What’s The Difference?

Grey and Blurry

It’s cold.

The air is quiet in here – it must be snowing outside. It’s too dark to see but the silence is enough to tell. I roll over and hit the middle button of my phone. The screen blares at me, it’s too bright. I blink away the blurriness, 3:12 AM. This is my middle-of-the-night phone check that reminds me how much I hate sleep.

I guess this bed doesn’t help. Honestly, most people would hate sleeping if it included a twin bed, a yellow blanket that’s as old as I am, and a broken neck. Ok, not broken-broken, but close enough. I could really use a better bed.

I’ll try to get to sleep again. I saw that it is snowing, the glare from my phone confirmed my guess. It needs to be warmer down here. But I guess cold, alone, sleeping in my parent’s basement as a 44-year-old man is just about a perfect picture of where this downward spiral has brought me.

 

White Walls

The nurse tells me it will just be a few more minutes. I tell her thanks and I  feel the exam bench and the crinkly white paper underneath me. I reach into my jacket pocket and my x-rays greet me when I open my phone. I’ve been carrying the picture of them around, checking them during the bad times, just to see the reason why my neck and left arm are exploding.

The x-rays tell the same story I’ve heard from four different doctors now, “Your neck sucks”. Ok, the doctors are a bit more professional in their delivery but they have all said that something is wrong. It’s, “degenerative disc disease”. No, “arthritis”. Actually, its, “the car crash from High School” (during which I gracefully headbutted the windshield), or it’s my favorite diagnosis “just the stress you’ve been carrying” for the last three years.

The real pain started about a year ago. My neck throbbed sporadically before that but starting a year ago both my arms started to tingle and my fingers went totally numb at times. I couldn’t turn my neck to the left and the pain was like a slow burn with the occasional Zeus-like lightning bolt shot down my neck and arm.

I don’t know how it started. Honestly, I don’t really care at this point. I just need some help. I need to get better. I mean, my job is fine. It doesn’t keep me from doing what I need to, it just drives me crazy. I have two good kids but I know that my pain has kept me from spending the time or giving the love I would like to them.

The doctor is here, I can hear her outside. I lock my phone and look up at the white wall and feel a wave of something. Apprehension? I guess. I really don’t want to hear the same, “let’s wait and see” plan.

Three quick knocks on the door and now she’s in the room. She presents herself as Dr. Kamul and she’s one of the hospital’s spine surgeons. We talk about the physical therapy I’ve done, the massages and the ibuprofen. I don’t mention the occasional hydrocodone (which I get from my friend Mitch) that I take when the pain is too much.

She nods as I explain my symptoms and says the next step is surgery. I think, “Oh God, yes” but outwardly I say, “sounds good”. I don’t know what the normal reaction to surgery is but, in my case, I feel a weight come off my chest. The forums and articles online say that surgery to fix a herniated cervical disc is the best treatment. So, put me under and cut me open! I agree to come in the following Thursday and promise not to eat after midnight. I jokingly ask if 11:59 is OK and Dr. Kamul says “Sure, just no going back for seconds” while smiling. I trust her and I am ready to ditch this pain.

 

Cone of Shame

Bed-time. I approach my twin bed and say, “hello old friend”. Not to the bed, I hate that thing. But, next to the bed lay the pain pills I was prescribed. They are the only thing that takes the edge off of what I still feel.

The surgery went well. I’m two-weeks removed from the operation and Dr. Kamul said they were able to fix the disc and I should be pain-free in a few more weeks. Pain-free is quite a promise because right now I still feel it. I took some weeks off from work and my parents have been helping me out with the recovery but something still isn’t quite right. My kids came and visited me here at their house once but I wish we would spend more time together.

I change my bandage try to turn my neck. Ouch. About two more weeks and I will start physical therapy. I kind of feel like my dog when she got spayed and had to wear the white cone around her neck to prevent any improper genital inspection. My neck bandage hasn’t been to prevent genital inspection, per se, but my dog has looked at me with more sympathy than usual lately.

The pain pills have been helping. I am supposed to take less but they haven’t been working as well I guess. The hydrocodone I was taking before the surgery has helped and Mitch, the guy I get them from, brought over some dinner and pills a few days ago. I’ll take less this next week after I start feeling better.

 

Therapy Session

Julie, the therapist, is great. I would call her Dr. Andrews but she insists on Julie. So, Julie it is. I started seeing her with my wife (now ex) two years ago. The couples therapy didn’t work out so well but Julie has been great. Today we start by talking about my kids and how I am dealing with the divorce. You know, therapist small talk.

Then we get into how surgery recovery is going and she says she is worried about me. I tell her I’m fine but she insists that I talk about the pill use. I really don’t know. It’s just the only thing that helps. She comments that it seems that the pills are being used not for physical pain but also for emotional distress. Maybe. I mean, life has been pretty shitty the last few years, so yeah. Maybe. I know I am taking too many pills – but they help.

 

Clubhouse

I take my oldest kid to the golf course where Mitch works. We come here a few times a week now. Mitch’s boyfriend is a doctor and supplies him with the pills that I, and a bunch of others, come get at the clubhouse.

I don’t like coming here but it’s good for my kid to get free golf. I’ve been taking the same amount of hydrocodone and occasionally I take an occasion oxycodone. I am supposed to be weaning off of them (for a few months now, I guess) but stopping makes me anxious and nauseous. And, who cares. I mean, I have my kids and my job but what else?

 

The Car Ride

Since the therapy session with Julie a while ago, I have thought more and more about where I’m at. I am addicted. Julie told me to be upfront with my kid about it. Admit it. That sounded like a pretty horrible idea at the time but something has got to change. If I keep going I’ll be like my sister, in-and-out of rehab every few months. I don’t want that.

The last year since the surgery has been rough. I haven’t gotten my feet under me yet. I am trying to find my own place again and move out of my parent’s house finally. The pills have been a constant from before the operation, I wish I would have never started with them. It’s just hard. Stopping sounds like hell at this point and pain is pain. Pain from a life that hasn’t turned out how I wanted or from someone slicing into your neck. It doesn’t feel different, really.

I’m parked outside my kid’s mom’s house — I’m going to take the older one to dinner. I sigh. What a life to have to admit to your kid that you’ve got a pill problem. He’s walking to the car now. One last deep breath and here we go…

MED '22

Travis Norseth is a medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine in the class of 2022. He grew up in Holladay, Utah and earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. He very much enjoys dogs and has a dog named Olive, who is quite playful. His favorite book is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

Rubor Participation:
2019 Prose, "What's the Difference?", web edition