Pain is not just a song I really like by The War on Drugs

doctors office spine
It even LOOKS like something
 you don't want to injure.

On September 5th last year, I was in pain. As I strained up the final climb of a grueling, 100-mile bike race, my hamstrings spasmed and snapped like they were being lashed, and my quadriceps throbbed from a buildup of lactic acid; it felt as though they were being pounded by a ballpeen hammer. I just wanted the race to end, but it would never end unless I kept turning that crankarm over, every rotation getting me closer to the finish line in Sun Valley.

On March 4th of of this year, that day on the bike in Rebecca’s Private Idaho felt as pleasurable as patio beers on a cool spring evening. On this particular morning, the simple motion of rolling out of bed caused my left glute to erupt in flames. After struggling just to sit on the edge of the bed and plant both feet on the floor, I attempted to raise myself to a standing position. Lightning bolts tore down my left leg. I collapsed backward. My pain gauge underwent a seismic shift so I could accommodate a new standard for what “10” was. What was a “10” slid down to ”7” and was replaced by the newly discovered increment, “DAMN, is this why Hemingway decided to ‘clean’ his shotgun at 6 in the morning?”

This is my "doctors office" face

The cause of this pain was a disk between my lumbar and sacral spine that put my sciatic nerve in a death-grip. After a couple of hours, some Aleve, and my ski poles, I was eventually able to get out of bed. This wasn’t exactly out of the blue. I had been enduring some mild to moderate back pain since November. The original cause has been hard to pinpoint (I think it was a combination of factors), but by the end of February, after some physical therapy, I felt like the issue was shrinking in my rearview mirror. Skiing and cycling didn’t cause too much pain, and on February 26th, I went backcountry skiing for the first time this season. So it was a bit surprising to wake up that Friday morning basically incapacitated when just five days earlier, I thought I was nearly fully recovered.

That weekend was hell and included separate trips to Urgent Care and the ER. Drugs eventually got the inflammation and pain down to a point where I could move around and work, but I was hobbled. An MRI on March 10th revealed that I had an “extruded” disk, which apparently means a piece of the disk had actually broken off and was causing issues between my L5 and C1 vertebrae. This Wednesday the 23rd, I got the first of a series of injections that hopefully starts a more lasting recovery and prevents surgery.

Med management

Pain tolerance is glorified in our culture, especially in cycling culture. Even as a recreational cyclist, I tend to treasure memories of pain even more than pleasure. It’s an indicator that I’m trying. I look forward to sharing stories of pain, those instances where I clenched my teeth and pushed on, just like that day in Idaho. But after what I’ve experienced with my back, those tales seem hollow. There is “pain” (lowercase “p”)—the temporary consequences of choices, accidents, challenges—and then there is “Pain” (uppercase “P”)— the undercurrent of existence. The latter encompasses vulnerability, and reminds you of your instability in this world. In the restless nights, as I strained to relax, I philosophically contemplated what actually hurts me. That’s when I realized I’ve been in pain since before that ride.

Ten days before the race, I was at Intermountain Medical (the big, imposing, institutional Murray campus), holding Lexi’s hands and looking into her tearing eyes as she was given a shot of methotrexate, a drug necessary to terminate her pregnancy. Our lives as expectant had parents lasted less than a month. The previous day, our first sonogram indicated that the fetus was still in her fallopian tube--an ectopic pregnancy--and at this point, it was unlikely it would leave. Without intervention, there was a strong chance of a major medical emergency, even death. Nurses at Intermountain compassionately administered the injection. I focused on getting her through this, and I really didn’t feel pain. I really didn’t think about “me” at all. Not only was my concern primarily on Lexi’s wellbeing, but we were basically in the same area where cancer patients get treatment—no one on that floor wanted to be there. My internal response was pragmatic. “A month ago, we weren’t pregnant. Then we were pregnant. Now, once again, were not pregnant. No net loss or gain really.”

When we resumed attempting to conceive after a few months, as prescribed by the doctor, August’s miscarriage had yet to extract much of an emotional toll on me. Instead, as has been the case since we chose to start trying in late 2017, anxiety over being an old father was my overriding emotion. As of this writing, I’ll be 46 in a month, and when I think of having a child at that age, my mind goes straight to one person, the grandfather I never knew. He was around 50 when my dad was born and died when my father was in college. Mortality can be a fear for a parent at any age, but now, I’ve also had a glimpse of what the ravages of time can do to the body. I’ve joked a lot over the last few years how the mileage of my life is catching up with me, and I don’t “bounce back” from physical issues the way the 20-year old version of me did. But all joking aside, I could confidently and objectively say that since 2020, I’ve probably been in the best shape of my life—until this fucking disk turned me into a whimpering and crippled soul afraid to get on a bicycle. That is painful; and not a great mindset to have when considering that you may have to raise a child.

Our biological window is closing fast, and now there seem to be a very good chance parenthood won’t happen. From the outset, I told myself that not being a father would never define me. I have a wonderful life with a woman I love, and I don’t want to lament the absence of things I don’t have at the expense of appreciating the things I do have.

This back issue has taken cycling and skiing away from me. While voicing my anger over not having my routine pedal therapy, Lexi reminded me about how fortunate it was that I didn’t skip my race in September on account of her miscarriage. I briefly considered putting off the race until 2022, so we could heal as a couple from the emotional pain and she could join me on the trip, but instead, we decided I should do the race even if it meant going without her. Medically speaking, it was best for her to stay home. That decision now seems prophetic because of how my back will affect me for the next few months. Who knows if I could now train and prepare for the race like I did last year? A lot of unforeseen events can shake your life up, and opportunities don’t always come back around. When I realized that, I thought of those few weeks in July when we thought we were pregnant. That was our opportunity. After years of trying without any sort of help, we made it happen. We had finally done it. The flint and steel had finally sparked the kindling and would soon be a campfire... and then a gust of wind scattered or embers and dashed our hopes.

That realization was the catalyst for me to finally process the pain that’s been under the surface since August, and in the last couple weeks, I have broken down twice and wept. Just like that morning when I couldn’t get out of bed because of my back, I have no idea when or how this pain will end. Maybe pain never really ends and you just learn to endure.


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