One thing I would love to do is to feature a different mama’s story each month, but I figure I should probably start with mine. I think it is important for y’all to know a little bit of my story and where I am coming from as I write. As I shared on my “About Me” page, my name is Carrie and I am a 30-something wife and mama who struggles with low back pain following injury, disc herniation, and surgery. I had my first child this past spring. For so many of you who suffer from chronic pain, illness, or injuries, you know how that particular part of your life can significantly impact your story. I am no different. My injury colors and changes what I look like in each of the roles I find myself in. It changes how I think about things and what I expect in any given situation. I used to be a full-time teacher. I used to kayak whenever I could, sled like a daredevil, and roughhouse and wrestle with the little boys I nannied. Over the last 8 years a lot of that has changed.
In December of 2009 I had abdominal surgery. The following May, I helped a friend move home from college. Evidently the muscles hadn’t quite fully healed from my surgery and I pulled a muscle in my back. I entered physical therapy, got to the point that I was feeling better, and went on with life as usual. In 2012, it flared again and once again I went to PT, got better, and continued with life as usual. In the following years, I had multiple flares that worsened each time.
In March 2016, a month and a half after my husband and I got engaged, I had the worst flare yet. I laid down one night on his living room floor to stretch and see if I couldn’t get the muscles to relax. The resulting pain was horrible. I ended up frozen in a half laying-half sitting position, unable to get up or lay back down. Ben had to bear hug me and lift me straight off the ground while I clenched my jaw and willed my body not to break in half or my eyes to fill with tears. I spent the next week drugged up and crashed in my bed or on the couch. Ice was my best friend. Within a few weeks the spasms eased enough to continue with life, though it was often a challenge. Over the following months, I tried massage and chiropractic care with varying results. I took a variety of supplements and pharmaceuticals. Somehow I survived the school year. Ben and I got married in July and, in God’s mercy and kindness to us, our honeymoon was nearly back pain-free and I was able to really rest and enjoy our time. Then we came home, settled into our little rental home, and started unpacking moving boxes. August came and the school year began.
In September something changed. The pain sharpened and became nearly impossible to deny. My leg would randomly lock up or give out. Coworkers drove me to and from school because when you drive a stick and your leg locks up, bad things could happen. I finally had an MRI in early October which showed a herniated disc at L4/L5. The herniation pushed 10 mm out and 7 mm down, pressing nerves between it and my spine. Two weeks later I had a CT epidural steroid shot to try to reduce the herniation, but that actually made it worse. I could no longer stand up straight. My leg began giving out more frequently and I began to walk with a cane. I continued to teach from a bean bag chair at the front of my classroom with my materials in stacks in a semicircle around me. My sweet third graders were so compassionate and eager to help. They jumped to volunteer anytime I needed anything.
“I’ll get it for you, Mrs. J!”
“Don’t get up, Mrs. J!”
Honestly, I don’t think I could have continued teaching for as long as I did if I didn’t have such great students.
In early November I was referred to a brain and spine center nearby and was able to schedule an appointment for a month later. Before I could see the surgeon there, I took another downturn. Over Thanksgiving break I began to fall in spite of the support of the cane. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t dress myself or stand up unsupported long enough to take a shower. After 10 minutes sitting, standing, or walking, I was so exhausted I would spend hours in bed. At that point we decided I was done teaching until after my surgery.
I spent the rest of November and December in bed, except for the occasional doctor’s appointment or get-me-out-of-the-house outing to Costco or Target so I could ride around on a scooter and be useful. I stopped taking the various pain medicines because they weren’t making the slightest difference. I went to see the surgeon in early December and he was able to schedule a laminectomy and discectomy for me at the end of December. He also told us that in addition to the disc being herniated, it was degenerated and that I had arthritis there. Apparently teachers are in their top three occupations that they see in there with bad and worsening low back issues. Teachers, factory workers, and truck drivers made their list. I don’t know a single teacher who I shared that information with that was surprised to hear it.
While I had a light at the end of the tunnel, it was still weeks away. At this point, the pain was so severe that I was getting only a couple of hours of sleep at night and would lay there shaking from the pain. Ben had to help me in and out of the shower, help me get dressed, take care of our house, and cook. He’d come home from working all day, then set his phone up in a cabinet to video chat with me so I wouldn’t have to be lonely while he made us dinner. Once he even had to hold me onto the toilet because I was spasming so badly I would have fallen off. Let me tell you, after a situation like that, there’s no awkwardness or secrets anymore and you really know what the man you married is made of. You also get a sense of who your friends are. We were incredibly blessed to have a community who served us and showed us God’s love over and over during this time. A friend who is an OT brought a bath chair, a gripper, and a raised toilet seat. People brought meals, cleaned our house, and brought lunch over to me to break up my days home alone.
The pain also had an adverse effect on my brain. It was spending so much time processing pain and just trying to get through it that most of this entire period of time is a fog to me. I would forget words or what I was saying mid-sentence. I forgot conversations and entire interactions with people. I barely remember my first Christmas with my husband. I do remember laying in bed with Ben on Christmas morning and devouring a pan of delicious cinnamon rolls that Ben’s parents made for us. That’s pretty much the only clear memory I have, but it sure is a happy one.
I had my surgery two days later. I woke up and, in spite of the fog, remember thinking that the post-op pain felt like nothing compared to the last few months. When they let my husband in to see me, he helped me stand up to get dressed to go home. And I stood up. I stood up straight on both legs and promptly burst into tears of relief. After another month of recovery at home, where Ben had his hands full keeping me from cleaning ALL THE THINGS, I returned to work and began physical therapy.
Compared to the first half of the school year, the second half was a breeze, but it still was very difficult and took a toll on my body. We decided that it would be the best stewardship of my health for me no longer to continue teaching full time. I would substitute as needed and run the after school program at my school for a few hours each day. Summer was a much needed rest for my body and I started feeling normal again. The reality is, however, that my back issues will always be with me. There will always be the nagging fear that I will do something wrong and reherniate. I will always be more prone to pain or injury caused by moving incorrectly, tiring out those muscles, or minor injury. Most of my decisions will be colored by how it might impact my back.
Then in August 2017 I found out I was expecting Marshall. So much for my new normal! Pregnancy scared me, though it didn’t impact my back nearly as badly as I expected. My back tired and got achy faster, especially as Marshall and I got bigger. There were more ways to sleep wrong, turn wrong, lift wrong, etc, but we figured it out. Now that he’s here, there are even more ways that we have to figure out how to make it work.
There are a number of pieces of equipment that I use daily to protect my back. I have a MiaMily Hipster 3D carrier that I love and use to carry Marshall around because it protects my back and I can carry him in it for hours without pain, whereas I can carry him for about 15 mins in my arms before I start to feel it. I also use a grabber to help me pick things up, swap laundry over, etc.
Two blessings about Marshall in relation to my back are that 1) he is a great sleeper so I get good breaks most days and 2) he needs alone time. Many days he starts getting cranky and fussy with one of us holding him or playing with him, so we will lay him on the floor or put him in his standing toy and walk away and he perks right up. He kicks, babbles, giggles, and plays independently for a while. If he was a child that needed me constantly, it would be so much harder for my back.
It is hard to take care of yourself when you have a little that needs you, but if I could give one piece of advice to another mama with low back issues it would be this: be gracious with yourself and give yourself permission to take care of your back. If you don’t, you’ll end up in an even worse place. As Ben reminds me often, we are called to be good stewards of our resources and that includes stewarding our health well. It is not good stewardship to keep pushing when you are hurting and making it worse. You will end up in a harder spot and struggling to be the mama you want to be.
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