Soft, warm clay. That’s what I have, under my right scapula, where a knot of tendons and muscles used to reside. A fist-sized area of unresponsive, but still living, tissue. It’s not simply that I don’t have pain under my shoulder, it’s that I no longer have any sensation under my shoulder, good, bad, or otherwise. It is a decidedly odd experience, to carry around a living piece of one’s own body without having any sensory information coming back from it. How little awareness we have of the continuous nerve information that our brains exchange with the various lengths and widths of our bodies. Constant, subtle, and virtually unnoticeable – until it stops happening.
In that respect, the nerve ablation worked beautifully. I am no longer receiving pain signals from under my shoulder blade. I am able to relax my shoulder and lift my arm without feeling as though I’m squeezing an ill-fitting brace while I’m doing it. It is a small miracle, cool water in my desert landscape, and I am immensely grateful for it.
It has also brought to light the fact that what was originally a shoulder injury has now spread through my entire thorax. Once the numbing medication wore off, there was a return of burning and stabbing pain from the surrounding tissues, from my neck to deep in my back. I first felt it as I drove to work Friday morning; by midday, it had annexed a significant fraction of the pain signaling left undone by the now disabled supra-spinatus nerve.
Nonetheless, it’s only about 2/3 the amount of pain I was in before, which feels like heaven in my beleaguered state. I refuse to let it dampen my mood; I’m so relieved that I have at least a part of my body back. Which occurred as a result of burning off the nerves that connect me to it, ironically. The sensation grew even more strange when my massage therapist gingerly approached my right shoulder blade Friday afternoon, only to find it surprisingly pliant. She kept asking me, “Do you feel this? Is this ok?” And my answer was usually, “It’s fine.” I could feel pressure; I could feel her manipulating my shoulder in ways that would have been excruciating before, but only from a distance, as though I were an observer rather than a participant.
We think we can handle pain. Pain is only a feeling, after all, a secondary signal of an actual injury, not an injury itself. We manage it, well or poorly, with pain medication. Using pain as a guide, we make a conscious effort to rest the area so it can heal. Those in the medical profession tell us that pain inhibits healing, and we feel that, but in the abstract sense of the injury rather than as an instinctive response.
Or at least, we think we do.
Before the nerve ablation, my shoulder was certainly not clay. It was hardened concrete. It resisted tireless attempts by three different massage therapists to loosen it from the surrounding tissue. It hunched and pulled at my spine as thought it wanted to become a part of it. Pain meds or no pain meds, the therapists and I were physically incapable of coaxing it down. The reason for this, however, was not the injury itself but my body’s instinctive response to the pain. Pain didn’t just inhibit my healing; it actively thwarted it. I had thought my mental control over my skeletal muscles was largely a conscious effort. The after-effects of the nerve ablation serve as a sobering reminder that much of that control occurs behind the scenes, access restricted.
Most of us think we control a great deal of our lives, our thoughts, our actions, the things that we do, and even the things that happen to us. Unfelt influences are simply assumed not to exist. This assumption leads us to improperly prioritize external and internal feedback. This error is illuminated at some point in our lives (although usually in less exceptional fashion than my recent experience), giving us an opportunity to change our misguided assessments, but few of us take that opportunity. We are inclined to think of feelings as weaknesses – inconveniences that only handicap our self-actualization.
I’m discovering that the opposite is true. Feelings are strengths. They warn us, help us understand things, and empower us to follow our hearts instead of our too-logical, overwrought minds. I need to get better at feeling my feelings, accepting my feelings, and honoring them. A friend once told me I had a hard candy shell. That shell may have served me before, but no longer. It’s time to exchange it for something less stubborn. My physical wellness, as well as mental well-being, depend upon it.