Sunday, July 17, 2016

Thoughts On Pain And Its Purpose: The Surprising Upside Of Injury

I've been thinking a lot about pain lately, mainly because I've been experiencing a lot of it. Not just the usual heartache that comes with being an oversensitive, exhausted, working parent of three young kids, but actual physical pain.

It all began about eight months ago, when the usual post-run stiffness and soreness in my right hip simply wouldn't go away, no matter how much I rested, iced, or stretched it. The pain got so bad it literally stopped me in my tracks mid-run one day, and I ended up limping 4 miles home.

Several trips to the doctor eventually lead to a round of physical therapy, which lead to an MRI, which lead to an orthopedic surgeon, which finally lead to a diagnosis of a labral tear, bursitis, bone spurs, and a condition called Femoroacetabular Impingement, which basically translates to the ball and socket of the hip joint not fitting together properly.

In layman's terms, that means a structural issue with my hip, combined with a family history of arthritis, combined with two decades of high impact exercise have made for the perfect storm that is currently raging in my right side. Surgery is the only option to fix the myriad issues, and in my case, September (when the kids are back in school) is the only option to have the surgery.

So that means two more months of dealing with the pain, which is increasing by the day. Sometimes by the hour. Two more months of feeling every single step, never knowing which one will land safely and which one will lead to the entire joint buckling under me. Two more months of carefully easing down into chairs and using my upper body to compensate. Two more months in which everyday tasks like putting on socks, going up and down stairs, or reaching for an item on a shelf are oftentimes impossible, and almost always excruciating.

Running- my stress reliever/sanity saver/social outlet/source of inspiration has been taken away, indefinitely. Walking for any significant time is also too painful, and on any given day the same can be said for sitting, standing, and even sleeping. The fickle nature of this particular injury means that even on good days, one wrong move in any particular direction can throw the entire joint out of whack, resulting in a shooting pain so strong it brings me to my knees...figuratively, since I have nowhere near that range of motion right now. Only the pool and its delicious weightlessness offers a temporary respite from the pain and a vague sense of normal movement.

But I don't tell you all this so that you will feel sorry for me. I'm not looking for sympathy or a pat on the back. While I wouldn't wish this particular condition on anyone, I guess I'm not sorry it happened.

The pain has made me walk more slowly, talk more slowly, and to think before I move. This internal injury that can't be seen has profoundly changed the way I see everything around me, and caused me to retreat into myself in a way I have not done before. As a result of feeling so much in one part of my body, I believe I have become more sensitized in every area of my life.

And that's a real blessing, because it sure seems like we're living through times where no one wants to feel a darn thing. When tragedy hits- a shooting, a bombing, a toddler ripped away from his parents by a wild animal- we react. We judge. We criticize. We take sides. We insert our personal politics where they don't belong and throw verbal arrows from the comfort of our computer screens. Anything to keep from feeling the pain.

I get it. I get that when life hurts this much, when there is so much chaos and loss in the world, it's tempting to armor up, to shield ourselves from the intense vulnerability of the how much we, ourselves, have to lose. In other people's tragedies, our own are always present, as the instability of life reveals itself. Rather than face the possibility of something similar happening to us, of how many loved ones could be lost, how many cherished places destroyed, or how many dreams dashed, our instinct is to try to protect it all- to grasp it tightly and keep it safe- to control it, so that there's no chance we can be hurt.

But sometimes, we need to be hurt.

Medical professionals will tell you that pain serves a purpose. Acute pain, for instance, is protective. That's the kind of pain that lets you know that something is wrong and that you need to get checked out. For example, if you have chest pain when you're having a heart attack, that's a good thing if it makes you go to the hospital. If you touch a hot stove and feel pain, even though it's severe, it's a good thing because it makes you move your hand away.

Pain also serves a unifying and correcting purpose.  It tells us that something is wrong. If we didn't feel pain, we wouldn't know we were sick, and we wouldn't seek an answer. It's a healthy body that responds to pain, after all.

Emotional pain, I believe, can serve a similar purpose. We can't take care of what we do not feel, so if we anesthetize ourselves from every possible hurt, how will we ever address the root cause? We've become so fragmented as a nation, perhaps as a world, so hardened, that we feel almost nothing but anger...or worse, indifference. If the health of our society is measured by the way it responds to pain; to the hurting, the helpless, the broken, the bruised, the battered, the bleeding, and the impoverished among us...then we are in big trouble.

You may be telling yourself you feel fine. You're not in any pain. I guess I'm not sure that's enough anymore. Before I hurt my hip, I wasn't walking around rejoicing over its functionality. I didn't really have any feelings toward the joint which now occupies so much of my time and energy. But you'd better believe that once the surgery, rehab, and recovery have come to an end, I will feel differently about the ability to move without pain. The absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

I don't mean to suggest we all need to go out and injure ourselves just to find meaning in our lives- there's plenty of suffering in the world to go around. But the next time you find yourself in or near a painful situation, whether it is physical or emotional, whether it is yours or someone else's, before you do anything else, take a moment to sit with the pain.

Ease into it, and allow it to serve its purpose.

Take a moment to pray not just for, but in solidarity with those who suffer, to mourn with those who mourn.

Remember that pain softens the heart, as fire softens iron.

Feel someone else's pain, and allow them to feel yours.

And maybe together, we will begin to heal.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Orange Flowers On The Hill: Finding Strength In Unusual Places

Like many moms, I put a lot of miles on my car. And like many moms, I put the exact same miles on my car day after day...after day. In fact, it's less of a car and more of a school-sports-activity-grocery store shuttle.

We live in a relatively small community, so varying the routes to those same places isn't even a realistic option. So that means I drive down the exact same stretch of road multiple times each day. Most of the time, I'm on autopilot, as the same old scenery whizzes by. Golf course, restaurant, barn, hill, curve, curve, stoplight. Then later in reverse: stoplight, curve, curve, hill, barn, restaurant, golf course. As is often the case with the things most familiar to us, I see them so many times, I tend not to see them at all.

But I do remember the first time I saw the orange flowers on the hill.

It was one of the first few days of July, five years ago. At that time, I had a 3-week-old baby boy, a two-year-old daughter, and another son inching up on his fourth birthday. To say I was overwhelmed doesn't begin to come close. As if the physical and mental exhaustion of life with a newborn (and two toddlers) wasn't enough, with my husband working long hours, preschool done for the summer, and no family or any real support system nearby, I was breaking. Whether it was food, comfort, diapers, milk, or the blue sippy cup but NOT the red cup, from morning until night, and then right back into morning, someone needed something from me All. The. Time. Though I had little people attached to various parts of me virtually round-the-clock, I had never felt more alone.

My solution was to get the heck out of the house as much as possible, and just GO. Anywhere. Tire them out then pray for sleep. Though it felt more like preparing for the Invasion of Normandy than a trip to the park, I would pack up the diaper bag(s), load our motley crew into the car (unloading to change the baby, feed the baby, and change the baby one more time), and set off. Borrowing a page from Dory, my mantra in those days was "Just Keep Swimming...Until Naptime."

On one of those days, we had loaded up our royal motorcade for a morning at the local library, where Optimistic Me envisioned a few hours of cozy cuddling amongst the stacks as I exposed my little darlings to the joys of literature. Of course, with three kids under age 4, what unfolded was a tad different. My oldest threw a fit when he couldn't find the train book he wanted. I set the two year old down to help him, and another child ran over her finger with a rocking child. Her shrieking woke up the baby in the carrier, who seemed to think it was an invitation to a crying contest that he was NOT about to lose. Optimistic Me was nowhere to be found, but Real Me was left standing in the middle of the library, covered in a mix of sweat, tears, breastmilk, and other DNA samples not necessarily emanating from my body.

"That's IT! We're going home!" I yelled, gathering up whatever seemed to belong to me (children included) through teary eyes, and slinking out without looking back.

We piled back in the car, all of us sobbing. I turned up the volume on the radio hoping the music would soothe someone, anyone in this miserable lot. The rain was now coming down in sheets, and I sat for a few minutes in the library parking lot with water streaming down my windshield and my face.

Finally, I put the car in drive and headed home, down that same stretch of road I'd traveled so many times before. The rain was relentless, coming at us sideways and making huge puddles on the road. I hit one of those puddles just right, and my car began to hydroplane, sliding crazily around as I tightened my grip on the wheel and prayed for it to end.

Thankfully, it did, and though I was only about a mile from home, I pulled down the closest street to catch my breath. It was a private drive- a street I hadn't been down before, and for a moment I didn't recognize where I was. For that matter, I didn't even recognize myself. Or my life.

A few deep breaths later, my hands had nearly stopped shaking and the rain had all but stopped. I shakily turned the car around and got ready to return to the familiar road. I pulled up to the intersection, wiped one last tear from my eye, and pulled out. As I did, I looked straight ahead to see the hillside in front of me covered from to top to bottom in vibrant, beautiful orange wildflowers.

I was mesmerized. How many times had I driven past that same hill, and never noticed those flowers? Where did they come from? When did they bloom? I looked at my three beautiful children, now sound asleep in the rearview mirror, then at the flowers one more time before taking a deep breath and continuing down the road.

In the days that followed, I saw those flowers everywhere- scattered along the roadside, hiding next to mailboxes, growing seemingly out of nowhere, but standing tall and proud in the most unlikely places. Their fiery color and resilience were in such stark contrast to my mood, and I began to intentionally seek them out everywhere I went. Each one I saw felt like a little boost. A hidden message just for me. A reminder that you can't stop to smell the flowers if you don't even see them.

That summer passed and just as quickly as they appeared, the orange flowers were gone. It's now been five years since I first saw them, and every summer, right around this time, I look forward to their return. I drive by the hill and point them out to my children, making sure they clearly see what I was blind to for so long. I take note of how they much they've grown, despite being dormant for so long

I wish I could pick those flowers and hand deliver a bouquet to every new mother out there with a note that says "You CAN do this." I wish I could bottle up their scent and dab a little behind my ears on those days I need a little more strength. I long to press their petals in the pages of my life, to run my fingers across them in those dark chapters where fear tries to triumph over faith.

But it's enough just to see them, to watch them grow, then fade away, to know that they will be back, and to remember that this is but a season.

I don't know the actual name of those flowers- I'm told they are some sort of daylily- but to be honest, I don't really care.

In my mind, they will forever be known as "Hope Blossoms."