Hello, I’m Joni

an excitable brand strategist

A BACKstory

07 November 2023

I have yet to talk about this in much detail. Partly because it’s been too painful, partly because I don’t know what’s happening most of the time, and partly because this problem hasn’t concluded. I’m realizing more and more, though, that since I appreciate when people share similar stories in real-time (the r/microdiscectomy community comes to mind) and that a “conclusion” isn’t so straightforward, I should maybe get this out there to help others and myself along this complicated recovery journey.

I’ve also been encouraged to share my physical therapy adventure in our Wiggle Work accountability allies channel after expressing my concerns and fears over going. I wanted a way to provide some necessary backstory without totally flooding the channel–so now I can just link!

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Photo by Ed Vázquez on Unsplash

The Beginning

Over a year ago, I got a herniated/bulging lumbar disc in my spine from doing yoga–the forward fold is not for everyone, I’ve learned. It was lightning right up the side of my lower back. I couldn’t stand up straight and struggled to walk to my car to leave the gym. I was stuck in bed for days. I fairly quickly got 90% better but noticed it was painful to sit too long. I went on like this until my next “blow out”. Similar thing. At the gym, did something benign, felt the explosion.

I got an MRI that showed a bulging disc. It was severe, but these things can usually be resolved on their own, I was told. I went to PT for three months. I was given no real restrictions to follow by any professional I was seeing. It got worse each month. I tried decompression therapy. I tried steroid injections. Everything helped a bit temporarily. I kept going to the gym daily and lifting weights, being incredibly mindful of perfect form. I normalized a too-high level of pain.

My theory is that I eventually went up in weight to a point that was not sustainable for my compromised spine. My bulging disc ruptured and crushed my nerve. I couldn’t walk and my foot wouldn’t move much. It would roll outward and I would have to catch myself from falling over. It was, by far, the worst pain I could ever imagine a human going through without passing out. I had an emergency microdiscectomy, where they removed the escaped portion of the disc.

The surgery went well, and I felt like a million dollars. Pain-free for the first time in a long, long time. I was told walking was great for recovery. I worked through some lingering balance issues for a few days and was at five miles at the seven-day post-surgery mark, then nine miles at around two weeks. They had not seen someone recover so quickly. I had a new lease on life and wanted to take advantage of it.

The Middle

Instead of bending down to pick things up, I was squatting all the way down. I did this on week three, and the exact rupture happened again as I got up. As a quick aside, I was told it’s impossible to know if I contributed to what happened, though if I did, it had to be this motion, and I’ve since purchased several grabbing tools.

I instantly couldn’t walk and was bedridden in unspeakable pain for six weeks as I waited for an MRI and for my surgeon to get back from vacation–the timing of this one really complicated things. I went into a deep depression and had to attend more therapy and find a psychiatrist. Working out defined me, and now I was nothing. All summer, I looked out the window to see my park friends walk by without me and cried each time. I looked out the window to see my crows wait around for food that would never come.

I had a second, identical surgery precisely two months after the first. They even cut the same incision. This experience has been much different than those first few precious weeks after the initial surgery. There’s still pain and twinges and discomfort and spasms around the clock. I’m struggling to get my walking pace up each week.

This time, I’m completely and utterly tormented by the fear of it happening again. The fear of that level of pain. The fear of being stuck in bed. The fear of what my future looks like. Everyone who undergoes this procedure is told there is a small risk of it happening again, but I lived it. It’s very real, and I can’t be ignorant and blissful about it–I’ve been robbed of that option.

This time, I default to counting myself out of events. I decline every invitation that patient people are still willing to extend–who knows what my back will be doing at that time! What if it happens again at the event? What if I need to sit/stand/lie down and can’t? It’s simply too scary, it’s too risky, it’s too unpredictable. I’ve gone from someone who lived for small talk out of the house to someone afraid to leave it. Months later, I still can’t drive myself anywhere, and sometimes I think it’s just as well.

The Weird Gray Period

In looking ahead, I’ve realized how damaging it is to try to look ahead. It’s scary. My anxiety goes through the roof. I often feel very alone–uniquely doomed and excluded from conversations about hopeful future goals. All I can do, though, and some days and hours are better than others, is take this a day at a time. I remain grateful for each walk I can take. For each meal I can prepare. For each time I can brush my teeth while remaining standing the entire time.

When my mind wanders to what-if scenarios, I’m robbing myself of the chance to heal–writing myself off unfairly. My worst-case scenario, which, to be honest, is still too painful to say out loud without tearing up, so I can’t right now, will not feel any easier to deal with just because I spend all my time dwelling on it.

These are all the things I’m able to feel and believe on good days, though there are still a lot of bad days where I find this advice and wisdom to be utter bullshit, and the heavy weight of despair puts me into that same bed I swore I would never see in the daytime again as long as I could move.

I guess to say this has been a journey is an understatement, and it’s still playing out. This post also doesn’t touch on the profound impact that this injury has had on my family. I’ll never be able to adequately express how sorry I am that we all have to go through this and how much I appreciate everything they have done and continue to do to help me and help this house still function.

I hope all my updates are primarily positive from here, but even if they’re not, I’ll still share them.