Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘degenerative disc disorder’

Look out pain, I’m coming to get you!

I’ve written about my chronic back pain before; here, here and here.

So after 17 years I had my first meeting with a spinal surgeon this morning. It was a really good meeting, he was lovely and very sympathetic and quite optimistic that finally something can be done. First of all we’re going to try a new, still fairly experimental treatment of antibiotics for 3 months (it was in the news earlier this week, there’s a good article about it here). The surgeon was very excited about trying it (I think I’m his guinea pig!) as it’s supposes to be pretty effective for chronic back pain.

If the antibiotics don’t help then I will be given intravertebral steroid injections (doesn’t that sound fun?). If my levels of pain and mobility still aren’t improving then the surgeon wants to do a double discectomy and spinal fusion (which sound even less fun!). But for now we’ll try the antibiotics and see if there’s any improvement.

I’m feeling more optimistic about my prospects than I have done in years. It’s good to know that there are options I can try and that if one thing doesn’t work it’s not the end of my treatment, merely a step on the path to something else.

My big fat problem

I was always a very active child – dashing all over the place, climbing trees, cycling, digging holes. I took numerous dance classes including ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. I was a Brownie and then a Girl Guide (as they were known then) and loved the camping, wide games and hikes. In my first couple of years at university I did a lot of extreme sports including skydiving, white water rafting and bungee jumps.

When I was 15 I started getting occasional twinges of pain in my lower back. By 17 I’d had to stop dancing. By 20 I needed to use crutches every now and again. At the age of 23 an MRI showed that I had 2 prolapsed discs in my lumbar spine. I was told that surgery was not an option so I tried all sorts of treatment, from painkillers and pain management clinics to various kinds of physiotherapy and acupuncture. Nothing helped and I was starting to gain weight.

It didn’t bother me too much. I was still fairly mobile and active and although my pain was constant I was able to ignore it most of the time. However as I got older my mobility decreased and my pain increased. By the time I was 26 the only exercise that didn’t exacerbate the pain was swimming and walking. So I did those; I swam twice a week, a mile each time, and walked whenever possible. Still my mobility gradually decreased though, and my girth increased.

I am now 32. I have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disorder; I still have 2 prolapsed discs but now my lumbar vertebrae are calcified as well. I use a walking stick most days or crutches if it’s really bad. And I am obese. Really, properly obese – about 5 stone over a healthy weight (according to BMI). I’m seeing a spinal surgeon next Friday and I know that one if the first things he’ll say is that I need to lose weight (as though anyone could be this fat and not realise!).

But how do you lose a large amount of weight when you can’t exercise? By eating less and eating healthily, of course. But (there always seems to be a but and I feel like I’m just making excuses) I can’t afford lovely healthy food and my mental illness is yet another hurdle. I comfort eat when I am stressed, unhappy, tired or in pain – so a lot. The psychiatrist who recently diagnosed me with cyclothymia and generalised anxiety disorder also said that I am a compulsive binge-eater. I merely nodded my head in agreement – I’ve been like this since childhood.

I know what I need to do. I need to stop bingeing, eat less and try my hardest to exercise when I can. And at night I lay awake plotting how to do this – I’ll only snack on fruit, I’ll eat mints when I get the urge to binge, I’ll stop baking with DD for a while, I’ll really cut down on portion sizes. Hopefully as I lose weight my pain may decrease, allowing me to exercise more.

But the next day I wake up and my first thought (after “Why is my 16 month old blowing raspberries on me at six in the morning?”) is always of food. I think about it all day. I think about what I want to eat, what we actually have to eat, whether I can bake anything today. While writing this I am mentally going through the kitchen cupboards to see if there’s anything I can snack on. I am obsessed with food and I have very little self-control. I know people who can open a packet of biscuits, eat one or two and put the remainder in the cupboard. I admire these people with something akin to awe. Because I can’t – I have one more, and one more, and one more, and then they’re gone. This applies to any junk food – sadly not to anything helpful like fruit!

I know what I need to do but I self-sabotage. You know the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other? That’s me. I am constantly torn between what I know I should, must and need to do, and what my treacherous bingeing self wants me to do.

I can’t carry on like this. I am in constant pain, I struggle to lift and play with my children, I can’t remember the last time I cuddled up to DH on the sofa because it just hurts too much. I don’t want to have this relationship with food any more but I don’t know how to change. I don’t know how to quell the demon and let the angel win for once. I don’t know how to not be this person.

My inferiority is complex

I always got high grades at school. I played several musical instruments. I went to university and obtained 2 degrees. I had good jobs, first as a forensic scientist and then as an analyst for part of the Foreign Office.

And now here I sit. I am unemployed, unfit to work and living on benefits. My husband is also unemployed at the moment and has been for some time. We have 2 small children whom we manage to feed and clothe adequately (partly thanks to my mother, who pays for their coats and shoes). My husband and I aren’t fed or clothed as adequately – we mainly eat pasta, I’m down to my last pair of jeans and the only shoes I have are an old pair of hiking boots. (At least they’re practical for this never-ending winter! :-)).

So what happened? After the birth of my daughter I was unable to return to work due to a combination of PND and what I now know to be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I was eventually dismissed from the job I loved on the grounds of ill health. My husband had lost his job some months earlier, when DD was only a few months old, and so we had no income and no way to pay the mortgage. Eventually the inevitable happened – we were declared bankrupt and our home was repossessed, forcing us to move in with my parents 200 miles away.

After a couple of months we discovered that I was unexpectedly pregnant with DS. We had to move out and start claiming benefits. Fortunately by this time DH was working again but he was made redundant when DS was 6 months old.

My mental health still isn’t good enough for me to work (I have recently been diagnosed with cyclothymia as well as GAD). Degenerative disc disorder means that even if I was mentally fit to work I would be unable to do any job more physical than sitting in front of a computer.

And I am ashamed. Although this situation isn’t my fault, isn’t our fault, I am deeply ashamed of what my life has become. I hate not being able to work, being reliant on the state and my mother’s charity. Every time someone asks me what I do I say brightly “Oh, I’m at home with the children at the moment” as though it was a choice we had made (and of course if money was no object I’d be happy to be a SAHM while the children are young).

Most of my friends are university friends and have good jobs. Many of them are starting to have children of their own and returning to work, something I was unable to do. I hate my weakness in not being able to go back to the job I loved. I feel inferior to those who choose to return to work and inferior to those who have to. I feel inferior to those who are wealthy enough to have one parent at home through choice. In short I feel inferior to just about everyone.

I used to be so confident, so good at what I did and I had a bright future ahead of me. These days I do almost anything I can to stop acquaintances realising the truth of what I am – the double stigma of being mentally ill and living on benefits is too much. I can’t remember the last time we had friends over, or the children had someone round to play – we always go to other people’s houses instead.

Rationally I know that I have little to be ashamed of. This situation isn’t our fault, we do all we can and things will improve one day. But I feel the shame nonetheless, and inferiority has become a part of my identity now. It’ll take a lot to shake it loose.

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