I’ve found myself relating to this excerpt from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath lately:
“I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”.
A few times a day I have to drag myself out of a haze, as if forcing myself to remember that there’s a whole life happening outside my current perspective. It’s hard to give anything else even a smidge of priority because, at this moment in time, it all seems like… well, it all seems like a waste of time. What could possibly matter more than what’s happening right this instant? Why should I care?
Three weeks ago, my husband elected to trial the spinal cord stimulator, which is the device implanted at the base of his spinal column intended to intercept pain signals from his brain to his leg. We were dancing around the subject for some time, not confident that another surgery was the best route for us. But after having spent time in my hometown in the US and consulting another specialist there, we quickly realised this was our only option. We weren’t going to sit around and wait until it got progressively worse. As horrified as we were, and as unsure that I still was about the whole concept, we went ahead. We knew, logically, there wasn’t another option.
Let’s talk about how that surgery day went for me:
I spent the night before having panic attacks and crying fits, absolutely petrified when faced with the risks and the unknowns, and how we wouldn’t know if this was a good idea until the procedure was done. I don’t like not knowing. When the morning came, we left for the hospital in a fog of exhaustion and apprehension. We got a hospital room to ourselves, which I viewed as a luxury when compared to previous experiences we’ve had with the NHS. His nurse was nice and clearly knowledgeable, and the doctor answered all my inane questions and quashed my initial concerns with facts. Then we waited. My husband fell asleep, while I sat there rocking in my chair, holding in tears and desperately trying to distract myself with books and my phone. When they finally came to take him for the operation, I hugged and kissed him, told him I loved him and that I would see him soon. The minute the door closed, the flood gates and panic were released. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt that worried or scared. My dear friends consoled me and tried to bring me back to reality as I waited in that room, alone, for four hours. When they finally brought him back to the room, he looked uncomfortable but in good spirits, all things considered. I cried some more, this time happy to have him back, and we waited to be discharged the same day. His whole back was bandaged up and he was in a good amount of pain, but by the time we got home, he said he felt like the device may already be helping. I clung to that positive aspect with all my might.
For two weeks, he tried to live as normal of a life as possible to truly test the device’s power and its effect on his foot pain. We had a few scares – a few days after the initial surgery, we spent 7 hours at the hospital thinking something was wrong. Toward the end of the 2-week trial, he somehow managed to accidentally power the device off, which meant all the foot pain came flooding back full force. Some days were exciting and positive, others were terrifying and hard. The emotional rollercoaster was insane, and I was struggling to keep up with my own well-being.
My days began and ended with my husband. We woke up, I helped him wash, I dressed him, I fed him, I looked after him in nearly every way possible. There are so many limitations with this procedure post-surgery that it’s almost laughable that the doctors advised us to ‘return to normal life’. This is not normal. I can only imagine he feels like he’s lost his personhood entirely. Meanwhile, it burnt me out. I’m still burnt out.
Despite all the chaos, we still went to work. I honestly don’t remember much of the last three weeks, though. I was there… but I wasn’t there. The stress of my personal life and the stress of my work life melded into one and I was just sat in the middle watching it whirl around me. This is my life. I couldn’t believe it was real sometimes. It was all a bit too much.
Well, those three weeks have come and gone and James felt the pain relief was high enough to go ahead with the full implant. So there we went again, back to the same hospital to get all the wires and the battery pack that had all been hanging outside of his body the last few weeks shoved inside and sewn back up. Gross, right? Did I mention that I do not do well with blood and guts and gore and especially hospitals? Adrenalin is a powerful thing folks – it’s kept me from passing out/vomiting this entire time! Anyway, we repeated the same process all over again, but this time I went armed with actual things to do like work, brought my own lunch so I didn’t have to deal with the anxiety of leaving the hospital, brought my own coffee and set up shop at the desk in the hospital room. I can’t say time went by any faster or that I was freaking out any less than the first time, but it helped to have things to do that had deadlines. It forced me to focus on work instead of speculating. It forced me to forget, albeit temporarily, that the last nugget of information the doctor gave us before taking my husband to surgery was that they may have to take the entire device out if there’s any sign of internal infection, let it heal for a month or so, then start all over again from the beginning – but they wouldn’t know that until they opened him up on the table. Gee, thanks! I know to these doctors, surgical procedures and risks are all in a day’s work, but sometimes I wish someone would remind them that patients are still real people who have worries and fears. While facts are important and appreciated, there’s a time and a place to drop those bombs.
Regardless, he went and I waited as impatient as ever. Praying to the god that I don’t actually believe in, but wish I did in moments of distress. This time when he came back, my breath caught in my throat. He looked horrible. He looked like he was in a serious amount of distress, pale and really very unhappy. It scared me. I must’ve asked him a thousand times if he was okay.
We learned later that he had been given ‘quite a great deal of morphine’ this time around, which is likely why he was feeling so awful. But despite this, he was chipper! He excitedly told me he could tell the device was definitely working, how the first thing he asked the nurse was when could he run again? His positivity inspired and shocked me, but still, he was in a noticeably great deal of pain.
We, again, went home the same day. A 90-year-old could’ve lapped us at the speed we were moving, but we eventually made it back and up the stairs to our flat. The pain this time around was horrendous. It makes logical sense – he has a foreign object wedged in his lower back, causing a bump nearly an inch out from the rest of his body. Pain meds have been his crutch and impatience has been his greatest weakness. There’s no bouncing back from this… it’s a gruelling, slow, immensely painful healing process. We’re both freaked out by this unnatural bulge in his back, and struggling to accept that this is ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. Twenty-somethings faced with a hardcore, fairly unique medical obstacle. Yeah, it hurts. Figuratively and literally. C’est la vie.
But we’re here now. He’s still in pain from the procedure and I still cry every day from the stress and fear of it all. But the device is helping. The device is helping. Sometimes I feel like I need to scream it to myself to remember, but this is why we did it. This is exactly why we thought it was worth the risk. The end game is important. There will be healing. The surgical pain will subside. He will gain his independence back and we’ll have our lives back. This is what we’ve been dreaming of for years. YEARS. This condition marred our entire relationship and for the first time, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. You guys. Do you understand how unbelievable this is? Do you understand how life-changing this whole thing will be? Some days I can. Other days it’s effort just to remember to put the leftovers in the fridge, which I’ve forgotten to do twice in a row in the last week.
Boy, I can’t wait to have balance restored. In the meantime, to those trying to interact with me on a daily basis: I’m sorry. I’m sorry because I’m not ‘all there’ yet. My head and my heart are still wrapped up in this aftermath, if you will. I know the storm will pass and winds will calm, but time is on its own path. So I’ll just sit here in the chaos until then, but I promise I won’t get too comfortable here.
My days still start and end looking after my husband. I’m still exhausted. I’m still burnt out. I’m still questioning if anything else matters other than this. But despite it all, I still get up and go to work. So maybe I’m a bit stronger than I’ve been giving myself credit – despite the alarming volume of tears I’ve shed recently.
Tomorrow will be better.
P.S. Our hospital room had a partial view of the London Eye. Just try and tell me that smidge of London beauty on a monumental day like that wasn’t a metaphor.