By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
I was really looking forward to Tuesday evening, December 31. I was turning fifty. My family and I had planned a big birthday party with catered food, drinks, and invitations out to lots of our friends. On Monday morning, however, I awoke with an excruciating pain shooting from my lower back down the right side of my leg. I could not even stand up. What had happened? What was I going to do about my gigantic celebration?
A few days later, an MRI revealed that I had somehow compressed the L4/L5 vertebrae causing pinched nerves and the subsequent pain. What I had done to cause this injury was not clear? Had it been my running on street pavement? Was it lifting a heavy new television set up some stairs two weeks earlier? Was I just getting old? Pain pills temporarily relieved the symptoms but they dulled my senses. I was proscribed a course of physical therapy to help correct the compressed vertebrae.
In all my fifty years, this was my first time dealing with injury. The physical therapist said that it would take several weeks of treatment followed by subsequent changes in eating and exercise to fully relieve all the pain. I was certainly not happy to hear that there was no miracle cure. The physical therapy treatments and exercises worked slowly to ease the pain, but it hurt to walk and even sit in a chair for weeks.
As a psychologist, I was fully aware of the research literature on the five stages of grief that people endure after an injury or personal loss. I had even taught these stages in introductory psychology classes. However, it was hard to recognize these stages in myself. Denial was the first stage; the belief that pain would suddenly go away and I would be back to normal. Anger came next; the rage that accompanies thoughts of “How could this happen to me?” or “How did I do this?” Bargaining then took over as I thought that I could do some physical therapy and some changes in lifestyle and then return to my old habits. Depression set in after bargaining failed, and I realized that there would be no quick fix to my problem. Finally, though, with continued work, Acceptance of my injury and the long path needed to recover became part of my life. With acceptance, also came the realization that I may never be the same again. Certain aspects of what I did and who I am have been altered permanently.
That injury changed my perspective on life and has made me continually thankful for what movements I can now do.
The first few weeks of physical therapy relieved the pain. I was told that I really needed to lose weight, develop a routine of stretching and exercise, and to not run again, especially on pavement. I tried to bargain some of these suggestions away; when I could not I got depressed. However, after the pain returned and I had to return to physical therapy, I finally came to accept the fact that I had to change.
It took a lot of effort. Over several months, I lost about 40 pounds, worked with a personal trainer to develop back strength and flexibility, and watched what I lifted and what sports I played. I have lived with these changes to my lifestyle for over ten years. I have changed and the pain has never returned.
What happened at my 50th birthday party? Well, my family suggested that we have the party, and they worked hard to prepare for it. I was on the living room floor the entire party, reaching up to shake hands with my friends (and enduring endless rounds of joking). However, that injury changed my perspective on life and has made me continually thankful for what movements I can now do.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.