When depression turns your world upside down, you're forced to take a good look at what you can change to make things better. This process is painful in many ways, but not surprisingly the closer you look, the more you find.
In my case there were obvious things I could do right away, like losing weight, starting an exercise program, going to group therapy meetings, etc. I was fortunate enough to be able to move to a new city, leaving behind a place where terrible memories only impeded my progress.
The psychic sting of depression does lessen over time of course, but there was one thing I could not eliminate from my life no matter how hard I tried — the presence of chronic physical pain.
This nefarious demon made its entrance in February 2001, during a terrible ice storm on a Sunday night. I went out onto my kitchen porch to check my driveway, wondering if I’d be able to get out in the morning and take the kids to school. I’ll never forget that split second moment when my feet literally flew out from under me and I landed heavily on my backside.
I can replay at will the terrible thunk that sounded as the back of my head hit the concrete and bounced back up again. Luckily, I didn’t lose consciousness. My right knee immediately began to swell, and I couldn’t put weight on it. I scooted back into the kitchen and, from my position on the floor, managed to get the crutches I kept on hand at all times (I’d had several prior knee procedures).
I spent the night on the couch, planning to call my babysitter at the crack of dawn to come take me to the emergency room and deal with the children. What I didn’t “plan” for was the presence of pain that would be with me for the rest of my life.
At surgery two days later, I learned there were chipped bones and torn support structures. A program of physical therapy followed. The unbearable pain that ensued, as well as a sense of instability, were dismissed by my surgeon and therapist, the very people I trusted to help me recover. I was told to "work through it."
After six months of agony, I sought help elsewhere and discovered my kneecap was dislocated. That this revelation evoked tremendous anger goes without saying. Like many, I chose not to pursue legal action. The following years involved multiple surgeries to stabilize the joint, all ending in failure, until I underwent a total knee replacement in 2004.
At that point I had high hopes of getting out of the woods — surely this would eliminate the pain! No such luck — the replacement itself needed revision in 2006 due to poor alignment. My pain, although somewhat diminished, became a permanent fixture in my life.
Five years ago a second fiend surfaced — excruciating pain in my lower back. My pain “specialist” ignored me as well, did a cursory investigation, and told me I had fibromyalgia. I remember leaving his office in tears, never to return. I went to several more consultants until I got the answer (via an MRI, an exam that was initially considered "not appropriate") — my lumbar scoliosis, never diagnosed in childhood, had progressed to a “severe” stage, and crucial supporting joints of my spine had just about disintegrated.
Surgery was not an option. My new program omitted therapy in any form; I became just another of the millions of pain-sufferers taking pills and patches. Everything worsened, more personal loss and tribulation entered my life, and the depression — previously mild and manageable — brought everything to a grinding halt. At its worst, depression made the pain bearable simply because I stopped moving. I was living the "horizontal life" — the couch and the bed became my two best friends.
I'm making progress with my depression now — the brain is indeed "plastic" — but the skeleton I inhabit cannot be replaced. Pain shrunk my world 11 years ago; it’ll be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never run again, and will probably end up in a wheelchair, but I’ve entered an "acceptance" mode.
I’ve jettisoned the shame and frustration of not being able to keep up with others — I just let them push on ahead, I'll get there eventually. I'm used to people not knowing what's going on inside me; they see I can stand, walk and smile, and so assume I'm "normal."
They don't know that my world view has contracted to the next spot of ground my foot will land on, I'm that petrified of falling again. If I want to see passersby or store windows, or maybe even the sky, I just stop in midstream and look around. I can only walk two or three blocks at a time anyway.
I’ve been able to keep my commitment to weight loss and exercise — all by myself, without pills or therapists or anybody reminding me — I live alone. Meditation and continuing spiritual work have only improved matters. I made the decision to adapt. To live with my pain and depression, not fight them.
For me, the words "win" and "battle" and "beat" don't help. I needed to accept, to adapt and change. Depression and pain, which so often go hand in hand, took me to a point of complete paralysis, a place I don't want to revisit.
Is my glass half-empty now, or half-full? I don’t know!
I do know that I can do this, I can make change happen, I know that when these duel demons overwhelm me it’s time to stop. To just sit still for a while and look around. Take a break. A way, an opening, perhaps a tiny crack in the shell, will eventually present itself. It’s just up to me to find it, and head in that direction.
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