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Dear Back Pain

A snake in the grass, just like the back pain that plagues the writer of a letter posted to the Dear Diagnosis project.

You have been with me for 20 years now – since I was 14 years old. You are like a snake in the grass, striking when I least expect it. You took me down for the first time when I was just a teenager. There was no accident or trauma. Just a family history that nobody thought would manifest so young.  But, over the course of an hour, while I was warming up for a volleyball game; I went from being a carefree kid to being carried out of the gym by my father. And, just like that, you changed my life forever. You caused a teenager to become knowledgeable about pain meds, acupuncture, massage therapy, and the threat of surgery. I started to figure out what ‘herniated discs’ were, as well as ‘spinal stenosis’. One doctor even said that I had the back of an 80 yr old woman – isn’t that what every teenager wants to hear?!?! There was an entire week spent crying at home thinking that I would have to be homeschooled. Then, there were little things like never wearing a backpack again… not being able to go on amusement park rides like a normal teen. My afternoons were spent at physical therapy rather than after school activities. When I took the SATs for the first time, it was while on serious pain medication – Vicodin. Back then, I’m not sure how much I understood about the dangers of these pain medications. I understood that I shouldn’t abuse them, however, this was all before the opioid crisis and before it made front page news. It wasn’t until I got to college and some girls in my dorm tried to buy them from me that I truly understood…

Fast forward to when I had my first back surgery. A 19 yr old shouldn’t have to deal with that level of pain and fear.  I was incredibly lucky that the surgery was successful for a time. After that, like any other snake, you slithered away for a few years. I was happy again, able to live my life, able to ALMOST forget that you existed. And then, out of nowhere, you came back – again with no warning! So, I coped with you, again, for another 4 years. Doing everything I could to keep you at bay – medication, ice, physical therapy, etc.  Until finally, 3 months before my wedding, you were so debilitating that I needed another surgery. By that point, you had caused (what I now know is) permanent nerve damage in my right foot and ankle. They call this “partial foot drop.” This later led to a stress fracture in my foot and long-term use of an orthotic brace. I’m ashamed to admit that I was horribly embarrassed of the knee scooter I had to use when my foot was broken – I didn’t want to go out very much in public with it. I continued to have embarrassment over the orthotic and accompanying ugly shoes that it entailed. Let’s be honest, I’m a woman and shoes matter!

I didn’t think you could possibly get worse, but last Christmas Eve I ended up in the ER – after collapsing in front of my children due to debilitating pain. You caused me to leave my 18-month-old twins on Christmas Day; to fly home from vacation so that I could be closer to my doctors! A neurosurgeon actually told me not to lift my children out of their cribs… but HOW?! I’m their MOTHER. Because I wasn’t able to pick them up I had to watch them go to others… it BROKE MY HEART.  There are no words to describe how angry I was at you for getting in the way of my relationship with my children. Throughout my life, you have created constant battles between the real me and the anger and sadness that slithers around with you. You trigger my anxiety. You are an awful, venomous snake that I would do anything to kill! So, there I was again: Fearful of needing an even worse surgery that would require both a neurosurgeon and a vascular surgeon; that would put me down for 3 months minimum with possible side effects like permanent loss of bladder control, serious vascular issues, etc.

I try to remind myself that you haven’t beaten me. After all, I’ve been able to achieve my goals in life… I have a Master’s degree and a successful career. Even better, I found a man whom I love and we have 2 crazy, funny, exhausting, beautiful children. But, despite my attempts to live in gratitude, the doubt continuously creeps back in… How long will I be able to manage without the next surgery? Will I even be able to walk by the time I’m 50?  Will I be able to continue to work? Will I be a burden on my family at some point? Am I already a burden on my family?! Will my kids understand why mommy can’t run with them, pick them up, play sports, go on a boat ride, go on a roller coaster… etc, etc, etc. 

And so, the cycle continues. Currently, Back Pain, you are not a snake hiding in the grass, you are fully visible. I have to take medication round the clock to keep you at bay. Each day seems to be a new challenge to overcome but – I’m still here. You have not beaten me. Today, I got to wake up and hugged my children. Today, I chose to be grateful for that. We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

Female, Age 35
Herniated Discs (L4/L5 & L5/S1), Spinal Stenosis

Dear Diagnosis Affirmation Key

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