Getting Better Doesn’t Hurt

Kick mothers me.

When I was sick, the last time I was really sick with some kind of flu, she put a blanket over me and patted my shoulder. When I am getting snappish about something she will tell me, “Mama’s tired,” and she often offers me food from her plate, though her diet of fruit, graham crackers and random salami slices really isn’t my sort of thing.

So when I screwed up my back in early February, tore and strained every muscle I have and threw things so far out of alignment that I developed sciatic nerve pain and joint inflammation in both hips, Kick decided to do physical therapy with me.

“Stretches, Mama,” she says in the mornings, in the severe manner of a German headmistress.

She gets down on her hands and knees, planks, downward dog. Things I am not allowed to do yet. “Yoga pose,” she says sternly, as if I have missed the memo.

I am not allowed to do a yoga pose. I am not allowed to pick her up. I am not allowed to ride my bike, or run, or really even walk very far very fast. The physical therapist I go to, who is 12 years old and looks like a chipmunk, asked me what my recovery goals were at the first appointment.

“I want to run the Chicago marathon this fall.”

“Have you ever run a marathon?”

“No.” I realize how ridiculous I sound.

“What’s the farthest you’ve run?”

“Four miles.”

Chipmunk sighed, tapped some notes into his laptop, and looked up. “I can maybe get you back to a 5K by October.” He thinks I might ride my bike, slowly, by May.

I have never been physically ill for this long. Kick wants to run and climb and wants me to chase her. On Sunday we went to the aquarium; she is too short, only by a foot or so, to really see some of the animals, so I lifted her up against Chipmunk’s orders, over and over again for three hours. Then we went home and napped, her with her stuffed elephant and me with a handful of painkillers crammed in my face.

I’ve never had to tell anyone, “No, I can’t” before this. I work events that mean hauling equipment and tables and linens and boxes of stuff, up and down stairs. I can’t stand tiptoe, reach with my right hand for something over my head, without excruciating pain. I hate weakness, of any kind. It scares me, and my own weakness scares me the most, and being scared makes me so angry I can hardly see. Asking for help is one thing, if it’s one time something is too heavy, or too high. If it’s every day? If it’s every day for the rest of my life?

I won’t, I told the doctors, start down a road of narcotics and braces and shots until we’ve tried everything else. Get me better some other way. Get me better and get me back on the treadmill. I’m 40. Ninety-year-olds run marathons. Centenarians win weight-lifting competitions. Give me anything but drugs and a prescription to sit down and take it easy. Hence Chipmunk.

I have never had physical therapy before. I was expecting it to be like personal training, or a fitness class: Loud and mean. Instead it is quiet and slow, with small exercises meant, Chipmunk tells me, to draw the pain out of my leg and shin and ankle (the burning arc of the sciatic nerve) and up into my back, and then make it disappear. I don’t feel like the exercises are tough enough. They don’t hurt.

I tell this to Chipmunk. “I feel like I’m slacking.”

I’m afraid if I set the goals too low, if I don’t at least try to run the marathon, then I won’t get to the bike and the 5K and the spontaneous dance parties Kick wants to throw whenever Adele sings “Rumor Has It” on the radio. I’m afraid I won’t get any better at all. I have six weeks of this, the physical therapy, and we’re two weeks in, and Kick is still doing more yoga than I am.


I don’t know how anything changes if it doesn’t hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, all this exercising, how do I know if it’s working?

Chipmunk shows me X-rays. “It’s working,” he says.

“How’s your back?” asked some work colleagues at a meeting on Saturday. I explained. “Still?” they asked. Like, you’re not better yet?

My trainer is working on it, I said. And she is.

“I help you, Mama,” Kick says in the morning, and sits on my feet as I do press-ups. “I help.”


10 thoughts on “Getting Better Doesn’t Hurt

  1. Fixing nerve pain doesn’t hurt but it can be a long road. All the best to you and Kick.

  2. Long time reader and admirer of First Draft, Allison. I can perhaps suggest a most helpful adjunct therapy for your raunched back. Contact data below if interested.

  3. The wee ones love to help. I think for them it’s like securing their place in the family. Makes them feel like they belong.

  4. Ouch ouch ouch ouch. Feel better, A. At least you have someone taking fine care of you.

  5. Sorry to hear this, Allison. I hope you surprise everyone and yourself by getting better sooner than expected. Virtual hugs, prayers, and good thoughts, m’dear.

  6. I don’t feel like the exercises are tough enough. They don’t hurt.

    Ditch this attitude. You’ll never be 20 again, and it’s a preconception that’s more appropriate for a middle-school football coach than an adult with responsibilities.

    If you continue to treat yourself as if you are indestructible and immortal, you’ll hurt yourself again, quite possibly permanently.

    I did.

  7. Good luck with your recovery. It sounds like you are getting the help that you need from a number of sources. Physical therapy is slow, but effective. It works by coming in through the side door, because the usual problem isn’t about the front door which hurts, but about the side door which might not.

  8. I can’t say enough for physiotherapy. The most effective, useful and curative branch of medicine. Just follow instructions, don’t think you know better (like I did, so I “improved” on the program and made it take longer), and many months or even years after you expected results, one day you’ll wake up and realize it really is better. (At 40 it’ll probably be months. I’m older, so it took a couple of years.)

    It’s a very slow gradual process. Although a bit less slow and gradual than the process of losing small muscle strength that gets us into these problems to begin with.

    Really. Follow Kick’s instructions. Exercise is the only proven fountain of youth.

  9. Here’s the deal. You have absorbed the propaganda of the weight lifters. “No pain no gain!” Wherein they work their muscles until they tear so they can create new muscles. What you are doing now is different.

    I had knee pain after my surgery and went through three physical therapists one was terrible, one was okay (they had these things that hooked up to the muscles with electricity to make them work (kinda creepy, watching your muscles twitch beyond your control) and some infrared heating stuff. The third was okay, with suggested stuff but not that great and no muscle twitching stuff.
    But I keep at it because people told me that PT was the way to go and NOT ALL PT IS EQUAL. I ended up working with a personal trainer, who actually understood joints and body stuff. The exercises were slow and were about ranger of motion stuff. THAT was the key.

    So two things. 1) Keep at the PT talk to her about your concerns. Ask if this is a normal process. Are there other things that you should be doing?
    2) Look at other parts of your work walking life to see what actions aggravate/ negate your PT work, like going to the zoo.
    Look at your writing set up. Kid moving.
    3) If this PT isn’t working, and you are doing the work, ask what other kinds of PT you can do. not all styles are equality effective.
    I AM NOT A PT but I did watch PT-109 on TV so I think I know what I’m talking about. 🙂

    Finally ask the PT if putting that cold compress thing I sent you is a good thing, or to put a warm one on it. Positions vary depending on the type of injury.

    Also, all those books you are getting an mailing? Get in someone to help move them! Specially out of cars and trunks! Those are triggers waiting to happen.

    BTW, I donated for 3 books, but I only need one. Please keep the other two for people who didn’t order at the time, charge them the same price and keep the money. OR—if there are readers who don’t have cash at this time (like I didn’t for 10 years), send them a copy courtesy of me.

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