Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mowing the grass

Do you remember, waaaay back in March of 2006 when I sent letters to my dad's second wife and her son (who was living with them with his 4 year old daughter) warning them about my dad? Maybe not. Well, I was completely terrified at the time, thinking (quite seriously, even though I knew it was unlikely) that my dad would come to Seattle, find me, and kill me. At the same time, my right shoulder started hurting very badly, to the point where I could barely lift my arm. This wasn't the first time I'd had shoulder problems, far from it. I had pain and limited movement in that shoulder since I was 17 and my dad threw me against a wall, flinging me by my right arm. The ongoing discomfort was something I just lived with, just like many of the struggles I had accepted as just a normal part of my life even though they would not be normal for most people. Periodically, I went to doctors and tried to get some help with the anxiety, sleep problems, migraines, digestive distress, flashbacks, panic attacks, etc. Sometimes the doctors tried to help out in small ways, some were dismissive, and some just didn't seem to get it. My shoulder pain has a clear physical cause (yet it wasn't treated), and the other problems are symptoms of PTSD. It wasn't until recently that I started finding doctors and other professionals who acknowledged PTSD as an actual disorder that could be treated.

I've been going to physical therapy for my knee, and one day I noticed someone getting their shoulder worked on. While my physical therapist is rubbing out my knee, I usually make small talk with her (and not so small talk. I told her that my dad was physically abusive and that I have PTSD. She tells me about her new baby, and grills me about whether my boyfriend is "the one".) I mentioned to her that I had ongoing discomfort in my shoulder, and wondered out loud if physical therapy might help. Of course, as a physical therapist, she figured she could help. "Just make an appointment with your doctor," she told me. "See if she'll give you a prescription for PT and then I'll be able to do an assessment."

Easier said than done. This was at least a month ago, and I kept putting it off. My doctor is completely wonderful, but I dread going to the doctor. It's because my mom would drag me to doctors all through my childhood. I think in part it was the only way she knew how to take care of me, and also because it was a way of deflecting the real problems in our family, and the real problem with me, which was that I was being abused. Instead, she acted like I was some kind of sickly, fragile child who's problems could be solved with medication (rather than GETTING ME THE HELL OUT OF AN ABUSIVE HOME). This was silly, because I was the girl in the neighborhood playing sports with the boys and staying outside in the dirt as long as possible. I was far from fragile, especially considering the physical abuse I took. When I really needed medical attention, like when I had physical injuries, my mom would never take me to the doctor in a million years. It would raise the kind of questions she was trying to avoid.

I grew up feeling like I was a problem- abnormal, messed up, in need of fixing. When I went to the doctor as an adult, I felt like they didn't take my complaints seriously and thought it was all in my head. I got used to getting what felt like half-assed care that really didn't address the root of my problems. For example, when I went to the doctor in 2006, when I hadn't been able to lift my arm for a month and couldn't even hold a bag or backpack with that arm, I got one session of physical therapy and that was it. It wasn't enough to help, and I didn't push the issue. After all, when had my problems ever been taken seriously? I just lived with it, like I was so used to doing.

I finally did make an appointment for last Friday. A couple of hours before, I started thinking about how I would have to tell my doctor how my shoulder was injured, and that triggered a panic attack. I was imagining her looking at me like I was a freak, or with some expression that said I was to blame, like, you must have been a really bad kid to deserve that! I had to call my boyfriend to talk me down, but I was still feeling scared and my eyes were filling up with tears. I was sure I would start bawling as soon as I tried to talk to my doctor. I tried to imagine telling her about the pain in my shoulder without explaining how it happened, or making up a story, but I knew I couldn't do that. All this, and this is a doctor I've been seeing for 3 years and who I like and trust. It really struck me how re-traumatizing it is for me to talk about that beating, even 21 years later. At the time, I thought that beating would end my life.

I managed to stay calm until I was alone with my doctor, and relatively calm as I explained about my shoulder. I cried, but I wasn't bawling. I immediately saw sympathy and understanding on her face, and a mix of horror and anger that someone would do this to a child that I have seen on people's faces before. That felt comforting. She did a lot of the same things she did when I went to her for my knee- asked questions about how it happened and how my body was, and moved my arm around to see where it hurt the worst. She said she thought it was a partial rotator cuff tear that never healed properly. She ordered an x-ray, which, like my knee, probably won't show us anything but if she wants to order an MRI she needs the x-ray first. She wrote me a prescription for physical therapy, and said if that doesn't seem to be helping we'd get the MRI to learn more. She also asked me about how I was dealing with the PTSD (since this was the first time I'd told her about it). I told her about my therapist and the work we're doing, but that I was struggling with anxiety and nightmares. She wrote me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication to take at night, and asked me to see a psychiatrist because PTSD was beyond her level of expertise. I didn't feel like she was saying I was crazy, in fact, it felt like she was taking my problems seriously and trying to help in a more holistic way. She was satisfied that I had the right therapist, but because my work with her has been so successful, a lot of painful stuff is coming up including what seems to be repressed memories. This is a good thing for my recovery, but the anxiety and sleep problems are making it harder to deal with, as if the memories aren't hard enough to process. My doctor is hoping some treatment for the anxiety will help support the recovery process I'm working on with my therapist.

I am so relieved! My shoulder pain is not all in my head, and it is a perfect metaphor for what happened to me from the trauma- it damaged me physically and emotionally, and without treatment it will continue to hurt. Treatment, while difficult and sometimes more painful than just living with the injury, will give me the chance to strengthen that area and live without constant pain. Recognizing how serious the damage is, rather than making it feel more overwhelming and hopeless, makes it feel more manageable and gives me hope that I can get better in all ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a physical therapist who frequently treats chronic shoulder pain, I find the primary issue is poor positioning of the shoulder blades at rest which sets up poor movement of them when the arms are working away from the body. I’ve found this also feeds down to the elbows contributing to tennis and golfers elbow. I’ve just written a self-help book about this if you’re interested. I wish you the best, sounds like you've been through a lot, and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if your PT isn't able to help with your shoulder pain.
Rick Olderman