Back pain: ‘I am part-machine but still dream of wearing f*ck-off red stilettoes’
My pain consultant told me I would be a perfect candidate for a neurostimulator
Carol Miriam Hunt: If my kids swipe my remote, they can control me by putting my stimulation levels to high or low.
A question. You are lying in one of those trolley beds outside a hospital surgery room, doped to the gills, waiting to get wheeled in and knocked out so your excruciatingly painful “slipped disc” can be fixed.
Do you carefully read through the consent form you’ve been handed, see the words “paralysis” and “death” and say: “Hang on Doc, I’ve changed my mind, it’s not worth the risk. Get this natty gown off me and I’ll be on my merry way.”
I’m not asking for a friend.
Years of gymnastics in my teens had left me with a ridiculously damaged back. A discectomy in my 20s had been a success. Following that surgery, I minded my back well, did lots of good, hot yoga and it wasn’t until two decades later that another disc gave out, resulting in pain which rendered any type of movement impossible.
I needed help.
And so, I agreed to more surgery. With Leibnitz-like confidence I thought that this was the best of all possible choices.
Obviously, it wasn’t or I wouldn’t be writing this.
I ended up with significant nerve damage down my left leg, excruciating pain and a drop foot. When the hospital physiotherapist told me I would have to wear a splint and use crutches for a few weeks or months, I laughed at the idea and thought he was being ridiculously pessimistic.
I mean, I’m 5ft 3in. I wear heels. A lot of the time. Or at least I did. I’m not quite Imelda Marcos, but the comparison has been made. Red shoes are a particular favourite. If I had known then I would be in chronic pain, on a crutch and with a hideous leg splint for nearly two years I may not have got through that first week.
Chronic pain is an odd phrase. I had always believed it meant a low level of discomfort which is distracting and annoying, but easily controlled by drugs, rest and the right attitude.
I was wrong.
In my case, the pain would start off at a low level and then increase exponentially during the day. It was exhausting. It was frustrating. It became profoundly depressing. And, as in the past, I’ve twice been diagnosed as bipolar II (to be sure, to be sure); constant pain mixed with an inability to exercise, topped off with painkillers washed down with with the odd gratefully received glass of Pinot Grigio wasn’t quite the best combination for my mental health.
I went on numerous visits to my consultant, to nerve specialists, more MRIs, other consultants. I had epidurals and injections for pain. I began to look forward to the “happy juice” I would be injected with before I would drift off to Neverland where there was no pain and I could walk or even run if I wished. But I would always wake up and eventually the penny dropped.
I wasn’t getting better.
I returned to work – I brightly said it was a positive as I was enhancing the disability quota. I rolled my eyes and insisted “it could be worse” when asked how was I taking the fallout from the operation.
I pasted on a smile and bought sparkly flat sports shoes in the sales at House of Fraser, a size too big so I could fit the horrible splint into them. And, at night, I would wake from short, sedated bursts of sleep in fits of fury and frighten the dog by throwing whatever was handy at the wall.
The drugs helped. Of course they did. But at work it was obvious that heavy painkillers and straight thinking don’t mix. And so I’d avoid them until I hit the point when the pain itself became more mentally debilitating than the painkillers. I have a job where long hours and a clear head are necessary. At night, I would get home aching and exhausted and immediately walk the stairs to bed. There was nothing else. Except the financial strain and the weight gain.
Blur of agony
Everything was a blur of pain, followed by a little release with drugs, the sometimes relieving impact of alcohol on the drugs, the excruciating days of no drugs followed by weekends immobile and depressed in bed. On drugs.
If I was a horse, I joked; you’d just take me out and shoot me.
Except sometimes I wasn’t joking.
The break came when my pain consultant told me I would be a perfect candidate for a neurostimulator. This was explained as a vibrating implant which would send pain-numbing signals to my nerves. It wasn’t a miracle cure. If it reduced the pain by 50 per cent that would be considered a huge success. And it wouldn’t have any impact on the numbed nerves or the drop foot.
But it was a chance. A chance to get to a place where I could work at compensating for the nerve damage. If the pain became tolerable I could do physio and gentle exercise and try develop other muscles – as well as save my sanity.
It was a game-changer.
After a procedure where wires were put alongside my spine and another where an implant was put into my left butt, I was given a remote control and instructed in how to use it. I also got a card to present at airport security check-in where I would inevitably set the alarm off. I am now part-machine. Or a human vibrator if you like. As well as a doctor I have a technician. Seemingly in a few years I will be due an upgrade. When I say I need to lie down and “recharge my batteries”, I mean it. Literally. Via Bluetooth. And if my kids swipe my remote, they can control me by putting my stimulation levels to high or low. This gives them great amusement.
I’m now off the crutch and I’ve refused to ever wear that awful splint ever again. This means that my disability is not immediately evident so I don’t have to be sympathetic to never-ending stories of other people’s back problems. Every cloud, eh?
My foot slaps to the ground when I walk, but I still dream of wearing stilettoes with red soles. My days are ruled by pain levels but I can walk now even if I can’t run or dance. I’ve joined up to Ciara Kelly’s #100DaysOfWalking. Because I know, if I ever doubted, that exercise is crucial to mental health.
“What’s your message?” asked a friend when I said I was writing this piece. I suppose it should be along the lines of triumphing over adversary; coping through a shitstorm and coming out the other side, shouldn’t it? But excuse me if I forgo the Pollyanna ending and say; keep dancing as long as you can, particularly in f*ck-off red stilettoes.
Wear them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
You’ll regret it when the day comes you can’t. I do.