events beyond my control. It allows me to accept what is the result of my choices while understanding some things just play out in ways that are beyond my control.

Today, I have an outline of a plan for how I hope some things unfold. I can envision some of the events I know will take place which will allow me to respond in a way that makes my day unfold in a positive manner. I also know to expect the unexpected so that when it happens, it has less control over me and my reaction. It all works together in a way that allows me to look forward to what is in store for me. This is a huge victory for me because even though I know a great deal of discomfort likely awaits for me, I am comforted in knowing it no longer controls me.

Tuesday: December 8, 2020

It is two in the morning and I have been up for just over an hour. This is what happens to people who live with chronic pain, depression, and fatigue. You would think someone suffering from chronic fatigue would be able to sleep. However, there can be a variety of causes for fatigue. When pain is part of the equation and you are unable to remain comfortable after a few hours in bed, you do as I do and get up.

Being retired, you might think I can always nap during the day, but that is rarely the case. Pain does not let up and is magnified when you are not distracted. Sleep is hard to come by when you are distracted with pain. Consequently, people with chronic pain often end up sleep deprived.

I rarely have trouble falling asleep. By day’s end, I am exhausted. When my spine is burning from being on my feet all day or just because my most recent epidural has worn off, I rely on my Vicodin and muscle relaxants. When pain is not a factor, my preference for an active life results in being worn out. Sleep is easy to come by. Remaining asleep is the challenge.

Outside, it is unusually warm for late fall and I can hear the Santa Anas blowing. Most likely, in a few hours, my planned ride on my bike will be changed to an indoor ride on my trainer because of them. If they continue to howl like yesterday, it means my plan to mow the lawns and do yard work will go by the wayside. This will leave me with the choice of either going into work even though I am not scheduled to or remain home cooped up with the dogs.

In many ways, the Santa Anas are a lot like my chronic conditions. They strike with an unpredictability and with a force that can cause the best laid plans to come to a sudden halt. For as long as I can remember, I have never been a fan of wind. As a lover of being outdoors, I can bundle up, cover up, or dress down when the weather is cold, wet or hot. However, when it is windy, there is nothing you can do to combat it and remain comfortable.

Often, when I am floored with pain, I feel there is nothing I can do to combat it. I spend hours hoping for some pain medication to kick in only to be disappointed when it doesn’t. Like with the wind, I end up having to wait it out and deal with it the best I can. When my white blood cell count drops and fatigue sets it, it is the same. Each day that passes I end up thinking whether the next will bring about a positive change. The worst is depression. When its cloud takes over your brain, all you can do is ride it out and hope it is short lived.

Even people who love a life filled with adventure and unpredictable events want to enjoy knowing how they are going to feel on a daily basis. No one likes not knowing how their body or mind will feel. We all rely on knowing what to expect from ourselves. However, people with an invisible chronic condition are unable to enjoy knowing what is in store for their physical or mental health. It creates a tremendous amount of stress which just magnifies all the unpredictable events that unfold each day.

Since my return to work, I have settled into a routine on the job. I have the good fortune to pretty much decide my work hours and have learned I am better off getting into work before 8am rather than the two or three hours later I am free to arrive at. My body is fresh and ready to tackle the day so I use the first half to tackle the major tasks of the day.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

Yesterday, the weather outside was cloudy and mild so I took advantage of it and painted as many doors as I could on an upstairs balcony that normally gets blasted by sun for most of the day. When I finished, it was off to make my rounds of the motel, knocking on doors to make sure guests had checked out and smoke detectors were not tampered with. When I was finished, it was time for my lunch break.

Between leaving for lunch and getting back to work, the winds were at near gale force which meant no more outside work. I headed to my shop to begin taking inventory of all we have until standing and counting parts became too much for my spine. I headed off to some vacant downstairs rooms to apply some adhesive barriers to the bottoms of doors to prevent dirt from blowing under them and into rooms. It was a job I could do lying down which gave my spine a much needed break.

My day ended with repairing the broken door jamb to my boss’ office, the end result of someone having to break in her locked door because she has the only key and was home sick, the result of a positive COVID test.

The old me would have been set in my ways with a plan that would unfold come hell or high water. I would have arrived home frustrated by the events out of my control, in this case the wind. Instead, I ended up with a productive and successful day in which I learned to take advantage of what I could control and not worry about what was out of my hands.

I may need to rely on this approach more with each passing day. My boss is the third person where I work who has come down with COVID and for all I know, it may be just a matter of time before I get it. There are things I can do to lessen its likelihood, but as we have all seen play out, no one is safe from this virus.

The unpredictable nature of it and when it strikes is no different than that of the Santa Ana winds or the chronic conditions I deal with. However, instead of living in fear of when or if it will floor me, I have to make the most of each day and enjoy what I have accomplished more than fall prey to what ails me.

Saturday: December 12, 2020

It was just a month ago when I wondered whether my days of working part time were over. My quest for some part time work had resulted in few leads, lots of rejections, and a reminder that at 62, I was no longer a young and hot commodity.

Today, I find myself in charge of the maintenance of an 84 bed motel less than four weeks after accepting a 16 hour a week part time position. I could work seven days a week because of the volume of work that needs doing and because we are closed to the public due to a COVID outbreak. The job is fun, challenging, and exhausting and comes at a time when my spine is desperately in need of another dose of epidurals.

This is normally a day I reserve for a more challenging bike ride, but here I am wondering if I have the energy to do one. It is more mental than physical as I am facing a block about getting on my bike these days. If I were still running, a shorter workout with plenty of benefit seems less daunting and would allow me to get on with what needs doing around the home.

Perhaps it is time I rethink my training and begin incorporating shorter and easier paced running compared to the way I was pushing myself earlier in the year. A little more variety might also make my other workouts seem less stale.

My bloodwork from my most recent blood test, done a week following a testosterone shot, came back showing a huge decline in my T levels. It was enough to make me a candidate for a weekly shot instead of the usual one every other week. Right now, all I know for sure is my evenings are a challenge due to the level of pain I have throughout my body. I can usually get a break from the burning in my spine just by getting off my feet. However, there is no getting comfortable with what I feel in my arms.

I am stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to treating it. If I stay home all day and take my meds around the clock, I become stupid. Nothing sticks in my brain and eventually I build a tolerance to the pain medication and require a stronger dose. Working helps distract my brain from my discomfort, but by the end of my work day, I am spent. This results in me taking two Vicodin and a muscle relaxant to take the edge off my pain. Inevitably, it fails so I drink a beer or two or three. I know it is not a healthy way to attack my pain, but at the same time, if you could see what it does to me you would understand why I do it.

I struggle to stand upright. It sends stabbing shock waves of pain when I reach for something. My arms feel like they are being torn from my body or burn with throbbing sensations down into my hands while I sit and watch television. The back of my skull pounds in a rhythmic beat that feels like it is being smashed in by a baseball bat. Sleep is short lived as I now find myself waking in anything from mild discomfort to agonizing pain two or three hours into the night.

Each day, I feel as if my time is limited. If I do not scurry about trying to do all I can as fast as I can before I am floored with pain, I am knocked down with fatigue that comes from a lack of quality rest. It is a cycle that comes and goes depending on things like how many millimeters a bulging disc impinges a nerve in my neck, a change in the weather, how much time I have spent upright, and the weight of a spine that wants to compress with age.

There are days I figure I am just two-thirds of the way through my life and I have much to look forward to. Then there are days I wonder if I can take this pain for the final third of my life and whether it will be worth it. There is quality of life and there is quantity of life. What good is it to live until you are 90 if the last third is physical misery?

For the first time since I retired in 2014, I have a job that brings a real sense of purpose. I am no longer just the next guy to come along and fill in a vacancy. I have been made to feel I still matter and the work I do is noticed and appreciated. It was not like this toward the end of my teaching career. Much of it was spent with me waging a private war with a district office that went out of its way to make my life miserable. I pissed off the wrong folks and they decided to remind me they had more power than me every chance they got.

It did not help matters that much of this time also found me dealing with the aftermath of my bike accident and the resulting struggle to get back my physical self. It also coincided with a worsening depression, some of it chemically related to a brain imbalance and some of it due to my work and life situation. I was alone in the world and wanted nothing more than to feel as if I still mattered. As my current therapist has mentioned several times, it is a wonder I did not succumb to a life of addiction.

I learned early in my life to swallow my pain and soldier on. What seemed like a skill turned into a curse over the decades and what seems so clear to me now was not anywhere near my thought process as it was unfolding. Just as childhood is a process that hopefully results in a well-balanced and happy adult, my realization of three chronic conditions has taken me down a path of self-discovery.

Most of us survive our childhoods. It is not until we become adults that we are forced to come to terms with it and its aftermath. Growing up in an era where seeking mental health treatment was something no one wanted to talk about only resulted in my failing to clean up the mess that existed inside of me.

The more energy I spent trying to keep my depression in check only resulted in sucking away energy I could have used to create stronger relationships with loved ones, friends, and colleagues. It prevented me from fully buying into the life I had, the opportunities that presented itself, and the possibilities that might lie ahead.

Feeling free of that weight thanks in large part to TMS and a good therapist, the weight I carry from pain and fatigue have separated themselves from my depression. Each now stands alone and no longer seems so daunting. Their root causes may not be fully known yet, or in the case of my pain being multiple, but I at least feel I have made great progress this year in handling the two. Having a greater sense of purpose helps immensely.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

The old get tired of living not because they hurt or because they are alone, but because they no longer feel like they matter. It is why so many people of varying ages choose to end their lives. If you feel as if you no longer matter, it becomes much easier to pull the trigger, swallow a handful of pills, or take a leap.

It is constant work for me to keep ahead of the invisible cycles of pain, fatigue and depression that have controlled me more than I care to admit. I cannot take for granted I am fixed for good when I know these are conditions that require daily management and reassessing. Like it or not, it is a big part of who I am, but it is not all that I am. Just as others who have more visible chronic conditions must learn to adapt to what life has thrown at them, I have learned I must adapt to what has been thrown at me.

Today is Saturday and I may or may not try to get in a nice bike ride. I have time to decide, time to assess, and time to plan an alternative.

Tomorrow, I have work and lots of it. There are toilets to deal with, holes to patch, walls to paint, and doors to secure. There is inventory, organizing, ordering, and a place to ready for when it is allowed to open back to the public. It is tired and in need of repairs, much like me, but not so far gone that improvements can’t be made. The motel serves a purpose to many with nowhere else to live. Without such a purpose, it is more likely to become another statistic of the many businesses lost during a pandemic. In that sense, it is no different than the lives people take when they lose their sense of purpose in this world.

Tuesday: December 15, 2020

My pain tolerance is being tested at a level that feels new to me. I can’t get a break from the many forms it is hitting me with. Because of its constant nature, I am also not getting any decent sleep so I am dragging on top of hurting.

My neck is acting up and has been increasingly so for a few weeks. As it does, the pain from it is felt in a number of ways. There is the usual weakness, stabbing, throbbing, soreness, and tenderness that strikes the entirety of my arms. However, there is a growing pain radiating further down my spine. It’s there as soon as I get up each morning rather than waiting until late in the day. It used to feel like someone used the center between my shoulder blades as a target to hit me with an arrow. Now, it burns further down.

With the burning, comes a tightness as I tense up. What was just a stiff neck and shoulders is now a tightness I feel into my ribcage and low back. I tell myself if I can just get another epidural for the neck, this will all go away.

However, I know my pain is not just neck related. A few days ago, the weather turned and with it came the aching feeling that engulfs my entire body. I particularly feel it in my hips, glutes, and quads. It is not from over doing it with workouts or long rides up steep climbs because my workouts have been greatly curbed. This morning was the first time in a week and a half that I did a light spin on my bike. Just getting in an easy walk is all I have in me some mornings.

I have to remind myself to back off of my training for now because it will just add to my fatigue and only remind me just how weak I am in this state. My job is taxing enough and will have to do for fitness until I am done with this bout.

I would also bet dollars to donuts my white blood cell count has dropped again given my ability to fall asleep easily. Staying asleep is another matter. Yesterday, I was up at four and napping by six in the morning. Today, during an MRI for my thoracic spine, I was out in no time despite an ear plug falling out making it very loud or the caffeinated drink I had before the procedure.

It can seem overwhelming when you have so many different body parts hurting in the many ways mine do. I forget how much something hurts until I do something that lights it up. If it was just the achy feeling I have or just the neck related pains, I would be miserable. Having both along with the fatigue is a constant reminder that no matter how much I have managed to improve my mental health, I still have my work cut out .

It is because of my improved mental state that I am able to handle this. A year ago, I was in the early stages of seven months of chronic pain and fatigue while also dealing with a declining mental state. When a person is worn down mentally, they have no fight in them when chronic

pain and fatigue set in. However, I am able to remind myself of the many blessings in my life and know the pain I am in is temporary. I have the patience to wait for the medical approval to come in for my next epidural and I have a positive distraction in the form of work that I enjoy.

I also do not feel any pressure from my wife or others. She understands my situation and provides me with comfort, reassurance, and love.

Still, it doesn’t change what I feel physically. I want to numb myself from this agony. Coming back from my MRI, I thought about pulling into the store to buy some beer knowing it, coupled with my pain medication, would provide a numbing effect that would give me a temporary reprieve from what I felt. It’s too easy to do, just as it is too easy to load up on a higher dose of pain medication. Then the radio played a song by Prince and I am reminded of his early death and the early passing of Tom Petty. Both died from an overdose related to their chronic pain.

It’s always easier to jump down the rabbit hole than it is climbing back out of it. More often than not, it ends up being a leap you do not survive and because pain, fatigue, and depression are invisible illnesses, loved ones and friends are left wishing they knew just how miserable the victim was.

Acknowledging to someone with one of these illnesses you know they are hurting lets them know they are not invisible. Letting them know it is okay to feel what we feel and that you are with them through it all removes some of the self-imposed pressure we place on ourselves. Telling them how glad you are to see us back to ourselves reminds us we matter and are missed. These are the things that too often go unsaid because the person who suffers from chronic pain, fatigue, or depression feels alone, and many times just prefers to be alone, because they feel miserable.

It’s okay to ask someone if they are okay. It’s also okay to express your concern with someone who seems off their game. The sufferer may not reply in the way you hope, but he will hear your words and they will sink in like water into the deepest reaches of soil and help that person to thrive again.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

Wednesday: December 16, 2020

It is just after four in the morning and I have been up for over an hour. I actually slept well for a change, but one of the things that comes from pain disrupting your sleep is breaking the sleep cycle you develop once the pain ebbs.

Since it is still dark out, I am going to guess there has been a change in the weather pattern. My nose is very dry which tells me the humidity has dropped and with it the temperature has risen. The house is not as cold as it has been recently when I wake with pain and there is much less stiffness in my body to work through. Other than the slight burning sensation in my mid back, I feel pretty good and the only explanation I have for it is a weather change. We will see.

I have written before about the effect the cooler and damper weather has on my body and the aching that comes with it. It is something I am more cognizant of now that I am older. However, I realize the aching it brings is the same aching I noticed as far back as elementary school. It tells me whatever it is goes far back in life. Besides the discomfort it brings, it comes with a feeling of anxiousness that makes me want to constantly move. As a kid, this was easy because I would just go outside and play.

I remember the feeling well in school and how much recess provided temporary relief. It made staying focused and on task in the classroom difficult. I was never one to fall asleep in class. Instead, I would be the class clown or look for a reason to get up and move. My body was telling me to relieve what at the time I didn’t know was physical discomfort.

In the evening, I was unable to sit still and do my homework, just as I often was unable to sit still and do my classwork. The more tactile the task, the better I performed. It was not, in my opinion, attention deficit related because after any sort of activity, I could always settle right down and focus for a time. Maintaining my focus was hard because too often I realize my discomfort taking over.

It is why I did so well in physical education. The constant movement, whether it was doing calisthenics, playing a game, or running laps, took my mind off of my aching. As a teacher, I was physical in nature. I moved about the classroom instead of sitting behind my desk when I taught social studies. Outside, while teaching PE, I found the same overcast and damp days painful unless I was constantly moving and monitoring my students. It’s why today, I still enjoy the relief being active brings me.

Unfortunately, I have pain that is more than just barometrically related. Ten orthopedic related surgeries have not helped my cause. Neither has hitting a trunk head first at 30 mph and the resulting damage it did to my body. Playing sports and enjoying physical tasks have taken a toll on me and I am paying the price.

With all these pains comes countless memories and almost all are joyful. The endless hours of playing tackle football with my pals, little league baseball games, basketball in the backyard, and soccer. I still remember the day when my friend Mike introduced me to soccer in second grade. His dad was from Yugoslavia and was once a goalkeeper for a professional team there. He taught Mike the game and he brought it with him to Happy Valley School.

There were no soccer goals at our school because in those days few knew about the game. I was getting in on the ground floor of a growing sport that swept through my class. By fourth grade, we would take on the older kids and use the baseball backstops as our goals. The frustration from the older kids not being able to beat us made every game that much more enjoyable for me since I was the little brother who was never able to beat my older brother, Chuck, at any sport.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

In sixth grade, our local sports league offered soccer as a fall sport for the first time. By then, my friend Mike had moved away. However, for the first time in my life, I excelled at something none of my older siblings had excelled at and this made me feel good. It was also the first time I played on a sports team that was filled with talent and beat everyone we faced. Our Eagles squad was the first team ever to win an LMYA soccer championship and I was hooked on the game.

My coach, Mr. Ferguson, saw things in me I did not know I possessed. I was the team captain and his constant praising of me made me feel wonderful inside. It was something I was not used to and I found myself willing to run through brick walls for my coach because he made me feel anything was possible.

As usual, my father did not attend any of my games. He remained either oblivious to my talent or was unable to wrap his head around a son enjoying a game where you run around a field in shorts kicking a ball. My mom was usually there and even though she did not understand the game, her presence made me feel noticed.

I would continue playing soccer competitively through my first year of college before deciding to give it up. By then, I had suffered enough injuries and knew with my skinny legs my dream of being a professional player was never going to happen. I was better off in the long term focusing on my education. I would continue playing the game in intramural leagues, but by the time I finished my undergraduate work, I had stopped playing the sport.

In its place, I ran. This was something that came natural to me and it allowed me the physical outlet, endorphin release, and opportunity to compete in a sport. Movement remained vital and without knowing so, running helped ward off the aching attacks that my body felt along with my depression. However, by now, I began noticing a connection between both. When the cloud of depression took over my brain, it often brought physical discomfort and vice versa.

However, the two also remained separate as I could become depressed at any time of the year and when not depressed, I could ache all over. Running was a relief and became a big part of who I was. By the time I left college, I was a 141 pound running machine who prided himself on his finishing times and placings in local road races.

Like any person who competes in a sport, running also brought ailments, most of which I worked through. One thing I never knew up to this point was just how much tolerance I possessed for pain. I learned to block it out as best I could all because I loved playing sports. As a freshman in high school, I played football on the school team with a broken thumb. The next two years, while playing soccer, my ankle would swell and need icing after every practice and game. It was tender to touch and I eventually resorted to taping a pad over the inside of my ankle.

By the time I told my dad, the doctor, about it, I had played soccer year round for two years. I remember his usual annoyance of having to take me down to his office to x-ray what he was certain was nothing only to hear him say, “God damnit, you have a broken ankle.” I declined a cast and took a little break because by then, I was used to the discomfort.

So when I began getting stress fractures in my lower right leg, I learned to block out the pain and continue chasing my running goals. By 1989, years into my competitive running, I saw a specialist who said the ligament that connects the tibia and fibula just above my ankle was calcifying. Its rigidness was causing my pain because it was in the process of turning to bone. He suggested surgery and for me to stop running and replace it with a non-impact activity.

I had my first orthopedic surgery shortly after and after a ten week recovery I resumed running. Okay, maybe I am not the best at following doctors’ orders. I would run more on grass and dirt and less on hard roads, but I was not about to stop what I loved. Oddly enough, I would continue to run up to the age of 49 when my bicycle accident resulted in my not being able to run. After several attempts to resume running, my body was no longer as symmetrical as it was and because of it, anything beyond a five minute jog usually resulted in calf or hamstring strain.

Running was replaced with cycling, but ever since June 16, 2007, my body has paid a steep price for what happened as a result of that accident. The pain from mangling my body and damaging my neck is here to stay and I have long stopped telling myself maybe it will all get better. I am a thinner version of Humpty Dumpty. Doctors and physical therapists have put me back together again, but I am forever riddled with the results of the damage done.

While I am able to run now, I have not done so for five months. I have no desire to run competitively so I had to ask myself how does the act of running make my ailments feel? I have found I have less discomfort the day after I go for a long bike ride than I do after I run an hour on my treadmill. I can ride a bike four days a week and not feel much more than some heaviness in my legs that comes from riding hard. However, bending, squatting, and even standing for a while is not a problem. While running is less time consuming, at 62 and with all I have experienced, it is harder on me after the fact.

I finally have to weigh the pros and cons of what I do to myself and side with not over doing things. Right now, this means taking a break while I ride out this current wave of discomfort. It means factoring in the physical nature of my job and knowing what the aftermath will feel like. It means I am no longer either able or willing to go to the extreme to block out pain and the fatigue it brings.

It is humbling to know time has worn me down and I have to admit I have limitations. While I do not like this, I have learned to change my outlook. I see myself as having more options at my disposal. I am free to take it easy knowing it won’t negatively affect me. I can go hard and push myself when my body feels up to it. I can relax and enjoy the feeling that comes with knowing what I have done as well as enjoy the feeling that comes with what I can still do.

It’s time I go out and check what the weather feels like. Cold, damp, warm or mild; it doesn’t matter because I know how to adapt better than ever.

Sunset at Camp Pendleton, CA
(Tim Forkes)

Friday: December 18, 2020

Yesterday, I had my final session with my therapist. We both agreed I am doing much better with my mental frame of mind and am no longer in need of sessions. Despite an increasing amount of physical pain that often leaves me in agony at day’s end, my mental strength and outlook is totally different than when I began seeing her. My mind does not take me to dark places and I do not question if this pain is worth tolerating for the rest of my life. I have found some treatment options that provide a reprieve and know there is always a light at the end of a tunnel of pain.

That said, it is still frustrating having to wait patiently while the wheels of big insurance slowly churn. I had to stop by the pain clinic after my therapy session to find out why I have not heard back from them for a date for my much needed epidural. I have to remain a squeaky wheel and keep on people to get what I need unless I want to resign myself to eating pain medication all day.

Wednesday night was total hell for me. By 6:30, I was “asleep” on the couch while my wife watched television with our dogs. My spine was on fire and any movement sent off pain signals that made me blurt out sounds of agony. My pain level was off the chart, but with there being a major COVID surge going on, I was not about to go to the ER for help. Beer, Vicodin, and muscle relaxants would have to get me through the wave of torture I was feeling.

Even though I know it is a dangerous combination, I have to rely on something that brings me some comfort. Because of the nature of the work I am doing, it just is not possible to rely on the small dose of medication I am prescribed to get through the day. I don’t need to add to my woes with a job related accident caused by Vicodin, nor do I need the challenge of not being able to hold a thought from the fog the drugs shroud the brain with. I need clarity during the day, but this means I am miserable by the time I get home.

It’s all part of a cycle I go through. The epidural provides me with relief for two months before wearing off. During this time, I have more energy and can do the sort of things I enjoy most. Once it is no longer working, each day is a progression of pain that increases slowly at first before it gets to the point it is now where it greets me first thing in the morning.

Morning arrives earlier each day as the epidural wanes. Today, I was awakened by my discomfort at 2:30, headed out to the recliner where I remained uncomfortable until 4:10. I woke with a nasty headache and a mild burning sensation in my mid back. Today will be another brutal day since I have a day of repairing, painting, and replacing things in the 84 rooms I am in charge of overseeing.

Before I head to work, I make note of the various things I need to get to. I study them and devise a plan to follow that will hopefully allow me to ward off my pain and exhaustion until after lunch. I will take as late a lunch as I can so I have fewer hours to work at the end of my shift. During this time, today, I think I will use it to replace the dingy metal bed, table, and dresser legs that make a room look less inviting with shiny new one. I have to lay on the floor to do this work which will allow me to be productive while taking pressure off my spine.

I am able to do this sort of thing because we are not renting any rooms due to a COVID outbreak. However, once this ends, I have to be ready for the unexpected and be able to respond to matters as they pop up. This is why I want to get my next epidural now. It will make the unexpected easier to deal with when my spine, arms, shoulders, and pretty much the rest of my body is not lit up. Also, I am hoping by then, we will be back to our normal hours and I will have just two or three days of work per week.

It is surprising the amount of energy the body exerts when it is fighting the sort of pain I get hit with. My workouts have dropped off tremendously this month. I have not been on my road bike in two weeks and my gym work is often nothing more than some light stretching and a short walk every other day. It’s not even enough to break a sweat. Still, I cannot consume enough calories to maintain my usual weight despite eating three meals and snacking on cashews and pistachios all day. I am also unable to keep enough fluid in me to prevent myself from cramping up. It becomes one more complication while I try to ride out the wave of pain I am caught in.

Monday: December 21, 2020

Nothing about this year has been normal for anyone thanks to the impact of COVID-19. For the families of 30,000 Americans, give or take, the remaining days of 2020 will be a reminder of what this illness has taken from them. At least this many will die over the coming days and hundreds of thousands more will come down with it.

For over two weeks, my boss has been fighting the virus along with a bad case of pneumonia. She will be among the lucky who will be able to live to tell others what it was like to experience what a year ago no one was thinking about. What we won’t know for some time are the long term effects she and countless others will be left to live with for months, years, and perhaps the rest of their lives. Many will be left to navigate life with an invisible illness as an after effect that will see them drastically change their lives.

These long term effects are likely to result in chronic pain, fatigue, depression, and PTSD, and plague them in ways we may never know. It is what we do not see in others that results in victims feeling alone in a world that eventually moves on with life now that vaccines are being rolled out.

Making matters worse is a culture’s desire to not hear about things they don’t like. We have become increasingly distanced from one another as we create our own happiness built on escapism via our favorite electronic device.

Don’t like the headlines in the news? Play a video game. Don’t want to hear about your friend or loved one suffering from an illness long gone? Block their text messages. Finding someone you care about too depressing to be around? Move onto another person until you become bored.

This has been the case too often for people who suffer from an invisible ailment. If we do not see something is wrong with someone, it is all too often left to the sufferer to speak up. When loved ones, friends, and colleagues do not see anything wrong with someone, they must possess the empathy to ask those they care about how they are doing. If they don’t, if they do not know how to, or if they just can’t be bothered, then the sufferer feels that much more alone.

For too long, we have been raised to suffer in silence. We abhor the outbursts of narcissists, but more often than not, as the squeaky wheel, they learn it gets them what they want. However, for the person who is not self-absorbed, we remain quiet and soldier on because we know no one likes the person who constantly craves our attention and help. We do not want the labels that come with it so we suffer in silence.

Somewhere, there needs to be a middle ground. It should not take a near death experience to make us realize we need to do better when it comes to checking in on others. Most of us are good people and are willing to help someone, but we are not that well equipped on how to listen to others, let alone help them.

I was left with plenty of scars as a result of my bicycle accident in 2007. The head injury still causes me horrible headaches to which I am required to take Gabapentin, a drug used to stop seizures, for the rest of my life. Fifteen herniations in my neck cause horrible burning, constant muscle soreness and stiffness, and weakness down both arms. My hearing is shot. My ribs still feel the scar tissue built up from having been ripped away from my sternum. The exhaustion, always by days end and often much sooner, from just trying to maintain my posture all day feels like a weight that increases until I fall asleep with the help of painkillers.

Despite those injuries, the worst one I deal with and cannot make sense of is why someone in a car would slow down and drive past my bloody and mangled body as I desperately waved a juniper branch because I couldn’t call for help? Some people have said that person will get what he has coming to him; karma. Perhaps. Then again, maybe it was karma that got me. Maybe I did something in my past that came back to haunt me in my moment of desperation. Perhaps, like the accident itself, it was all a fluke. What I do know is I will never know. It’s not knowing that hurts because I can never make sense of it and I can never make peace with it because I do not have all the facts.

Despite the myriad of emotions this brings me, I am also thankful it happened. I know the feeling of sudden and unexpected hope arriving as a car slows down and approaches close enough that I can smell its exhaust. Convinced help had arrived, I was left crushed by the realization it did not stop. It simply moved on up the road and left me believing I was living my final minutes on this planet.

If it never happened, if a random driver failed to stop and help me in a time of great need, he only failed himself. Because of his act, it has led me on a path of self-discovery. It has led me into therapy and helped me dive into my life from early childhood to the present. It has required me to examine what I have tried to bury and to see my experiences from multiple perspectives. Best of all, it has allowed me to accept my life as it is and always has been instead of creating a separate world where I hide behind an electronic device or numb myself from the outside world.

If it was not for that driver’s actions, I never would have had my faith in humanity reaffirmed by the couple who chose to give up their quiet morning and investigate what their dog was barking at. I think of them whenever my mind is drawn to that driver and I turn what could be a nightmare revisited into a reminder of my good fortune.

(Photo by Tim Forkes)

The survivors of coronavirus will, for the most part, go on and appear “normal” to their family, friends, and co-workers. It will be this appearance of normalcy that causes the rest of us to stop checking in on them just as we might do with anyone after an illness. However, like anyone left with a chronic condition, they will be left to make sense of the enormity the illness had on their body and mind. The unseen scars are the deepest we carry and bring with them the tales many of us do not want to hear about or be bothered with.

If you are on the receiving end of someone sharing their tale with you, just listen. Put down the phone, step away from what you are doing and just lend an ear. The chronic need to let out their feelings instead of bury them under mounds of false bravado. We have no problem asking if we can help a colleague who is having a bad day at work because of the stress of their job. We usually know we can do something to help lighten their workload and do it willingly. But how do you help lighten someone’s pain load, emotional load, or fatigue load without making them feel they are being judged or a drag?

Bad days come in many forms just as bad breaks do. If we become callous to the world we live in we become no different than the person who drives past a person in need. It’s too easy to do in a world where we are overworked, underappreciated, and left with too little time to take care of ourselves let alone others. It takes work to just ask someone how they are doing after they have been through any ordeal, but doing so goes a long way to making individuals feel like they matter. Best of all, I believe, it becomes contagious and let’s face it, wouldn’t this be much better for mankind rather than waiting for the next time the unexpected strikes?