What I Learned From a Sprained Spine

I am no stranger to the forced pause.

I am a migraine patient (aka migraneur) and have been since I was five years old. I have what used to be called classic migraine, which means my symptoms include blindness or partial blindness, confusion, disrupted speech, etc. on top of the usual pain, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, etc. At times in my childhood, I got migraines multiple times per week. My longest was 72 hours. When pregnant, both times, I had a sort of migraine fit, where I spent a long month in and out of a migraine stupor. I have often been amazed that, before kids, I could keep a job, and since kids, I have done a decent job raising them. As far as the migraines go, the kids have learned to make do, same as me.

Add to that the ADHD Inattentive Type and my general personality. I don’t like to sit still. I am always doing something. I don’t rest well. Like my father before me and my son after me, I live a sort of break-neck paced life, forever doing something, and the more exciting, the better.

Then the migraines meet my life. Oh, how I hate being stopped by that sudden, floating blindness. My stomach drops and an immediate, mild depression washes over me. If people ever really scream inside, that’s what I am doing at the moment I realize I am getting a migraine and will be forced into incapacity for several hours. You’d think I’d be used to it. Last time, I pouted myself from the computer to the bed and my husband dispensed my meds as he quoted, “Hardship is a pathway to peace.” Fudge.

A few days before Halloween and NaNoWriMo this past fall–which happens to be the beginning of our busiest time of year–I bent over to pick up a sock and severely sprained my spine (read: ruptured a disc). Stubborn as I am, I tried to stand up and go about my day three times before I ended up face down in our muddy driveway. So not joking. Following, I experienced drawn-out days of a pain worse than labor. I couldn’t stand. Then I couldn’t walk. Then, eventually, I couldn’t put on my own socks. I missed Halloween. Then I missed the onset of NaNoWriMo. Then, eventually, I started writing while laying flat on my back. Most the time I slept (thanks to the drugs) and watched TV. I don’t watch TV during the day. It makes me feel guilty, and restless.

Like I said, I am no stranger to the forced pause.

We all have them, right? We get the flu. We break a leg. We get a bad call which we have to travel for. We lose a job. The forced pause. I should be an expert at them. And at my best moments, I am. I curl up in the back seat of my car with the pillow and face-mask I always keep on hand and I just rest. I don’t fight. But at my worst moments, I go kicking and screaming.

Last year, a friend of mine was laid up for a couple months, and I took the opportunity to encourage her to write the book she was wanting to. She did some, but she mostly couldn’t. When I sprained my spine, I found myself eating my own words. I just couldn’t write, physically speaking. There was no use fighting it.

I did some planning and dreaming, but in a way, doing more planning and dreaming at this point in my career is just another way for me to revolt against the forced pause. And revolting against the forced pause is just another way of seeing greener grass on the other side: the book that might appeal to a more marketable genre; the book that might be more fun to write; the character that I will love best; an October without a sprained spine; a day without a migraine; greener grass that doesn’t exist. It’s quite simple, if A, then not B. This is what today looks like, and I should know because I am here.

Now, there’s a difference between doing something to overcome a bad situation and accepting “hardship as a pathway to peace.” I do everything I can not to get migraines. Now, I take care of my back. But, many, many, things happen that a body can’t change, or that a body shouldn’t change. In the Serenity Prayer, it asks to be able to discern the “things I can change, the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s called boundaries. It’s called acceptance.

To be honest, I did pretty well when I was laid up for most of November. I believe in God, and I kept thinking that if God wanted my situation any different, He would change it. Simple as that. I felt a little sorry for myself as the kids–dressed as Velma and Shaggy–went traipsing off to trick or treat without me. But for the most part, I took this forced pause situation as an opportunity to grow as a person. This is what I learned about writing while laying on my back:

  • It is really hard to type laying completely flat. In other words, don’t judge.
  • Living in the moment is a healthy part of the writer’s life. If a writer didn’t live, what would they write about? Living in the moment includes times when you are not working.
  • Life is about the journey as much as about any destination. I really want to squish as much writing into my life as possible–that’s why I focus and prioritize and trim excess–but again, what would a writer write about if they didn’t live? The truth is, plenty of us will never get to that big Pulitzer Prize in the sky, but we might just be able to keep doing what we love and sharing it with others, day by day (oh yeah, and hopefully making money doing it).
  • Projecting oneself is futile. Dreaming is great. Goal-making is great. Working is necessary. But projecting is what one does when they are unwilling to deal with a less-than-favorable situation by wishing it away.
  • Planning is okay. Obsessive planning is dumb. Think of the whole diminishing returns thing: There is a point where more planning is only adding to the “Ideas” folder and you’ve got nothing to show for any of it, at least nothing complete.

Learn to take those forced pauses in stride, gracefully. Rest. Relax. Make accommodations in your goals. Then take that pause by the horns and do what you do best (because we all know the best stories are about people who overcome odds).

And when all else fails, turn that anger and frustration into a memoir.

*End of NaNoWriMo 2013 thread. To follow it from the beginning, click here.

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