Somehow, it's been 6 weeks since I had my shoulder surgery. This completely blows my mind because this was an event that was looming so completely over my head for almost a year and now we're here.
It's been a big week. I had my second post-op doctor's visit and my surgeon is very pleased with my progress and range of motion. The most exciting news is that I'm officially cleared to be out of my sling, and I was able to leave the hospital on Thursday slingless!
It's been a strange adjustment being out of the sling. On one hand, I'm not quite sure how I survived 6 weeks of hot Denver summer in it, and at the same time time, it feels like I just had my surgery a couple of days ago. I still have a number of restrictions on what I can and can't do with my arm, can't lift more than 5 pounds, and my arm can't go past shoulder height (cue the short, easy to style haircut).
I think the most interesting thing I've noticed is how symbolic the sling was for me.
When I go into a store now, people don't know that I've recently had surgery and that I'm still very stiff and sore. They can see my scars, sure, but they aren't quite as careful around me, and no one is asking what happened and wishing me a speedy recovery. And while it's never been about that, though it's been nice, it is really a powerful reminder that the majority of my pain (both physical and emotional) has been invisible for all my life.
I suffered for 9 years from a shoulder pain that we couldn't really figure out what the cause was. Multiple doctors, multiple opinions, and really no solid answers, until I met my current doctor. After a while, I started to really doubt myself, like if something was wrong with my shoulder, wouldn't it have been discovered already?
As I've mentioned before, I am SO thrilled that I listened to my gut and continued to advocate that something was wrong with my body. And yet, it was invisible for so long. People close to me believed me, but it was hard to express to others that I was in pain all the time, or that simple things were nearly impossible for me (carrying groceries, holding the poles on the subway...). And for the 6 weeks that I was in a sling, people noticed. They saw my shoulder pain. They acknowledged it. My sling made me injury visible.
I can't help but draw the parallels to my struggles with mental illness. When I was in treatment, my illnesses were more visible. Treatment acted as my sling, where people would check on me more and make sure I was doing okay. It was a little more apparent that I was struggling then, than other times where I was appearing "totally fine". It's really tough to live with chronic pain, mental illness, and any other kind of invisible struggle. It made me so aware of this through the last 6 weeks and makes me recognize just how important it is that we acknowledge the illnesses and injuries and pains that we can't see.
Just because you can't see it doesn't mean someone isn't in pain.
Today was my first post-op appointment, 2 weeks out from my surgery. I got to see my pictures from the procedure (shown below) and get my stitches out. I get to start physical therapy tomorrow, and I learned that I only have to stay in a sling for 6 weeks (4 to go!!!). Today's visit made me really think about a couple of things, and how important it is to listen to your body.
Like I've said before, my shoulder bothered me for 9 years. I spent so much time going from doctor to doctor to try to get a proper diagnosis; I had 3 MRIs with two coming back inconclusive results, and multiple rounds of physical therapy that often felt like last-ditch efforts because no one knew what to do.
I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something really wrong with my shoulder that probably wouldn't be fixed without surgery. As the years went on, I thought maybe I would have to live with this chronic pain forever. Until this past summer when I decided to listen to my body and go for yet another consultation.
My surgeon told me going into it that he wasn't entirely sure what my shoulder would look like, but that he recommended surgery. He warned me it wouldn't be a home run, but that moving forward he thought it was my best option. I had to think long and hard about doing this anyway, and decided ultimately to listen to my gut and go for it.
Today's appointment was a HUGE validation for me in terms of going through with having the surgery. My doctor told me that the findings were super impressive--he was able to completely dislocate my shoulder easily when I was under, and he found that my labrum (the cartilage buffer) in the back was super far away from the joint, and that my shoulder had been dislocating to the back regularly. He put in 4 anchors in the bone to bring it back to the joint (so I may be setting off airport metal detectors for the future!), and from my understanding, anchors are typically reserved for the crazier tears.
Basically, today showed me how serious my injury was, and that there was no way in hell that it would've healed itself on its own. It was certainly not easy to decide on a surgery that wasn't a "home run", but I am so glad that I followed my gut and listened to my body and how it was feeling. I realized today just how serious my injury was, and I am so thankful that I took this leap of faith in moving forward with surgery. I am optimistic about the progress I will make and the reduction in pain I will have.
It is so important to listen to your body, and if something feels like it's off, it probably is. Never stop advocating for yourself.
As I write this (one-handed), I am currently 4 days out of surgery. It feels pretty surreal to have this procedure done, finally, after being in pain for the last 9 years. I felt like a huge wave of anxiety rolled right off of me when I woke up on Friday morning, because I had been anticipating this surgery so much before-hand. I really hadn't even thought of the following recovery time because my brain was so clouded with stress and anxiety, and so the last few days have been a learning curve for me as I slow the eff down from all the pre-surgery nerves.
I'll be learning to write better one-handed this summer and sharing the life lessons that I will inevitably come across as I recover from this surgery. In the meantime, I wanted to reflect on what I did prior to surgery to unwind and survive this surgery.
Before my procedure, here are the things that I found to be the most effective:
I couldn't be more thrilled to be out of surgery and on the path to recovery, and I know I will learn a lot and grow through this process.
Welcome to my new blog series within LivingFreeC: The Shoulder Series. I've talked briefly before about my struggles with chronic pain but as my surgery inches closer (exactly 3 weeks away!), I thought it would be time to explore this a little bit more on here. Seeing as I will be in a sling for 2 months this summer recovering from my shoulder surgery, I thought it would be important to blog about my process to healing both physically and mentally. I truly believe there are unique intersections between physical illness or injury and mental health, and I'm excited to document my progress here.
I truly believe that mental health and physical health are so interrelated because you can't truly be "healthy" without considering mental health, and I've started to see first-hand how much physical health can impact upon mental health, too.
I've been struggling with chronic pain since April 9th, 2009. I remember that date clearly because I had to fill it out on every single form for the first couple of years, and the numbers just kind of stuck. That means I have been dealing with this injury for 9 years this spring. I'm only 22.
I was in the water from as early on as I can remember--swim lessons turned into a local YMCA swim team, which turned into years of competitive swimming. I loved it. It was truly where I found the most peace and was something that I was so happy doing. On that day in April I was in 8th grade at swim practice. I remember feeling some kind of popping or clicking in my shoulder and then being in severe pain the rest of the night. Two weeks of R&R went by with no relief, so I went to the first (of many) doctors. They thought it may have been a strain, and I had my first MRI (which would ultimately be 1 of 3!) Physical therapy came and went and was ultimately unsuccessful.
I started high school and decided to swim on their team as well as continuing on with my club team. My shoulder was still not acting the way it should, and eventually by my junior year we had gone back to several other orthopedic specialists in the area who again were not totally sure what was going on with my shoulder, cue the 2nd MRI with rather unremarkable results. I was growing frustrated as I loved swimming so much but my only other option for pain relief looked like quitting the thing I loved most. I was ultimately able to finish out my senior year on my high school team which was a HUGE win for me, as I was in pain or taped up the entire season.
To make a long 9-year story short, I tried swimming in college but couldn't do it because of the pain. I tried to ignore it and accept this constant, nagging, sharp pain as a part of my life until this past summer before my first year of graduate school. Everything with my shoulder has been SO bad that I couldn't take it anymore. I recognized that by trying to ignore the pain it was severely impacting my quality of life (parallels to mental health avoidance, anyone?). We finally got answers this past August. I have a labral tear and a partial dislocation in my shoulder, both of which can be fixed and will hopefully provide me tremendous relief this May.
It is incredible the impact that this injury and chronic pain have had on me over the past 9 years. I can't sleep on my left side, I can barely lift and carry things, and I've felt really depressed about living with chronic pain for the majority of my adult life. There have been times I've been completely crushed, and felt totally helpless because I couldn't carry my groceries or struggled to bring my laundry home from down the street. This type of long-term, unrelenting pain truly does a number on your brain because our bodies are wired to respond to pain, always, because it's a threat to the body. This chronic low-grade stress has left me weary, frustrated, and ultimately pretty miserable over the last 9 years.
I'm so hopeful that my surgery will bring relief, even just the smallest amount. I am hopeful that writing and sharing my experiences will help me (and others!) bridge the gap between chronic pain and mental health. I'm excited, hopeful, and slightly terrified but know that this summer will bring a much needed change to my life, no matter what the outcome. Stay tuned!
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.