Atrophy

It was a year ago this week that broke the camel’s back.

I don’t even remember exactly how I sustained the original injury… it was during dance rehearsal and it wasn’t super dramatic. For almost a year afterwards, that tendon in my neck would swell and harden and build pressure down my arm and shoulder and up into my head. I babied it, never wanting to risk the three days of pain and dizziness that pulling it again would bring on. Tiny things aggravated it: newborns, my purse strap, a heavy necklace, and when I tried to be brave and do something like waterski, I paid for it dearly over the next few days. I quit. I stopped moving, lifting, doing, with that side of my body. Without use, the muscles in my arm disintegrated. That arm grew weak and sickly. You could touch the bone of my shoulder blade directly through my skin; the muscle there was no more.

I knew it was bad, but I don’t think I fully recognized it until I tried to carry a nearly empty gallon jug of milk the 5 feet across our camper floor to the fridge and couldn’t. Who can’t carry a few ounces of milk three steps?? Apparently me. I had another 2-3 day spell of being absolutely miserable and we finally said enough. Enough.

Enough with calling this okay. Enough with living with a dysfunctioning shoulder and neck. Enough of letting this control my life.

I called a chiropractor and made an appointment for the week after we came home. I was terrified, sensitive to touch and pain and sound and worried that hearing and feeling my bones move around inside me would be worse than the days of debilitating pain.

He found the vertebrae in my neck that pops to the left, causing all the issues. I miserably failed every strength test he put me through, and we set up my schedule of appointments: every few days, then once a week, then every two weeks, then every four. We talked about how those muscles had atrophied, how it would take time to establish them enough to hold me in place, how without boundaries, it’s so easy for that vertebrae to slide back out into causing me pain.

Isn’t this the way of life? We start with a little sin, and after a while, it gets so easy just to slide back out into whatever we want, whenever we want. Or we slip from a habit we’re trying to establish, and then all those weeks of trying seem fruitless. Just as our physical muscles atrophy with lack of use, our mental and spiritual muscles wither away when we quit fighting with them, either intentionally or inadvertently.

It causes us pain, makes our head throb and limbs go useless. Yet it can take so much time, so much pain, to cause us to finally decide to change our ways. It takes so much to say “enough. I’m done living this way, and I’m willing to change. Tell me what it takes.”

I came away from that first chiropractor appointment quite traumatized. The noises in my head were loud and dramatic, and my neck ached, being back in place after so long of being unadjusted. Being back in alignment was painful. But it was healing. The only unnerving visits back were when I waited too long or did something I shouldn’t. It takes time to see progress, to remember how it feels to be normal. I remember that moment, when I texted Andy after an appointment, asking “Is this what a functioning human body is supposed to feel like?” Slowly, the darkness and pain fade away, whether it a physical injury, or a mental or spiritual one.

I’m not 100%, or even 85%. I’m so much better, so much stronger, than when I started at zero 12 months ago. I’ve seen so much progress in the last year of treatment, but there are still times when I try to be normal and end up sidelined, with ice and Tylenol and nothing fun for two days. I still can’t waterski, can’t sleep on that side, can’t carry my backpack evenly between both shoulders. It still damages my quality of life and thinking about living life this way forever still scares me. I can’t move heavy boxes or carry a baby car seat or do a push up. I don’t want to live out my days this way. But there is progress. I can carry two grocery bags on that arm. I can move an almost full gallon of milk. I can use that arm to wash my hair, to lift my hands in church, to kayak. I only ice once or twice a week; I visit the chiropractor every 4 weeks.

I’m living in the tension of being on the road, and not arriving to the destination. It’s a journey, and while it’s not one I would have chosen, it’s one I’ve been given, and I’ll choose to live well and peacefully as I travel. I will praise Him, with both hands lifted high.

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