I believe in the importance of words. I’m a writer, someone who tries every day to forge a career by stringing words together. I know that some words can have more impact than others. Some words are deliberately provocative, while others can hurt as silently as a nettle’s sting – irritating, but unnoticed by the nettle itself. The nettle’s sole purpose isn’t to hurt; it’s to protect itself, to grow. In fact, nettles have fantastic healing properties. And though I’m not an adventurous eater, one day I hope to accumulate enough courage to try nettle soup.
It’s also said that if you grasp a nettle, tight in your hand, it won’t sting, or at least not as badly as it might if you just brush against it gently. And of course, the good old dock leaf is a tried and proven antidote to that peppery red rash. But, I needed more than a dock leaf to draw out the sting of the consultant’s words in Tallaght two weeks ago.
I’ve had pain on and off for over two years now. I’ve been on a strict physio regime, which I’ve obediently adhered to, but some nights, the cramping in my leg keeps me up for hours. Which means that I’m tired the next day, too tired to use my exercise bike or do any writing. My physio said that I have to choose my tasks carefully, and frankly, I detest being told what to do. Granted, some of the things I’ve been known to do is downright ridiculous. I used to dust my skirting boards on a regular basis. I like hoovering on my knees because it’s easier to keep my balance, also, it’s easier to spot the dirt on the floor. The physio has forbidden me from doing these things, which only makes me do them more. Surprise, surprise!
So, when I went to see the consultant in Tallaght, after travelling all the way up on the train, I was devastated to hear him say the words “long-term chronic pain condition.” I hadn’t been calling it that; I’d been referring to it as “a bit of leg pain,” “sciatica” at worst. (They don’t think it’s sciatica, but they reckon the nerve is trapped inside the periformis muscle). The thought of having broken sleep indefinitely was devastating, but there’s nothing they can do. I’ve refused the medication offered because I’ve read about the side effects, and owing to the involuntary movements, I’m not a candidate for pain injections. Go home, and do physio. It may improve, it may not. Nobody knows.
The guilt I felt was overwhelming. Despite all of my best efforts, I was now feeling like a burden to my husband and daughter, something I’d never wanted to happen. I felt like I’d failed my parents as well, after they’d invested so much time in making me mobile and independent. Chronic Pain condition. A different CP, another label used to define me. Hadn’t I enough of those already? The consultant said that all I could do was go home and do my own research. I’ve changed my diet, and I’m starting to come around to the idea of pacing out more onerous tasks. One thing that my husband and I discussed was getting a manual chair for knocking around the house in, on days when the pain is particularly bad. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Every time I look online for chairs that might be suitable, or asking the HSE for one, I end up folding the laptop screen down and saying not yet. I’m not ready. I might become lazy, or overdependent on it. I’m tired of being tired, though, and something’s gotta give.
Yesterday, I was trying to write, when a friend of mine called in unexpectedly. I was so excited to see him, having not seen him in person since the beginning of Covid. We had a good chat about various things, and suddenly he smiled and said, “Do you realise that something you said changed my life?”
I laughed. “Something I said? Take all my advice with a grain of salt.”
He recounted the incident. It was about seven years ago. We’d been at a personal development day together, and the facilitator asked us to set out our short term, medium term and long-term goals. My friend’s long-term goal was to be able to walk from his house to his gate, without his stick. And in front of everyone, I’d asked him why this was so important to him.
I relived that horrible feeling of shame. “I regretted it the minute I said it. I’ll never forget how hurt you looked.”
He smiled at me. “It was the best thing you could have said to me. After that, I decided to concentrate on what was important, and what I could do. And to re-evaluate my relationship with my stick. This stick enables me to walk and keep my independence. Because of the stick, I can stay mobile. I can go to meetings and get involved in local activism. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You taught me that.”
It’s true – I did. I really wanted my friend to understand how the social model liberates us from blaming ourselves for our disabilities. And yet, here I am now, having to wrestle with a whole new meaning of what independence means for me. A definition that, for much of my life, focused on my physical abilities and strengths. I’ve always been fit. I used to cycle everywhere. I’m still walking a bit, something I didn’t think I’d be doing when I fell and acquired my injury, two years ago. But as difficult as it is, I need to reassess my priorities. Is it really important to be able to scrub the grouting of my tiles with a toothbrush? Can I successfully balance the roles of mother, wife and writer while avoiding as much pain as possible?
If I had the answers to those questions, I’d be laughing. The only way I’ll know is trial and error. Isn’t that how we make all our greatest personal discoveries? I wish I could be a little easier on myself. If I can find the courage to grasp that nettle, maybe it won’t sting too much in the long run.