Mark Nepo is one of my favorite authors of all time. His New York Times #1 bestseller, The Book of Awakening, is a book I feel everyone should own a copy of and reference from time to time when they are in need of a spiritual lift. In that book, and in other forms of media (whether it be other books, interviews, poems, lectures, etc…) Nepo discusses how he was blindsided with a cancer diagnosis in his 30’s.
The moment he learned he had cancer was a dividing line in his life, Nepo says. He explains it with this quote, which resonates so deeply within me, “And all of a sudden, I went through a door. And when I went to go back out that door, it was gone. There was no way to get back to the life I had lived. Everything had changed.” I feel like I could use that exact same quote to explain my chronic pain journey & how my life changed with the onset of my cervical pain issues & subsequent fusion.
Up until my neck “went” on me, my pain was never the priority in my life (except for 9 months in 2006 which resulted in a “successful” back surgery in which everything went back to normal afterward). I never felt slowed down by having chronic pain until 2013, even though it plagued me for 14 years prior; I worked full time, managed to get both my undergraduate & master degree’s in Psychology (both while never requesting time off school), I didn’t take more than ibuprofen to manage the pain for years (right after the back surgery until right up to the neck surgery actually, 7 years!), but I suppose the whole time it was just a house of cards.
I knew I had more pain problems than other people around me (already having one spinal surgery before turning 21 solidified that) however, even though it was a major life-event at the time, the first surgery didn’t ruin my life, or even really change the direction it was going in. At the end of the 2006 spring semester, my best friend flew down to Tennessee where I was going to school and drove my car back home to Connecticut for me because I was unable to do so myself since I no longer had feeling in my right leg & foot. I had surgery over the summer break, spent most of the summer in the gym rehabbing and by the fall semester I had driven myself back down to Knoxville, moved myself into a new place (with the help of a few good friends), and started a new job busting my ass bartending…it was like I never even had back surgery.
Looking back now I don’t recognize that person. Partially because I’m not 22 anymore, but mostly because I don’t remember what it’s like not to have pain be on my mind 24/7. I think that’s the “door” Nepo is referring to. He wanted to go back to the life he had lived pre-cancer diagnosis, pre-everything in his life turning upside down. I think about the times when I was 22-23 often because at that age I didn’t have nearly the amount of pain I do now and did 10x the amount of activity & drinking (probably more). But, those times are gone, and in reality, they were far from perfect also.
The dividing line in my life was certainly when the unbearable neck pain began in February 2013. It was right after I landed my perfect job, the one I had been after since graduating in 2007, the one I had gone back to get my Master’s for. I still don’t know exactly what caused everything to happen as quickly as it did, but after many treatments, tests, opinions, and pain, in April 2013 I had a cervical fusion in an attempt to relieve the pain. It didn’t work. The surgery itself was successful, the fusion has fused, but the pain has never gone away like it was supposed to. Additionally, the intense neck pain triggered a number of other issues such as my narcolepsy to spiral out of control, migraines that have put me in the ER at least every 3-4 months when not under control (sometimes with scary neurological symptoms), severe back pain with left leg symptoms (instead of right this time), and a bunch of random acute symptoms that to an average person might not typically hurt but to me cause severe pain. The quote, “Everything had changed” couldn’t be more accurate.
If you’re interested, you can read in Nepo’s multiple books and poems in which his documents his attempt at understanding the “why” behind everything changing; ultimately it led him to a spiritual awakening.
“And all of a sudden, I went through a door. And when I went to go back out that door, it was gone. There was no way to get back to the life I had lived. Everything had changed.”
I, on the other hand, still find myself trying to go through the old door. I find others wanting me to go through the old door too. I find myself standing at the edge of the precipice screaming for my old life to come back…to be well enough to work, to be able to make plans to travel, to not worry about money all the time. But then I’m reminded of another Mark Nepo quote in which he says, “Can you endure your uncertainty until it shows you another way?”
Well, I think I’m going to have to, because the alternative is to walk through a door that is no longer there, which I’ve tried and doesn’t work…so here I am, enduring this uncertainty. I’ve been waiting (for what I feel is a long time) and recently I think there have been a few signs that have been moving me in a positive direction. So I’m going to keep going with the flow, I’m going to “try another way”, and see where it takes me. I hope relaying my story framed with Nepo’s was helpful in some way to you…I’m sure that I’m not the only chronic pain patient who can relate to his dividing line concept…right?
Sending positive vibes,