- Welcome back everyone…here we are at Chapter 6. If you are new to my story, take some time to go read Chapters 1-5 before reading this one. In this part of my story, we pick up right when I had to stop working on November 1, 2015. It has taken me more mental preparation to write this part than it did to write Part 5 because I am about to share with you the most dark and frightening period of depression I have ever experienced.
- The reason I am sharing the darkest details with you all is the same reason I shared the darker poems. I want you all to know where I was and to know that I truly understand the choke-hold that depression places on your soul. It is important for you to know that I have been in the darkest valley and that through my faith in God and my clinging to His promises, along with focusing all my energy toward my mental, emotional, and physical rehabilitation, I have clawed my way out and so can you.
- “Mapping it Out”: Since we are about to get into some pretty intense material that even I had a difficult time organizing into story-form, I have decided it is best to give you an outline of where my story is headed from here on and what occurred in the months of November 2015-early January 2016:
- When I started my medical leave, we had a lot of hope that an intense physical therapy regimen combined with epidural steroid injection treatments to get my pain under control would allow me to heal completely and get my life back.
- I had my physical therapy in-take appointment and it revealed that my body was more damaged than I realized, and I had to accept that therapy was going to be extremely difficult and painful.
- The epidural steroid injections (ESIs) we were counting on did not work and only made my pain worse.
- When the ESIs didn’t work and I was left with no relief, everything crashed in around me and I went fully into the grief cycle. I experienced denial, anger, and deep depression that included absolute self-loathing. I went on a frightening downward spiral until I reached a turning point in January. This is the heavy stuff I am about to share with you.
“Medical Leave Begins”:
- As I mentioned in Part 5, the last little push I needed so that I would actually take time to work on myself came when I found out I was eligible for short term disability (STD) coverage for 12 weeks. It was such an amazing and comforting discovery! I couldn’t believe that after I had JUST had surgery and received STD payments for 12 of the 16 weeks that I was recovering from surgery, I was able to file a new STD claim based on the deterioration of my condition. So, although my income from disability coverage would be less than my normal salary, we would still be financially stable! This realization was huge for my independent spirit. I felt like not only could I focus on getting better, I could still contribute financially to our household bills. Honestly, I do not believe I would have taken medical leave without knowing I could still contribute financially and that we wouldn’t have to rely completely on Aaron’s salary. My benefits analyst had assured me 100% that I would receive STD payments for 12 weeks and that it would be a “seamless transition” in between short and long term disability coverage. I was so relieved!
“Honestly, I do not believe I would have
taken medical leave without knowing I
could still contribute financially…”
- Although devastation over my circumstances was the main feeling I was dealing with when I had to stop working, I was still trying in earnest to look for the positives in my situation. Aaron and the rest of my close friends and family were supportive of and happy about my taking time to work on myself. They had all been feeling helpless-watching me suffer and sink into depression for so many months-and now we all felt that things would get much better. I was excited for the chance to actually complete the healing that had been interrupted when I had to go back to work at only 4 months post-op. When I came home from my last day at work, one of my best friends gave me a handmade card in which she listed all of the things that she and I wanted to still do together once I got better! Our list included: walking our dogs daily, refurbishing furniture (flea market flip style!), 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, and even full marathons! Although I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to run in these activities, fast-paced walking is a great way to participate and still protect your joints. Also, I was looking forward to being able to be a homemaker for a while! I figured that since I was not going to be working, my pain level would be much more bearable and I could keep up with household duties/cooking/cleaning etc. We were looking forward to the chance that, between epidural steroid injections (ESIs) and an intense physical therapy regimen, my condition would improve greatly, and I would surely be able to accomplish all of these goals!
“We were looking forward to the chance that,
between epidural steroid injections(ESIs)
and an intense physical therapy regimen,
my condition would improve greatly,
and I would surely be able to
accomplish all of these goals!”
- So, we set out with getting my medical appointments scheduled. I was seeing pain management for ESIs almost immediately, and I had scheduled an evaluation appointment with physical therapy right before I went in for the first injection. In the past, epidurals had never worked for me. However, now that I had a very distinct L4/5 nerve pathway pain in my leg (this is the type of pain that typically responds to ESIs) that I had never experienced before surgery, we had a lot of hope that the nerve would respond to the injection. We figured that it would calm the inflammation down enough to allow me to work hard in physical therapy without having to deal with both excruciating back and nerve pain.
“The Dark Night of the Soul”:
- Friends, this next “chapter” as we embarked on therapy and treatments starts the darkest chapter of my life. The title-“The Dark Night of the Soul”- is from a well-known and heavily studied poem written by 16th century Carmelite monk-St. John of the Cross. In the poem, “the dark night of the soul, as he described it, is not simply the experience of suffering. It is suffering in what feels like the silence of God“(John Ortberg-Soul Keeping). WOW…that one statement truly sums up the feeling of a deep depression. I felt exactly that way for so many months as I sunk deeper and deeper into my depressive state. WHERE WAS GOD?! I still believed He was with me and that He had a plan…but that does not mean that I didn’t have plenty of anger and questions. Suffering in what seems like the silence of God, indeed.
- My physical therapy evaluation was an emotionally devastating day. My amazing physical therapist (who I now think of as family) spent an hour evaluating and discussing my condition with me. The news was not good. Being a medical professional with an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, I understood everything that was presented to me in my treatment plan that day. The gravity of my situation and road to recovery hit me like a ton of bricks. Friends, I had lost approximately 10-15 degrees of motion in my right hip joint, as well as complete loss of motion in my right side sacroiliac joint-solely due to the compensatory walking pattern I had developed due to my pain level. This news was shocking and unexpected. I knew my condition had deteriorated, but I didn’t expect to have measurable damage to my joints/hips and range of motion! But, I did, so it was time to get to work on reversing the damage and strengthening my body and core (spinal and abdominal) musculature via intense therapy.
- The epidural steroid injections (ESIs) were next in my treatment plan. I went in for a series of attempts (excruciatingly painful attempts at that) between November, December, and into early January; all the while still attending physical therapy appointments as we waited to see if the injections would help. Part of me would love to be able to stop here and tell you that the ESIs worked and that we were able to get my pain under control…but if that was the case, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story. The unwelcome truth was that I got no relief from the ESIs and in fact, they substantially worsened my pain level for about 1-1.5 weeks after each injection. I went through an emotional roller coaster each and every time I went in for another one to “just try one more time” because we didn’t want to give up the hope that they would work yet. We would start with cautious hope and excited anticipation, go through the excruciating procedure, and then came the “waiting period” to see if the steroid would be of any benefit…only to have everything crash down in disappointment at the end of approximately 2 weeks following the injection.
- Entering stage of anger and deepening depression: No words can describe how devastated and helplessly frustrated I was at that point in my journey. The hope-shattering truth of the condition of my spine had fully hit me and left me reeling. I had to accept that the state of my spine for the foreseeable future is: it is too affected to respond to conservative treatments like the ESIs, but it is NOT BAD ENOUGH to warrant going back in surgically (not that I wanted surgery…I only wanted relief). So, while I started out my medical leave with a lot of hope for improvement and expecting to gain control of my pain level, I now had to live with it as it was and push through what would prove to be an excruciating physical therapy rehabilitation program. As I was processing all of this information I also discovered that, even though I wasn’t working, my pain level was still just as bad! I could not even stand up at the kitchen sink long enough to wash a few dishes. To remind you of what my pain was like during this time, it was still at the level I mentioned in Part 5 where I said that I had only traded one hell (pre-surgical pain) for another. I had regressed so much that I was having to use a cane that I had not used since the acute surgical recovery time period.
“the state of my spine for the
foreseeable future is: it is too
affected to respond to conservative
treatments like the ESIs, but it is
NOT BAD ENOUGH to warrant
going back in surgically…”
- In addition to these factors, I also had TWO pain management doctors (not my surgeon) telling me that I should “get used to it” because since the ESIs did not work, I may very well be condemned to live with the intensity of the back and nerve pain I was suffering with currently. Because, as one “doctor” put it as he shrugged carelessly, “sometimes people have surgery and end up in worse pain than before the surgery…sorry”. Wow…thanks. Now THAT type of response and counsel from a medical provider is EXACTLY what someone who is suffering from chronic pain and a very obvious depression (since he was the one that did the depression screening paper work!) needs to hear.
“The Downward Spiral”:
- The reality I was now facing was too much…I was angry and heartbroken and SO many other things all at once. Whatever fragile hope I had, had now been dashed into one thousand pieces…and the shards of glass were cutting deep into my soul. Gone was the hope that the ESIs would get my pain under control; gone was the happy thought of being well-enough to at least take care of the household chores. I had to now learn to accept that my rehabilitation journey would be the biggest fight of my life when I was already completely exhausted from fighting to survive during the months I was working. Grueling work in physical therapy as well as home strengthening exercises was all I had…and while I am not afraid of hard work, the daunting size of the task ahead of me made me want to retreat into my room and stay there, wallowing in self-pity, indefinitely. Which is actually what I did for a while…not physically, but mentally and emotionally. I completely withdrew and began a horrible spiral downward into the scary depths of depression. My hatred of and anger at my situation easily spilled over into hatred of myself as depression tightened it’s choke-hold on my soul. Aaron and my close friends and family were trying to understand why I hated myself so much…why I felt worthless…why I felt like I was a burden to everyone around me, and I couldn’t even answer those questions. You see, I had never been THIS depressed before, and I did not even recognize those feelings/thoughts as resulting from my depressed state. My boat was sinking fast and I was drowning as I tried desperately to hold on when I should have been letting go! Another factor that added to my depression (or possibly came as a result) was when I gained weight during November-January. That, for me, made the situation even more desperate and unbearable because I was in too much pain to exercise enough to try to get fit and lose weight!
“Whatever fragile hope I had,
had now been dashed into
one thousand pieces…and
the shards of glass were
cutting deep into my soul.”
- Friends, this was the mental state I was in…it was horrible. Thoughts and feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, anger, fear of the future, and self-loathing turning over and over in my mind. I cannot tell you how many nights I alternated between screaming in sadness and desperation and screaming in anger as I asked God “WHY”! I had no answers…and the darkness of my depression was doing it’s best work to try and black-out all rays of light that were shining in the not-too-distant future. So, as a result of this very dark state of mind and the anger and disgust I felt at the fact that my spine was bad enough to make me absolutely miserable, but not bad enough to allow surgical intervention, I had a split-second moment where I considered taking matters into my own hands. Our house has two flights of stairs, so one night when I was home alone, I thought about throwing myself down the stairs in the hope that the trauma from the fall would make my spine “bad enough” for them to fix it. The fact that I had just thought about something like that-even if only for a split-second- TERRIFIED me…and I pushed it out of my mind immediately and collapsed into a defeated heap; sobbing and crying out to God for help.
- That was the darkest night of my life. I never breathed a word to anyone about having that moment until I knew I had to break my silence and talk about it so that I would be able to share it with you all. Friends, if you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, suicide, etc., please REACH OUT FOR HELP!! More people love and care about you than you realize…and I can promise you that it DOES get better! Please hold on!
“Beauty From the Ashes”:
- That moment was extremely difficult to share with you all…but I would never NOT share it because I NEED you to know that it can and it will get better. I can say this with conviction because I was at that point and now, I am here, I am stronger, and I am telling you about God’s love, faithfulness, and His plan for our lives! I am telling you that He has come in and healed my heart in the midst of shattered dreams and of having to accept the fact that I will ALWAYS live with chronic pain. That if I will just let Him, He will show me exactly how to do that….LIVE the amazing life He has given me–even though I never expected it would look the way it does! My loving, faithful God has created the most beautiful blessings and has given me a new purpose from all of my years of pain and suffering. He will never fail us, even when things seem completely hopeless. Cling to Him and His promises…because I promise it will be worth it and He will always create beauty from the ashes of our shattered lives.
This ends Chapter 6…Chapter 7 is coming soon! As I continue my story in Part 7, I will share about my decision to start seeing a mental health counselor and how she has played such a vital role in my recovery. I will also discuss my continued physical rehabilitation, new developments in the condition of my spine, and the remaining dark times that I had to navigate before reaching the turning point in my mental health recovery. Stay tuned and please remember to be kind to yourself!!