It started making its presence known in the wee hours of the morning, a little before the sun would rise, otherwise known as the time when even roosters are silent. I hate waking up when there’s only an hour or so until dawn, because I know, even in my groggy mind, that the next bit of sleep I can scrounge together is going to be wholly lacking in actual rest. It’s a piss-poor way to end the night shift.
But worse than simply rousing at the wrong hour was the awful, horrible, je ne sais quoi pain that accompanied my burst into consciousness. At the back of my neck, about three inches from the base of my skull and just to the left of my spine, a knot of pain drilled away at me. It resisted my clumsy attempts at massaging it into submission, and it was impervious to every single lying position I could invent. Eventually I sat up, willed myself into a finishing school perfect posture, and waited for the pain to subside.
Some time later, with my neck at a dull throb and the sky turning an iridescent indigo, I fell back asleep. Forty-five minutes of gorgeous slumber, and then the alarm clock annoyed me back to waking life.
If I was a bit off my game that first day, I was a burgeoning groggyfest. My alarm clock beeped with jealousy because my neck invariably woke me up first in a new, perverse daily routine.
At our first baby shower (one of two; a townie event and a Susanne-colleague one) there was a preponderance of physical therapists in attendance. Sure, I know a lot of PTs, what can I say? We all know I’m a klutz, so I need to surround myself with qualified practitioners whenever possible. Also, they tend to be nice, thoughtful people. The woman who helped me rehabilitate my knee after my ACL injury was there. I mentioned my neck pain.
Suddenly they were on me like a wolf pack around a limping baby deer. Where did it hurt most? Could I describe the pain? How long had this been going on? Nobody would tell me what their 2-second diagnosis was, but en masse they urged me to get into therapy before the baby came. Figuring I’d need a referral, I promised to see my primary care person. And then I delayed doing anything about it.
Night after night, 4 to 6 times a week, there was the immutable knot pain. Two ibuprofen before bed failed to keep the onset at bay. I tried different numbers of pillows in a variety of configurations, to no avail. This was as pointless a fight as the 2002 War with the Squirrel* and it was painful to boot. When I stopped being able to do simple math in my head, I called my doctor’s office. And I admit it, I dragged my feet. From the first neck attack to my dialing my physician, three months had elapsed.
A new symptom surfaced as I waited for my appointment with my doctor. Warm tingles all along my left ear and cheek, like the sensation one gets when one has in one’s feet when one has sat cross-legged for too long. Again, no remedies to stop the invisible tingles. And then finally the appointment rolled around. I sat down just wanting a referral to the physical therapist who had helped me before.
She assessed me in her office, for real this time, moving my head around and measuring how far I could twist my neck. Twist off was probably more my goal at that point. She announced she’d put me in traction to pull my vertebra apart a little, since my X-ray had revealed that they were all out of joint. It was like looking at a picture of cascading dice instead of a nice queue of spine bones.
“You have a big head,” she announced, almost as a casual thing like people compliment each others’ fashion choices. I really like that shirt you’re wearing. Your head must weigh close to 15 pounds. So my head is too big for my overworked neck, or something. Great. If I could pop it like a balloon I’d consider it to get rid of the tension.
She laid me down on the mat and set up the traction machine. It didn’t hurt really, but it didn’t feel good, either. It was less the kind of catharsis from joint cracking at a chiropractor’s office, and more a slightly uncomfortable waiting. Like for the orthopedic version of Godot.
Next up came the massage, which only made the stubborn knot relocate to a new region in my neck. This is what Lady MacBeth was wailing on about, I was sure.
And then she broke out the ultrasound machine. If heroin is like an ultrasound machine, I need to stay away from the horse, because I was in heaven. It was cool, it was pulse-y, it made my troubles melt away! I think I groaned in relief.
That night, my neck woke me up again, but it was okay, because I have new weapons, and I know this war has reached a turning point. Wake me while you can, because soon you’ll be displaced. Not by the alarm clock, poor thing, but by a crying baby.
*Long story, trust me. But it’s funny.