A New Routine
The first thing I did when I returned from Michigan was print out Dr. Colwell’s write-up of my injury and paste his seven step rehab protocol onto a wall in my bedroom. I have always liked structure, and now I finally had it. All I could do was stick to the plan and hope for progress.
The half-page print-out looked dull and lonely on my wall, so I decided to play arts and crafts for a couple of hours in order to spice things up.
I grabbed some paper and colored markers and wrote “Paige’s Recovery Plan” in bold letters before pasting it on top of green paper, making a border, and taping it to my wall. Then I picked out a few of my favorite inspirational quotes and wrote those out as well – “Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will” and “Struggle and Emerge” topped the list. I included some positive visualization, writing out a short list of things I wanted to achieve (a run with my dog) or feel (no headache). I also wrote down the list of the vitamins and supplements I was taking to help steer my body in the right direction during the healing process – things like fish oil for brain health, magnesium to promote proper muscle function, and a B-complex for my nerves. Lastly, I included a few vestibular eye exercises, which were not a central part of my rehab but seemed important enough to post on my wall.
Here is a picture of the finished product:
I felt really good about my recovery wall. It made me feel in control of my recovery, something I had been lacking the first 18 months of this journey.
It turned out, however, that tolerating Dr. Colwell’s rehab plan was a bit more difficult than I thought it would be. The stretching exercises proved to be too much for me. Something as minor as a light neck stretch would flare up my symptoms so much it’d leave me bed-ridden for the rest of the day.
So I resorted to the one thing that didn’t send my symptoms through the roof – a very light, subtle dose of acupressure. Acupressure is a technique that involves applying physical pressure to areas of the body in order to alleviate pain.
Every night while I laid in bed, I’d spend an hour or two lightly palpating the tender nodules in the upper right corner of my neck. I’d find a big knot, place my finger over it, press lightly and keep it there for several minutes. Then I’d move my finger over to another big knot and repeat the process. If I pushed too hard, my headache would flare up. If I did it just right, I’d begin to feel the knots slowly grow smaller and smaller. In this particular case, less was more. I had to believe that if I kept doing this, it would eventually begin to pay off with a reduction of my headaches.
During this time I also became motivated to incorporate a few other things into my daily routine. First, I bought a moleskin notebook and decided I would do two things every day: write five things I was grateful for and draw a sketch of my future.
Writing down things I was grateful for forced me to find some good in the face of so much pain and darkness. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the little things in life – the smell of coffee, the taste of chocolate, a beautiful day, or a much-needed hug from one of my family members.
My sketches were of things I wanted to do once I got better. Most of them were fun activities with the people I loved most – things like climbing a mountain with my brother, going on a run with my dog, competing in a triathlon with my parents, going to my favorite Yale bar with one of my best friends, and a trip to see one of Ellen DeGeneres’ shows with my mom (we love Ellen and watching her show was the best part of my day during that dark period of my life).
All of these images became permanently sketched in my brain, and I’d replay them over and over again in my head. The idea that I could one day do these things made my eyes water every time I thought about it. They were constant reminders of why I couldn’t give up, and they kept me motivated to overcome the daunting challenges ahead.
I also decided to do a few things that were out of my comfort zone. As much as lying in bed helped to control my physical symptoms, it was terrible for my mental health. I knew I needed to at least try and do more with my days.
So I reached out to my former high school lacrosse coach to see if I could help out with the team during the spring season. This appealed to me because the commitment would be minor (only one or two hours a day), I’d get to indulge in the warm weather, and most importantly, I’d slowly be incorporating sports back into my life. Turns out, spending a couple of hours outside with the team completely wore me out and sent my physical symptoms through the roof.
But it was worth it because it got me smiling again, and I hadn’t smiled in months.
Then I decided to try babysitting (definitely out of my comfort zone). I thought being around a cute baby would make me happy. I also thought it wouldn’t be too much work (I was totally wrong about this) and it would allow me to make some money. I needed to put the money I made towards my medical expenses, which was another way for me to feel a little bit less helpless. So I connected with a family a few miles down the road from my house who had just had their first child – an adorable, six month old baby boy named Colton.
The time commitment was very minor, starting with two hours twice a week. Despite my overwhelming physical limitations, I thought I could handle that but, again, I was wrong.
After my second day with Colton my head hurt so much I could hardly bear it. I felt terrible that I might to have to let Colton’s parents down this quickly. It had been too much and I wasn't ready for it. But before I gave up entirely, I decided I would give it one more week.
That weekend (after my first week with Colton) I headed to Boston to finish moving out the remainder of my things from my apartment. When I took my leave of absence from my job, I had hoped I’d only need a few months to recover so it made sense to keep my apartment. But after six months of “recovery”, I had nothing to show for myself except more problems, so I had no choice but to move out for good.
That weekend was incredibly difficult. I felt so terrible from the week of babysitting and coaching that I could barely function. It was hard to see my friends living normal lives, busying themselves with meaningful careers, active lifestyles and vibrant social lives. I couldn’t understand how they handled all of it when it took everything I had just to get out of bed in the morning.
By the time Sunday came around the busy-ness of the week and the emotional toll of being back in a bustling city did me in. I remember driving home from Boston with an excruciating headache; as if a dagger was penetrating forcefully into the top of my head. I desperately tried fighting off the tears because crying always made my head hurt worse.
The tears came pouring out anyway. I hurt so much, and I simply couldn’t bear it anymore. I told myself I was done coaching, I was done babysitting, and this stupid rehab wasn’t doing anything so I was just going to have to lie in bed forever. I let it all out and prepped myself for feeling even worse than I had before I started crying (if that was even possible).
Except this time, something felt different. After I finished crying, instead of feeling worse….. I actually felt a little better. This had never, ever happened before. Trust me, I had cried more during the last year and a half than I had in my entire life, and every single time it always made my symptoms worse.
But not this time.
This time, I felt better. It didn’t make any sense to me, but after thinking it over, the only thing I could correlate it with was the acupressure rehab I was doing every night before bed. Maybe the acupressure work was helping after all. Maybe, for the first time since I got hurt, I was actually making a little bit of progress.
I’ve reflected back on that moment many times and view it now as a very critical turning point in my recovery. I'm a big believer that if you step out of your comfort zone and do things you believe are going to help you, then something good will come out of it. It's happened time and time again in my life. The neck rehab is ultimately what initiated the improvement, but I don't think my body would have adjusted so quickly had I not pushed myself to handle more activity and worked on my mental health.
Because I challenged myself to be vulnerable, pushed the limits of my pain and generally tried to be better, I had a breakthrough. It was a small but positive shift in the right direction, and it was a much-needed spark that motivated me to keep working.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I rode with the momentum and built off of it.
Spoiler Alert: This is me and Colton, eight months since the week we first met.
I’m so glad I didn’t call it quits.