Things have been quiet from me for over 12+ months and part of that was because I was having an internal debate about what I share on these updates. Should they be the sunshine, roses, rainbows and funny occurrences that I experience throughout my swimming journey or should they tell the deep down dirty uncomfortable stuff that even I have a hard time admitting let alone processing. It was a long debate and I’ve ultimately decided to share. You have been with me on this journey and supported me throughout so you should have some visibility into the whole crazy world regardless of how private I sometimes would like to be.
Back in June 2015, I was diagnosed with bulging discs (3 in total) in my thoracic region of my back. Ultimately after 2 epidural shots in between my shoulder blades, I was receiving no relief from the pain. Living at a pain level of 6-8 constantly is amazingly dark and awful. I just didn’t know how dark it would become. It was decided that the best thing for me to do was to stop all activity. I think that bears repeating…STOP ALL ACTIVITY. For me that was like asking me to stop living. My life really focuses around my swimming, training and challenges. What the heck was I supposed to be doing now?
What I found out is that I started slipping…into darkness. I wanted to do and try anything to stop the pain or get even a moments rest, as sleep was nearly impossible. I tried a litany of healthy options: acupuncture, stretching, meditation, yoga, inversion boards, massage, float tanks, etc. you name it I probably tried it. Everything seemed to aggravate my symptoms more. Plus I knew some of these fell into the “doing activities” so I wasn’t supposed to be doing them in the first place. When none of these options were providing relief even for brief moments, mentally I started to crack. Late July 2015 was I believe the real breaking point for me. I was supposed to be on my trip to swim the North Sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Instead I was in Oregon, in pain and stuck in my head. The only place I could find quiet from the noises in my head and the pain from my body was in leveraging prescription pain killers and alcohol. Initially the dosages were nothing out of the normal, a glass of wine with dinner and a pain pill to sleep before bed. However, the story is probably as old as time, I started to build tolerance so it took more pain pills and more alcohol just to get those few hours of rest.
Now I’m not typically described as a sunshiny bubbly personality to start with, you can imagine that I became even less so during this time. I tried my best to keep my aggravation, frustration, and pain separated from my friends and work. Looking back now, that was a stupid thing. There is no hiding. My face is really transparent. I wasn’t functioning at my best. I wasn’t functioning even at good. I could still hit work deliverables, but I wasn’t a nice person to be around while I was doing it. I started to also notice the concern in my friend’s faces. Then I became concerned. I suppose the benefit was that I was still lucid enough to know that the direction I was heading was a dangerous one. And at the same time, I could only stop for a few days at a time before I just had to get some rest, which turned me back to pills and/or alcohol. My goal was to gut it out until I could get to my sabbatical in September 2015. 2 months of utter torture for me and probably a lot of people around me.
2 months is a LONG time in the world of chronic pain. I now have a better understanding of how seemingly perfectly happy, healthy people end up addicted to alcohol, pain meds and move onto more heavy options. I gained a lot of weight, which in turn did not help my painful back. I was questioning a lot about who would I be if I wasn’t a swimmer? When I close my eyes and imagine who I am, there is always water involved. My internal vision is some convoluted water creature that thrives on the sea. I like being the “marathon swimmer” around my friends and out and about. That label (if we have to live with labels) feels like me. What if I wasn’t a marathon swimmer anymore? What and more importantly who was I?
This mental anxiety and depression only added to my physical pain because there wasn’t an answer to the question. I could only see more darkness. Darkness that had more shades of black than I knew was possible and I’ve swum in the middle of the black sea on a moonless night. I know dark. But this darkness was inside of me, I wasn’t sure when or if the dawn would come.
And it was torture to be around people too. After a while it begins to feel like people’s advice and empathy were more irritating than helpful. This of course was my warped mental interpretation. I wanted to scream when people said things like: Everything happens for a reason, Maybe this is your body’s way of asking for a break, Why don’t you just try x, y, or z?, etc. Plus the worst question was always, what are you going to do now? With a big sigh and holding in tears I could only think – I have no idea. Rationally I know everyone was trying to be helpful. Emotionally I was in no place to accept this help. It felt like I was being berated for not being able to do what I’ve become knows for…marathon swimming. The one method that I feel I can change maybe even one person’s life to inspire them to get out of their comfort zone and GO DO. My way to contribute to the world something positive.
It really is amazing to think that I even made it to sabbatical without committing some irreparable career limiting move or completely alienating my friends and family (although in hindsight, I’ve alienated some and probably deeply hurt them without realizing it. For this I’m incredibly sorry.). I’m sure some of you may be thinking “Why the heck didn’t you take a leave of absence?” It ultimately may come down to sheer stubbornness or lack of education. In reading through the options, it looked to me like I would have to surrender 2 weeks of PTO (which I needed for my sabbatical) before medical leave could kick in. Plus, the way I read the details is that you are only allocated a percentage of your salary. As the provider for my household, it was not an option for me to take a pay cut and still make the ends meet. Rock…hard place. I just kept thinking make it 2 months, Michelle, and you will have your sabbatical. Then you can really focus on getting better. You can get away, stop drinking, detox, and get your head on straight.
I made it to sabbatical, 6 weeks of break from mid-September to October. I took time to go back to the places that brought me joy. I watched two friends succeed in their goal to swim the English Channel, which was rewarding and super painful at the same time. I took an Oregon Walkabout to see the sights that I’ve never seen since moving here 10 years ago. I went on a Sedona AZ meditation and yoga retreat. I tried to find a way back to myself.
I’m not back to where I was before the injury. However, I have dipped my toes back into the water with various levels of success. I’m out of shape, heavier and much slower. I’m trying to be patient with myself and be kind (not always my forte). I’m trying to go slow…not my forte either.
My back pain is more frequently below a 5. My mental anxiety and depression….well these are going to be a work in progress. I have found some amazing health practitioners and trainers that are going to help me through. We have a plan and I’m fully scheduled to swim the North Channel in July 2016. I booked a plane, accommodations and my boat pilot, so now all I need is to find my way back. Each day I close my eyes and see the little water creature me, take a deep breath, and try.
After reading this, you may be wondering why I finally decided to share this part of the journey. For me it is raw and vulnerable. Emotions and feelings that I don’t like to share and I believe ones that society likes to sweep under the rug or describe as bad or weak. And that maybe part of the reason I decided to share, I shouldn’t feel ashamed by my struggle and yet I do. I shouldn’t feel the need to hide and yet I did (and still do). Being raw, vulnerable, angry, sad, etc. should not be viewed as bad or weak. This is part of what makes me whole and real. For the last few months, I feel like I’ve been a robot. Putting on a really bad happy face, when my world was not happy and I wasn’t sure if my foundation was salvageable. Some days I wasn’t sure if I wanted to salvage it and that is scary. Ultimately I know that this past 2015 and now 2016 journey will be a different one for me. It isn’t just about swimming from one shore to another. It is about finding my way back to me or who I want to be. People say it is all about the journey, not the destination. Well this year is looking to be a really interesting journey.
Thank you for coming along for the ride.Tags: bulging discs, depression, Health, Mental Health, North Channel