This post is the 2nd in a series of posts detailing my struggle with chronic back pain and my journey to the path of Iyengar Yoga.
The years that followed my return from graduate school were some of my darkest days. The pain was relentless. No matter how hard I tried, how committed I was to rehab, I could not get the pain under control. I tried many different therapies and with each new therapy came the hope that maybe this one would be ‘the one’. Generally speaking, I’d give each new therapy about 3 months of diligent participation before evaluating whether it was ‘working’. All I needed was the slightest indication that my pain level was decreasing, and I would stick with the program, but time and time again, after the 3 months, there would be no change.
In addition to the physical pain came the trying emotional burden. For most of my adult life, it was my ability to sustain myself independently from my (more than willing to support me) parents, and my career objectives that had defined me. Now, here I was – not only unable to work, but I couldn’t even get myself to all my doctors’ appointments on my own. I was intellectually unstimulated, but at the same time I couldn’t engage with people or for that matter materials related to my discipline because it upset me too much. And when your discipline is city planning, it’s quite hard to avoid the issues — reading the paper, watching the news, and just walking down the street became emotionally charged. As the years passed, not knowing whether this pain would ever end became harder to deal with than actually enduring the pain of each day. I remember thinking, if only I knew this was eventually going to end, things would be so much more bearable.
While I was away at school, my boyfriend of 10 years had proposed. So for the first year post-Berkeley, I had the wedding to look forward to. I wanted to be able to walk down the aisle, I wanted to be able to dance, I wanted to enjoy myself. The wedding day came and still, I was not in good shape. I did walk down the aisle, but I did not dance. Did I enjoy myself? Well, it’s all relative, I suppose. By the time my make-up was on, hair done, and pictures taken, I felt ready to call it a day. With chronic pain, everything is difficult. In spite of all that, the wedding was beautiful and it marked the commitment of my partner & I to each other, in good times and bad. Without him and his unwavering love and support, I would absolutely not have survived this ordeal.
After the wedding, I began a round of appointments with surgeons. I saw three different surgeons, all of whom did not think I was a candidate for surgery. Because I was so young, they felt it would be worthwhile to continue with conservative measures and see where it took me. And so I did. For another year, I continued with various conservative treatments, to no avail. When the year was up, my doctor sent me again, to a round of appointments with surgeons. This time, they did consider me a candidate. The surgeon I ended up going to recommended a discotomy at 2 levels (L4-L5 & L5-S1) and a spinal fusion at one (L4-L5). He was very clear though, the surgery is a risk. Surgeries like these do not always prove to be successful, as identifying the true source of the pain is so challenging. However, he did think that at the very least, if I went ahead I could relinquish myself from the nerve pain radiating down my leg. That pain was clearly from a nerve being pinched, and if the surgery removed the impingement on the nerve, the pain would disappear. With regards to the back pain though, there was no guarantee.
I considered my options carefully and came to the decision that surgery was a risk worth taking. I felt I had honestly and diligently tried (many!) conservative measures, and it was time to try a different approach. I was also exhausted. The pain itself was exhausting, and the emotional context of living with chronic pain was exhausting.
By nature, I’m an optimist. This has served me well along this journey, as each time I would begin a new treatment method I would approach it with enthusiasm and hope. Without optimism, I don’t know how one could find the patience to endure. That said, the continued disappointment of not even the slightest of improvements, time and time again, was very trying. I remember the feeling I would have when meeting a new doctor or therapist for the first time and conveying my story. Part of me always felt a sense of disbelief – is this really happening? Is this really ‘my’ story? Am I telling this story, yet again?
As is often the case, one thing can lead to another. At this point, not only was I in physical pain, but I was suffering from depression and anxiety. My menstrual cycle had also completely disappeared. So…off I was to even more doctors.
In the fall of 2005, I had the surgery. To my disappointment, the leg pain persisted. The back pain also persisted. The surgeon told me that any benefit from the surgery will manifest in the one year following the surgery date, so I maintained hope. He told me to give myself some time to recover from the operation but then to start a regular rehab program. He suggested physiotherapy, yoga, or pilates. An aunt of mine had recently recommended the Iyengar Yoga studio where she practiced. She spoke very highly of her teacher and assured me that the teacher’s qualifications and experience would help to keep me safe in a class. The idea of being in an environment that did not cater to the ‘sick or broken’ was extremely attractive to me. I decided to pursue Iyengar Yoga.
Next Week’s Post: Coming to Iyengar Yoga