It’s a little after 5:00 AM. I’m up because I want to be, though, not because I have to be, although as soon as the wake-up light nudged me from a disturbing dream in which I kept running in and out of bars looking for cigarettes (I quit years ago), my shoulder and neck started slicing and poking away. But having some [relatively] low-pain time to myself in the morning before my daily grind begins is one of my few pleasures, so even though I don’t have to go anywhere for another couple of hours, I’m up anyway.
I have an appointment for another nerve ablation this morning, and one of my saintly friends will be here at 7:15 to drive through heavy traffic to get me there by 8:00 AM. Because it’s technically classed as a surgical procedure, although there are no scalpels or other such instruments, I can’t take my usual anti-inflammatories and opiods until afterwards. The pain is already up a little high, probably due to my anxiety about what will be an excruciatingly painful, if briefly so, procedure, in addition the lack of analgesics on board. Undoubtedly, the car ride to the surgical center will not push it in the right direction, either, but then again, it’s not like that’s all that different from any other day, lately.
Pain has taken over my world again. It’s been so high and so constant over the last few weeks that it’s filled almost my entire field of view, and it’s worn me down to my bitterest, most despondent self. I’m tired. I can’t live like this. It’s why I scheduled the nerve ablation; it only lasts for about six weeks, but it will cut my pain in half, and get me through finals, and the move, and the holidays.
It’s also why I went to see the orthopedic surgeon a couple of mornings ago (another trip with the saintly friend). I’d made a lot of noise to other apes about how it would be the first time he could get a comprehensive and unvarnished look at the extent of my pain and injury, but the real reason I went in was to talk surgery. I had been dead-set against it, but walking around with a daily pain level of an 8 for the past few weeks has considerably softened my resolve. As in, if there’s a chance to fix this – really fix it, not just alleviate it or make it something I can live with – I want to consider that.
The orthopedist is quite confident. His version of the procedure involves more than scraping off the subscapular bursitis he suspects is the root cause of my pain; he has pioneered a technique in which the part of my shoulder blade that adducts to my top rib is cut away, thus preventing a recurrence of the bursitis. He’s not had to do it very often, but he’s had 100% success with it thus far. Also, because he is able to do this through a small incision in the muscle, rather than by cutting it apart, which would be required for the arthroscopic version, the recovery period would be short. The only “drawback” would be a scar. Four weeks in a sling, another 4-6 weeks of physical therapy, and no reason I couldn’t be back in the pool by next Spring.
In fact, the doctor believes that once I’ve recovered from the surgery, I should be able to go back to doing most of the things I did before the injury. Certainly, I wouldn’t need help with the kitty litter any more. I wouldn’t need the handicapped parking tag, either. Most important, I could finally stop taking all of the pain medication, as in all of it, not just the reduced dose the nerve ablation enables. I could be well, really and truly well, something I thought was off the table.
As liberating as that sounds, I’m unable to suppress my anger. Really? All of this time learning how to be a disabled person in constant pain and *ping* now you’re fine, have a nice rest of your life? What the hell? It makes the entire ordeal seem brutally pointless. Was my life so dangerous the way it was going? Was my old car about to explode? What? What possible crisis could I have been diverted from that would be worse than what the last thirteen months have been?
I also feel as though I am at a crossroads. Despite the decimation of my faith, my superstition remains unscathed. I have undergone more change in the last year than most people clear in ten. What if there is a point? What if I’m being specifically channeled onto a precise and narrow path that I would not have otherwise found my way to? That would mean I need to be very, very careful about the choices I make between now and when I have the surgery, if I do, in fact, choose that option, for fear of making an incorrect choice and having it fall apart.
Case in point, I’ve narrowed down my post-baccalaureate options to two different biological science masters programs. One is highly prestigious, but also quite demanding, and would entail regular ten hour days in the lab, never mind classes and homework. The other is in a lab by a far less well-known researcher, but lab sessions are no more than four hours per day. That one also happens to be in a discipline of much greater interest to me than the prestigious one.
Making the right choice here, for some reason, seems crucial. It’s as though life is presenting me with a final exam; a test on the life skills I’ve acquired over the last thirteen months. What’s more, the choice should be easy. After all, haven’t I learned that even under the best of circumstances, I’m not built for burning the candle at both ends? That my ego cannot be trusted with decision-making responsibilities? That if I try to do more than I’m capable of doing, I will suffer drastic physical consequences? That if I just do what’s in front of me, things will turn out far better than if I attempt to plan for things that may never happen?
Well, I may have finally come to an intellectual grasp of that fact, but I’m still gritting my teeth. Of course I want the prestigious lab appointment, even though the subject matter doesn’t excite me. Of course I’ve enjoyed the exclaims of delight from my friends upon divulging the offer. Of course I want the opportunities that would bloom like wildflowers in May upon completion of said prestigious program – if I were able to actually complete it, of course.
And there it is. What if the surgery doesn’t work? The graduate program applications are due by the end of January. Even if I got the surgery as soon as possible, which would be the week after Christmas, I’d still be in the recovery phase by the time I had to submit; there’d be no way to know if my eventual capabilities would allow for ten hours a day at a lab bench.
And underneath all of this insanity is the fact that one of the programs interests me – a lot – and the other one doesn’t. Hello. Duh. Am I going to learn this or not? As I look back on my life both before and after this injury, the running theme has been the self-destructive sequelae that result from my attempts to have a life I’m not designed for, just because I want it, just because I think I could do it, just because it looks so good on someone else.
It’s the reason I changed my hair color all the time. The reason I used to accumulate such high-fashion clothing. The reason I used to keep my apartment spotless. The reason I used to make myself physically ill pulling straight A’s semester after debilitating semester. The reason I wanted to compete as a long distance swimmer. Even, possibly, the reason I wanted marriage and a family. Because other people did those things, and had those things, and they looked so wonderful, from the outside.
But they didn’t feel wonderful to me, not on the inside, and sometimes, particularly with regards to appearance modification, they didn’t even look right on the outside. I wanted to teach because I wanted people to admire me for teaching and I wanted kids to grow up and say I changed their lives. I wanted caramel-colored hair because it looked so pretty on other women. I wanted my home to be neat as a pin because I wanted people to think I was capable and not slovenly. (The idea that other people might find it intimidating was a bonus.) I wanted straight-A’s and a PhD in a science discipline because I liked the idea of people calling me Dr. Ape. I thought that would make up for the sting of the music career failing to pan out in my twenties and early thirties. I wanted to compete in a four-mile swim so I could tout it as evidence of my physical strength and endurance, not to mention fearlessness.
None of those things were, or are, as wonderful as I thought they would be. And when it came to many of them, like school and swimming, my body simply was not capable of them. I cannot be whoever I want. I am not pliable; I cannot jam myself into a mold from which I wasn’t cast. Just because I don’t like my own mold and can’t keep from envying other people’s molds doesn’t mean I can make them my own. It never works. There are always unpleasant consequences. Always.
My mold has a lot of stuff in it that I wish I could toss, like my exercise intolerance, like how easily I become dangerously fatigued, like how arrogant I can be thinking I can do anything I want simply because I want it, like how manipulative I can be in service of that goal. But I have to admit there are some sweet spots. I have a beautiful voice. I’m intelligent, perceptive, and kind, and I make a good companion when I’m not in so much pain I want to drag every person who dares interact with me over a roll of barbed wire. I’m good with animals. I’m funny.
I need to enjoy those features, treat those features as things worth having. I need to stop needing to be the best at something, or the most important person in a given situation, or the most interesting person in the room, the person everyone wants to know or be around. Basically, I need to completely reset the way I’ve been approaching my adult life. I need to exchange eagerness for bitterness, gratitude for envy, wisdom for regret.
It’s easier said than done. It feels like unscrewing the back of an electrical device that you’re never supposed to take off and poking around in it without a manual, trying to re-purpose it for something else. Or perhaps, in my case, trying to undo all of the re-purposing that’s been going on and see if I can get it back to simply doing what it was designed to do. I’m worried I’ve already damaged it so much it won’t ever work right again. It occurs to me that that might be inevitable. But if I can disconnect some of the unproductive associations, like accolades to happiness, or loneliness to self-destruction, I think I might be able to get it back to something like normal functioning.
It’s not the prettiest device; it’s not the one I would have picked. But it’s mine. And who knows, maybe some other people would look at it and find it desirable, even the way it is now, a little busted-up, some of the edges worn down, a few sparks and breakdowns every now and again. I don’t know why, but that never occurred to me before. What if other people were looking at my mold and wishing they had some parts of it? What if I didn’t have some of the things I have? Maybe I would want them, too. Maybe I would even be willing to take the less-desirable parts that came with them.
I’m trying. I keep saying over and over in my head, trying to understand, trying to find a purpose, trying to fit the strange sequence of events over the past year into a comprehensible storyline, with a plot and resolution, with a deeper meaning. But that, too, is something this machine doesn’t seem to be designed for. Trying is not doing. Waiting is not living. I don’t want to try to live. I want to live.
An acquaintance, thinking she was being helpful, said to me a few weeks ago that she had a friend who became disabled in her twenties and has still managed to have “this amazing life.” I remember replying that I would be happy just having any life at all. And I meant it. So somehow, I have to learn to be it.