When epic pain knocked me down, I turned to mindfulness and self-compassion to get through it.
I just went through an epic body event that’s been incredibly challenging in terms of being vulnerable, needing and accepting help, experiencing pain, and navigating the medical system. Throughout, I used my mindful self-compassion skills to steer my brain — literally like two hands on the wheel — away from fear, hopelessness, and anger, and toward gratitude, love, and light.
I did it specifically to decrease inflammation, because a nerve in my cervical spine is compressed at the root. I didn’t know it, until it hit me like a ton of bricks.
It started Aug. 18 when I went to the hospital for a routine test, a stress echocardiogram. It’s where you exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike while a doctor monitors your blood pressure and heart. First you lie down and they put a blood pressure cuff on your arm. That’s when I got injured.
When they put the cuff on my right arm, it was too small, and when the machine inflated, I felt searing, agonizing pain. I screamed, “Oh my God, get this off! This is too small!” While they were looking for another cuff, it inflated and squeezed my arm again.
When they found the correct size cuff, I was so rattled by the pain I did not think to ask them to use the other arm. Perhaps if I had been advocating for my mom or my dad or one of my kids or my siblings, it would’ve dawned on me to tell them to use the other arm, but it didn’t. So for the rest of the test, which was probably 45 minutes, the correct blood pressure cuff was squeezing and releasing and squeezing and releasing my injured arm.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the nerve in that arm is compressed at the root in the foramen, the opening in the vertebra where the nerve connects to the spinal cord. Over the next few days, the pain and inflammation got worse and worse. By Aug. 23, I was completely incapacitated. I could not hold my head up, and I had to lie down constantly, and while up had to hold my arm over my head.
Going back for an X-ray, and later an MRI, was incredibly painful. As I lay in the MRI machine, I kept saying out loud, “Although you feel like you’re going to die, you’re not actually in danger. This is just pain, and this pain isn’t going to kill you. Just keep breathing.” I had to keep my arm down by my side, which was an out-of-body pain experience, as they did scan after scan.
The report showed severe compression in the root nerve at C7. I went to a pain doctor and he gave me an epidural. I had to lie on my stomach over pillows in the superman position while he used a fluoroscope to get the right location, put dye in, and then inject me with cortisone and lidocaine. Again I was in intense pain. I had to stay still, and I meditated the whole time. When it was over, my blood pressure dropped to 50 over 30 and they made me lie down again to keep from passing out. But over the next day, my pain level started to drop. I was feeling so hopeful.
Two weeks later I had another epidural. My insurance carrier, Anthem Blue Cross PPO, refused to cover it. They said the patient should wait three months, even though my doctor told them the patient was not ambulatory and needed it right away. It would be understandable to be outraged at the insurance company — but outrage causes cortisol and Adrenalin, so I chose instead to be grateful that I had the money to pay out of pocket for the procedure to get the healing I needed.
I’m now about 80% better. I can walk. I can have my arm down at my side. I can shower. I can go to the bathroom by myself. During the early part of this ordeal, my husband had to pull my pants and my underpants down, then he would run out of the bathroom while I did my toileting – we’ve been keeping that private for the past 40 years. That kind of vulnerability is so difficult for me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Because I couldn’t use my right hand, I had to brush my teeth in bed using my left hand. My husband would hold a bowl under my chin, and I would swish and spit and sometimes dribble on myself!
My daughter Cara gave me a sponge bath in bed and brushed my hair and did dry shampoo. She reminded me that when she was a senior in high school with her back broken in five places, I lived in her room and showered her and took care of her.
Now, fingers crossed, the episode is coming to a close. I’m so grateful. I used Facebook as one of my tools, sharing my story so that I could absorb prayers and wishes for healing and love from my friends. It became a daily practice for me to go to my personal page and read every post while envisioning each friend giving me wishes for healing. When I posted on my business page, it was a different feeling, sharing with people that I don’t actually know, but it was still so nice to take in their comments, responses, and prayers. I wrote a post with a picture of my dog, Madeline, who has been like my nurse. I said “Madeline wants you to know all your good wishes, plus great support for my family, plus the second epidural, plus meds, plus Madeline’s nursing, equals starting the Jewish New Year vertical again. I’ll keep up physical therapy and begin acupuncture and I’ll be as good as the old me. Sending you gratitude and blessings.”
My mindful self-compassion practice really kept me glued together this whole time. Throughout it all, I kept at the forefront of my mind that I wanted to decrease inflammation. I don’t need cortisol and adrenaline coursing through me. I need to use my mind and have it rest in a place of gratitude and love and healing. I want to help whatever medicine is in me to calm this nerve.