I spent most of my young adult life dreaming of what it would be like once I had a family of my own. I imagined building snowmen and sledding in the Winter, kicking a soccer ball around the yard when Spring came, teaching them to swim over the Summers, and hiking amongst the beautifully colored leaves in the Fall with my own little brood. But a little over a year after having my first child, my back problems (which I've had on and off for as long as I can remember) returned with a vengeance.
I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and sent to physical therapy. I was supposed to be completing the at-home exercises daily but found myself slacking because I didn't really think it was helping much. Plus, I had a toddler that kept me busy! After a few months of this, I began to feel pain and tingling traveling down my leg — until one morning, I was in such excruciating pain that I literally couldn't move from the floor. Even the slightest movement made me involuntarily cry out, to the point where my husband almost called an ambulance. I had given birth and made it through a pretty rough recovery, but that pain paled in comparison to what I experienced in my back and leg that morning. After one of my screams of agony, I heard my daughter yell "Mommy!" and I opened my eyes to see her face tight with fear. The worry in her eyes broke my heart, and I knew in that moment I needed to stop ignoring my own needs. I realized that I couldn't take care of my child if I wasn't taking care of myself.
After many doctor and surgeon visits and diagnostic tests, I found out I had severely herniated a disc in my lower back. The MRI report actually stated "severe nerve root damage" and "disc obliteration," which were not phrases I was excited to see in reference to my spine but did sum up my pain pretty accurately. After that dreadful morning, I began seeing a chiropractor and receiving acupuncture. I started eating anti-inflammatory foods, walking daily, and truly focusing on my recovery.
Before I got pregnant again, I lost weight so that the pregnancy weight would have less of an effect on my back. I had the healthiest pregnancy and delivery, while still finding time to focus on my first child and my unborn second. What I began to lose focus on was me . . . again. As I got farther and farther from that morning on the floor, with more and more joyful life changes occurring (like now finally being that mom of two I had always dreamed about), the less and less I continued to focus on my needs. I was feeling better. Sure, I had twinges in my back every now and then, but I had those on and off my whole adult life. I didn't lose myself as a mom, but I did lose sight of what it meant to truly take care of myself.
I felt like every other parent at the playground was looking at me and seeing what they thought was an able-bodied person and thinking, "What an awful mom, she won't help her kid get on the monkey bars."
A little while after my son turned 1, I found myself very near to where I was around my daughter's first birthday. My back was bothering me again, and the tingling and pain began shooting down my leg. I looked back on the previous weeks and the pain I had been struggling to ignore and realized I had been missing so much with my kids. And it pissed me off. When we finally had the perfect snowfall, I was stuck inside hurting while my husband played with the kids and puppy. When my son so desperately wanted to play, I couldn't get on the floor with him. It didn't make sense to me that my 35-year-old body wouldn't allow me to pick up my child and put them in a swing, or give them a piggy back ride. I felt embarrassed in public when my kids would ask me to carry them or get something they dropped off the floor, and I couldn't help them. I felt like every other parent at the playground was looking at me and seeing what they thought was an able-bodied person and thinking, "What an awful mom, she won't help her kid get on the monkey bars." I let those insecurities push me to lift, bend, and pull in ways I shouldn't have because I was already in pain. And I came very close to being that girl crying on the floor again. But I was tired of missing out. So before I got to that point, I marched (limped, rather) myself right off to the neurosurgeon to see what was going on and to discuss my options.
After some more diagnostic tests to gauge any changes in my spine since the previous battle, we came up with a pain management and recovery plan. My doctor stressed the importance of sticking to this plan, and I'm happy to say that's exactly what I've done. So much of dealing with this chronic pain involves preventative care, which so many people, myself included, tend to let go by the wayside. Before, when I was feeling better, I'd take less time out of my day to take care of myself to prevent this from happening again. But not this time.
I know what it's like to have your dreams come true and then only be able to watch from the sideline. And I am done watching. I'm ready to get back to doing.
I can't say I don't know where I'd be without my self-care routine, because I know exactly where I would be: back on the floor, crying out in pain, and unable to move. I would be missing everything I dreamed of with my kids because I stupidly chose not to take care of myself. I don't want to ever get to that place. I take care of me for me and for my family. I know what it's like to have your dreams come true and then only be able to watch from the sideline. And I am done watching. I'm ready to get back to doing. I can get on the floor with my kids, chase them around a soccer field, lift them onto the monkey bars at the playground, give piggyback rides, and swing with them in my lap. Keeping these things in the forefront of my mind is what keeps me getting out that exercise mat and completing my twice-daily routine of stretching and strengthening. It keeps me exercising, eating right, and managing my mental health. Because what's the point of having a dream come true if I'm not able to fully participate in living it?