In November 2022, I was blessed with an opportunity to take a three-week respite break from caregiving to work on the film production of Men Of Law. This change of pace came at the time when I needed it most. After watching Mom decline even faster than she had in previous years, I felt like being cast at sea without a raft. I was treading water throughout our daily routines hoping to stay afloat. Once I finally accepted that she was declining faster than in earlier years, her current hospice company decided she was not systematic. They were graduating her from hospice services despite worsening CHF symptoms. The stress from this unexpected response flooded my body with the cortisol hormone because I was in fight or flight mode daily. Of course, this warranted more fight than flight, but the damage from burnout was creeping in by the day.
Working on the production set was a nice distraction in between phone calls with the management. The 4 AM wake-up calls were rough, but the sunrises in the country on a ranch were worth it. Daily conversations and being in a creative mode made the other stresses not feel like repeated gut punches with every phone call. Walking at least 8K steps daily between base camp and production sets helped me remain calm and focus on the present moment rather than panic about changes forced on Mom.
The temperatures fluctuated as the Texas bipolar weather often does. Throughout the day, I drank Gatorade, Matcha green tea, coconut water, and as much water as possible. The problem was I did not drink nearly as much water as I thought because I was trying to avoid multiple restroom breaks in between takes. I refused to relieve myself in the woods.
After our twelve-hour work days passed, sleeping at night was not an issue. My body was physically and mentally exhausted. The beds could have been a bit more comfortable, but I was trying not to be the princess and the pea complaining. My back was sore from the bed and hiking with at least a twenty-five-pound backpack for seventeen days. Plus, dehydration would have been an issue regardless. I had all the reasons why the C5 herniated and C6 in my cervical and thoracic spine ruptured one week after the production was completed.
What I did not consider was the injury to my body going back as early as a car accident when I was 14 years old. I also did not think about my middle and high school days when I sustained sport-related injuries that were not properly attended to, so my body healed the best it could under the circumstances of a pubescent body.
Thanks to the best reference I have ever received, I know that the standard industry way of healing with medication, physical therapy, and surgery does not get down to the root causes. My pain would have continued and even worsened had I conceded to another surgery. The referral led me to Moench Method Bodywork.
I was initially skeptical because my spine surgeon told me I would need another surgery to fix the disc. After replacing my L4-5 and S-1, which resulted in a provoked pulmonary embolism, I was terrified of having another spine procedure only two years later. This time I wanted to exhaust alternative measures before I agreed to the typical 6-8 weeks of physical therapy and surgery, followed by more physical therapy.
Thank GOD for Ken Moench, the founder of the Moench Method Bodywork. His practice developed over twenty-five years taught me the only reason for surgery with my kind of injury would be to reduce pain. My pain was not directly related to the disc because it radiated diagonally across my left shoulder blade into the armpit area and the base of my neck.
While doing jumping jacks in a gazebo overlooking a green football field and plush trees, I heard the familiar pop in my chest, of all things. After walking for roughly three miles, I stopped for a few stretches with meditative prayers. I started to count out my jumping jacks - 26, 27, 28 - snap! My left shoulder retracted then taking a deep breath hurt like hell. I panicked right away because I knew that gut-wrenching sound of the disc popping along with the cease of lung expansion.
My first thought was to remain still and figure out what had happened. Then I instinctually pulled my left elbow close to my body with my left wrist against my heart, straightened my posture as much as possible, and walked back home slowly. There might have been a few explicative words expressed mentally and out loud. It was the only thing that kept me from going into further panic and self-deprecation mode. How could I be so stupid to injure my spine - again!
I did not want to believe my destiny was to be on another surgery table and be out of commission for another two months or more. Not now. Not with Mom declining faster and needing me to advocate for her even more. The guilt set in quickly for taking the respite break, letting myself get dehydrated, sore back, and so on. The world's tiniest violin was playing on my wounded left-hand fingertips - woe is me. I just needed to get away to focus on a different reality for a change that did not include Mom in her final winddown process or a hospice company trying to exploit her needs. Why was I being punished for taking a break from her care?
It hurt to move my left arm, so I took the pain meds from two doctors (orthopedic and spine), wore a sling for a couple of weeks, and applied KT tape in between to support the muscles. After two MRIs, the orthopedic doctor did not know what to do, and the spine surgeon was ready to schedule the physical therapy that insurance required before doing the surgery. When I explained this to the therapist at Moench Method, the first response was an eye roll and a deep sigh. He knew the standard industry response was not designed to help us truly.
The following response was a thorough explanation of what was happening from the disc to my armpit and neck muscles. I shared the exact description of events from what I thought caused the injury (jumping jacks with dehydrated muscles), and they countered with more questions. They wanted to know every injury I ever had and what was done to heal the root causes.
Aside from OTC pain relievers and rest, as we're often told to do, nothing was done for me to heal the root causes. Before my first session started, I was taught how to drink water, which sounded crazy initially, but the explanation made perfect sense. I'm not talking about gulp, gulp, gulp, and don't choke from breathing in the water too fast. No. Our body can only absorb 4 ounces of water every thirty minutes. Any more than that will have us wear out the path to the restroom so the body can get rid of the excess it cannot use. We waste more water from peeing and then flushing at least two gallons to eliminate the excess water. Crazy!
Next, I learned that both doctors could not explain the pain thoroughly to me because they were in the business of surgeries. Yes, there was a concern about my ruptured disc. However, the muscles, including the fascia or soft tissue, were causing the pain. This kind of pain is because when you injure a muscle, it contracts or shrinks so that you won't move the muscle to give it time to heal. Ken refers to this response as "mother nature's cast." When the disc snapped, I did not know I was supposed to pull my left elbow toward my body. This position instinctually stopped the immediate pain in my left shoulder until I could get home to ice the area. I did know that ice is a natural anti-inflammatory medicine, though.
Ken explains, "Without treatment, your muscle heals shorter and more contracted than before you got hurt. This contraction takes away your normal range of motion. And you're unable to use that muscle the same way you once could."
Within the first three weeks of my injury, I could not extend my left arm without feeling intense burning, stinging, or a nerve zap in my shoulder blade and, eventually, my left pectoral muscle. The therapy was focused on my cervical and thoracic muscles to lengthen the fascia for the muscles to release and take their original shape. In three visits, my pain was gone. No surgery is needed, at least not in the immediate future.
The C5 is still herniated, and C6 is still ruptured, so surgery is not entirely off the table, but it could be years before I need to have that conversation. Since I visited Moench Method, I have regained my full range of motion and returned to my routine workouts, which included yoga. I focus on staying hydrated and not pushing myself to the limits. My body tells me when I need to rest and when it needs to move. I have to listen better, though. It is easy to ignore these signals or misinterpret them as caregivers when we tell ourselves we can't take a break because we're the only one who knows what our loved ones need.
Let me leave you with this one thought: If you are indeed the only one that knows your loved one's needs, then you owe it to yourself to listen to those pain signals to take action. I did not listen before, leading to my first spine surgery. I listened intently this time because Mom needed me to advocate for her more now than ever. Your loved one needs you, and you need your physical, mental, and emotional health beyond your caregiver journey.
I want quality of life, not just quantity. Don't you?
Special thanks to Jordan & Ken.