Tomorrow marks exactly one year since I underwent surgery on my right hand to correct a bone deformity I’d suffered from since I was a child. It was a terrifying prospect, for more than the obvious risk of complications of anesthetiser and the possibility of never waking up from that deep, senseless sleep.
Subjecting my hand, a delicate structure of fine bones, carefully tensioned ligaments and tendons, and infinite nerve pathways, to the rigours of a surgeon’s scalpel was a sickening thought. I don’t recall if I slept much the night before my admission. If I did, it was thanks only to a strict regime of Endone to control the pain. As daunting as the surgery was, the alternative was even more so.
Since I can remember, and I do mean that literally, I have experienced pain in my right wrist and hand. The first known X-ray on that hand was done in the late 1980’s, when I was about two or three, and the collection of scans continues at an alarming, almost biannual rate until 2015. Every scan was accompanied by the same maddeningly similar response:
“Structures appear normal. Suggest soft tissue bruising causing pain.”
Every single time they shot radioactive particles through my hand, they came up with the same result: nothing.
Nothing obviously wrong, so therefore, there was nothing they could do to help. It was beyond doubt, a most frustrating and demoralising experience.
After a few too many wines at a friend’s house in 2014, I stumbled up the stairs at home and took most of my weight through the weakest link in my biological frame. The fall ignited the old ghosts of pain I’d tried to forget and fanned it into an all out inferno of swollen agony. The lancing pains went from my fingertips to my elbow, crippling my ability to handle a steering wheel, lift my son, write with a pen or pencil, or type.
I tried braces and therapy. I tried medications and exercises. I tried ergonomic keyboards and compression bandages.
Nothing helped. Nothing.
At the end of my rope and on more types of analgesic medications than I care to remember, I finally managed to see a surgeon.
He took some scans and I expected the same result as the last few decades had yielded. Imagine my shock when he pointed to a small ridge of bone on a joint in the centre of my hand.
“There it is…”
He said it as if it were as obvious as the nose on my face. Did he understand the sheer relief that washed through me at those words?
Then I pulled out a scan from 1998, and presented it to him for comparison.
“Here it is again…”
Excuse me? PARDON ME?!
The relief was gone. The sensation replacing it was white hot rage, welling up from the depths of my wounded pride and shattered self esteem. All those years of doubt, years of hating my stupid body for telling me things were wrong when they so obviously weren’t, years of begging, pleading with doctors to do something, anything, to take the pain away… All those years thinking nothing was wrong, when all along, there very clearly was…
Two bones had been rubbing together, wearing each other away and creating a little lip of malformed bone that on occasion would catch and snag and cause the jarring pains.
My body, as flimsy and awkward as it was (and still is) was trying to tell my brain that something was wrong. The nerves in my hand were desperately sending out a signal to mission control, alerting them that something just wasn’t right. I knew it, and my body knew it.
I felt cheated. I felt lied to, and wronged in a way I still struggle to put into words. How many other messages, sent by my body in its hour of need, went unanswered because I deemed them a false alarm? I believed my hand was ‘crying wolf’ and therefore the rest of my weak self was surely doing the same. How often had I played something down because I couldn’t bear the embarrassment of another inconclusive scan or examination? So many… Maybe too many.
Surgery was not our first attempt to correct the pain, but it was our final option. In the end, augmenting the bones was the only way to stop the inevitable damage and continuing pain.
I remember despairing that afterwards, despite all our best efforts, I wouldn’t be unable to handwrite again, or I might completely lose my ability to type quickly or without pain. It was a gamble I decided I had to take, for my sanity and my fledgling career.
The surgeon cut away the ends of the two bones, then placed a little peice of my hip in the resulting gap. A plate and a few screws still hold it all together, though the bones have now knitted into one.
Somehow, amongst all this, I managed to write, edit and submit Blood of Heirs. I managed to maintain a marriage and a few friendships. I managed to move house and keep my son and pets alive, and loved. I managed not to give in to the pit of hate and self-pity yawning to my right, always there and ever calling. I managed to somehow keep my shit together and produce a book and a life worth living.
So often, pain makes you believe those things are beyond your reach. It makes you certain you’ve gone too far into the darkness, and even if you did return, you’d be so changed no one would want you back. Pain mutes the rest of your life, so all you hear is the high-pitched scream of the nerves under your skin and their unrelenting banshee-cry to your brain to make it stop. It’s all the worse when no one can figure out where it’s coming from, or how to fix it.
Tomorrow marks a year since I took a terrifying step and let a man with a knife cut open my hand. It marks the end of a year-long, trying recovery, but it marks the beginning of something that was ultimately bigger and brighter.
It was the beginning of listening to the signals my body sends. It was the day I began to believe in and recognise the wisdom of my sense of self. It was the beginning of not accepting pain as the final sum of all I am, and requiring more of myself for no other reason than I am capable of it.
It was a hard year, but a good year. May there be many more.