Thoughts on chronic pain, modern medicine, alternative medicine, acupuncture, surgery, and anti-depressants

I started Lexapro a week ago. My primary care doc gave me a sample back in March, but I hate taking that kind of thing except as a last resort. On Tuesday, I thought that, well, it’s last resort time, so I looked Lexapro up on the net and learned that it’s for depression and anxiety in the worse-off of the worst-off. I’m not altogether catatonic, but close enough.

I can feel it raising that old familiar floor beneath my emotions that desipramine, Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Zoloft erected, only maybe higher and stronger. “And, lo, the Lord, Lowell’s God, looked upon that floor and saw that it was very good, and he sayeth unto Lowell, ‘Lo, Lowell, this floor, it is very good, but let us maketh it better by raising it higher, even until it is above thy head,’ and Lowell answereth the Lord, Lowell’s God, by saying, ‘Lo, Lord, the same floor cannot be both beneath my feet where it will doeth me good and above my head where it won’t, and the Lord, Lowell’s God, answereth back unto Lowell, ‘Lo, Lowell, all things are possible for the Lord, Lowell’s God,’ to which Lowell sayeth, ‘Oh.’ And the floor was raiseth, and Lowell fell out from under it.”

For most of my life, I had but one doc whom I rarely saw. This year, I’ve had one sleep specialist, three surgeons, two anesthesiologists, countless radiologists, two neurologists, one dermatologist, and one primary care physician. Today, I added a hand specialist (to help break down scar tissue from my carpal tunnel surgery) and an acupuncturist (for my back and shoulders) to my entourage of nurses, aides, phlebotomists, x-ray techs, massage therapists, physical therapists, and lab techs. One of the dominant labels that I now place upon myself is that of patient.

Medical doctors, are, by and large, less than pleasant people. They’re harried, impatient, unreachable except during paid visits, think of me as an assemblage of parts, don’t recognize me when they see me, and have offices that are brown and gray with nothing of solace or beauty except maybe a single print that looks to have been added as an afterthought.

My primary care doctor is somewhat the exception. His office is the worst of all, but he encourages me to talk about any and everything, and he listens good. He is also my only doctor who is not young enough to be my child. In fact, he is my exact age—fifty-nine. He’s a little more wrinkled than I, perhaps, and a lot more stooped. He also shuffles when he walks and has a tremor. You might say that he looks like hell. You might say that he looks like he should be my patient rather than I his, but maybe I flatter myself. In any event, I leave his office with the suspicion that I am better off with my problems than I would be with his.

Alternative practitioners are the opposite of regular doctors. Maybe it’s because they lack the scientific cachet, or maybe it’s because their patients are mostly people who are disenchanted with regular doctors, or maybe it’s just that they all happen to be supremely sensitive spiritual types. Whatever the reason, they are given to hemp clothing and to decorating their offices with Buddhas, waterfalls, potted plants, pastel paints, and rice paper prints—with meditative music in the background.

I go away from doctors’ offices disappointed that my “healer” had no interest in me except for a single joint or organ. When the acupuncturist I saw today tried to draw me out by saying, “You must be really frustrated by all this pain,” I immediately lowered the drawbridge and sent the archers to the castle walls. “What the the hell are you trying to do here?! I thought. “I’ve only known you for fifteen minutes. I’m not going to open up to you.” A while later he said he needed to leave the room for a moment, and I wondered, “Why are you leaving the room? Am I that hard to deal with? Don’t you like me?” It’s not that I’m impossible to please (no, not I), just that I’m ambivalent.

The acupuncturist is my last hope before surgery, so I read all I could about him and about acupuncture in general before I saw him. Almost every scientific study concludes: “Couldn’t come to a firm conclusion. More research needed.” Great. So, I questioned today’s acupuncturist as closely as I could without being obnoxious, and I couldn’t be sure, but I thought that maybe he didn’t like it. The truth is that nobody likes to be challenged. Even if they say they do, they don’t. Even if I try to be really, really tactful, they don’t.

He stuck needles into my lower arms, abdomen and feet. The pain in my right shoulder went from a two to a six (eight being about what it would take to bring tears). He noticed my discomfort, and put a pillow under my upper arm. “Does that help?” “Yes, I feel better now.” “Are you sure?” “Well, maybe you could lower it a little.” He did, and then stood looking at me in earnest silence. Next he put a pillow under my shoulder. “That’s even better,” I said. Then he put a second pillow under my head. “That’s better than when I came in!” I exuded. Night after night, I toss and turn in pain, yet it never occurred to me to use an extra pillow.

I hadn’t paid for moxibustion, but he did moxibustion. I hadn’t paid for magnets, but he put one on my neck and one on my right shoulder. Then he left me while these things did their magic, His potted ficus looked down upon me sympathetically, as if it too were a healer. But will magnets and needles and burning mugwort help? I divide treatments into things that make sense and will probably work, things that don’t make sense but might work anyway, and things that seem too stupid to even consider; and I’m open to the first two categories. Nothing Tom did seemed stupid.

The thing about medical doctors that bothers me most is that they are a lot more interested in treating symptoms than treating causes. In fact, they are often completely uninterested in causes. Maybe this is because they are expected to see several patients per hour. Or maybe it’s because symptoms are obvious, quantifiable, and approachable. Until three years ago, I was in pretty good shape. Then I had knee debridement so that I could hike twelve miles over steep terrain without a knee ache. Thanks to that very simple and very routine surgery, I can no longer walk more than a few blocks without pain, and I’ve gone downhill like a pig on a greased slide. If I were a doctor, I would be curious about that, but even my primary doc just kind of throws up his hands and grabs for his prescription pad. “Depressed about your declining health? How about a nice sample of Lexapro? It’ll do you good. Besides, Forest Pharmaceuticals often buys lunch for my staff and me—not that I would let it influence me any.”

Just as carpenters see every problem as requiring a hammer, surgeons call for a scalpel, so if you don’t want surgery, don’t go to a surgeon. That shoulder surgery (subacromial decompression, which translates into “take the pressure off the area beneath a bone called the acromium”) I cancelled two weeks ago has a four-month recovery period. In other words, the surgeon would injure me so severely that I would need four months, not to recover from the ailment, but from the treatment. Does that sound like anything YOU would jump into? Sure it’s a simple surgery (for the doctor), and sure it’s routine, but then my knee surgery was even more simple and more routine; and because of how IT turned out, I never lose sight of the fact that, if the worst happens, it’s not the doctor who will be screwed. What’s more, the doctor might not even care. Mine certainly didn’t want to be reminded of his failure.

Maybe my primary doctor is right about the brain. Maybe it’s all (or at least mostly) physiological—what goes on in there. It sure looks that way. A stroke, or a head injury, or a pill, can dramatically change a person. I’ve seen it from the inside. When I’m on an anti-depressant, all the dark thoughts that I had are still lurking in the shadows, and they still seem more real somehow than the positive thoughts, yet they have been robbed of their power. It’s as if I’m standing behind a bulletproof window, and can see the darkness coming at me, only it can’t penetrate the glass. Pills don’t make me into a flaming optimist; they just make me indifferent to sadness.

Unfortunately, it’s not just sad thoughts that bounce off the glass, it’s also my ability to be deeply touched by love, art, music, nature, innocence, heroism, and compassion. Poignancy becomes just another word in the dictionary that I can understand but can’t personally relate to. In short, to deaden what I hate about myself, the drug must also deaden what I love most, the two being somehow intertwined. That is why I don’t take the damn stuff unless I’m so screwed up that I become fixated on suicide. In the current circumstances, it’s not that I want to die; it’s that I want the pain to die. Unless you’ve been awakened time after time, night after night, by one of the worst pains you’ve ever had, you won’t know what I’m talking about. When the acupuncturist asked me to describe it, I said that it’s like someone stuck ice picks deep into both shoulders. If the pain were any worse, I would howl like a dog.

I’m reading a mediation book (break through pain by Shinzen Young) about the spiritual growth that is possible with chronic pain. He says that the pain is not the BIG problem; it’s the terror, the outrage, the refusal to accept the pain that’s the BIG problem. Yes, I can see that. Heads or tails. Suicide or saintliness.

I can’t hike because of my knee. Now I can’t bike because of my shoulders. I’ve never much cared for meditation, but at least meditation is something I CAN do. Maybe, for now, I need to accept that life is not NORMAL, and might not be normal for a long, long time, and that, just maybe, something good can come from that.