Disclaimer: This is piece has ended up much longer than my original intentions, and I’m both not up to self-editing today, and I have to go run errands this afternoon, and I need to rest for a spell. Just words of warning: you will need preparation, tools, technique, flexibility and especially stamina to read this entry!
No, I haven’t developed cabin fever, nor has this “winter of our discontent” driven me mad. I’ve been pondering the metaphor of shovelling snow and being diagnosed with a chronic illness; how each requires preparation; tools; technique; mental, emotional, and physical “flexibility,” and a certain amount of stamina.
The equation is easy: living in the Northeast = snow at some point over the winter. The question is how early, how much, how often, and how late. Each fall/early winter, I prep for the snow-shovelling season to come: weather websites bookmarked, shovels located, snow-melt/ice-melt on hand. While I don’t “practice” my technique, I am aware that at any moment, I might be called upon to utilize my snow shovelling skills.
After watching, reading, and listening to the forecasts, I can devise my snow shovelling strategy for that particular storm. There are always variables: the correctness of the forecast; the actual track of the storm; the timing of the snowfall; the condition of my husband’s back and shoulder; and my own physical health.
I have two main shovels I use depending on the snow, and if I have access to both. They are lightweight, short-handled, and plastic. One is smaller, with a deeper “bucket”/blade (that my husband keeps in the car trunk during the winter) and another with a shallower but larger blade. If the snow is light and fluffy (or my husband is at work), I use the larger bladed shovel. Light snow can be pushed farther, more put into the blade, and is easier to deal with. With chunky plowed-in-snow, deep snow, or dense snow, my shovel of choice is the more “bucket” bladed one. The blade holds less snow, is easier to carry to the tossing point, and flings the snow further.
The clothing I wear is both a tool and a technique. The weather conditions while I’m shovelling demand certain adaptations to my usual layering. Very wet snow: rubber boots; extreme wind-chills require almost full facial wrapping; any wind means I need to put a lidoderm patch on my left cheek (the site of atypical chronic facial pain made worse by the cold wind). In rubber boots or deep wind chills, more breaks are required to warm up the toes, fingers, and face. If I’m getting too hot, I might need to remove a full layer to be “comfortable.” I try never to get too hot or too cold while I’m shovelling, even if taking a break inside means leaving a small patch unshovelled at that point.
I have a main technique with a few variations for actually shovelling. I “chunk” the snow (if it is at all glomming together, is deep, or has been plowed into the driveway) into more manageable sized “pieces” (like cutting blocks of snow for an igloo. With my right hand on the shovel handle, as I bend at the knees to pick up a shovelful of snow, I slide my left hand down the shovel shaft to the start of the blade, and use it to help lift up, carry, and toss the snow.
The technique varies with the conditions: very wet snow, or snow in the driveway pushed in by the plough and thus treated and melting requires tipping the blade vertically to drain off the water. After repeated snowstorms, I need to walk further to my tossing point, so I sometimes shovel a path for that first, and then go at the driveway. I might be tired and/or in pain, so I will put as little snow on the shovel as possible, take more standup breaks, and keep reminding myself to bend at the knees, etc.
I have to be mentally, emotionally, and physically “flexible” when shovelling. Shovelling snow on a sunny, clear day with little wind can actually be fun. And, surprisingly, shovelling is one of the few upper body exercises that DOESN’T appreciably make my neck issues worse if I stay with my main technique. But on bitter, snow-tornado days, with the wind whipping the snow I just tossed back into your face, I need to really wrap my mind around the task at hand. I tell myself stories, I write blog entries in my head (no surprise there, lol), I make bargains with myself: if I shovel to that spot; or clear off that much of the driveway or sidewalk, I’ll take a toe-warming break. I set goals.
But, I do have to listen to my body, and be willing to change those goals and my technique should the circumstances dictate. In 2009, I fractured my right wrist in late July; when I went out to shovel the winter of 2009—2010, I would put back on the cuff (like those folks with carpal tunnel syndrome wear) to help strengthen the wrist, and to remind myself to go easy. Last week, I pinched a nerve in the palm of my left hand. I had to alter the position of my hand when I slide it down the shovel shaft, and picked up the snow.
And, I have to be careful. Today, the snow was light and not too deep, so I pushed it to the edges of the piles, and tossed it up without going into a squat, or always putting my left hand at the base of the shaft/start of the shovel blade. WRONG! My neck tensed up, and my lower back is aching! Issues of stamina come into play here too: when the shovelling is simple and straight forward, it can be easy for me to do too much at once, or forget my techniques.
So, after all that, where does being newly diagnosed with a chronic illness or finding out the source of your chronic pain fit in? As I said in the opening, each requires preparation; tools; technique; mental, emotional, and physical “flexibility,” and a certain amount of stamina.
Perhaps you have been researching your symptoms prior to diagnosis; perhaps the doctor has been prepping you for the results from your tests; or maybe you are blind-sided by the diagnosis; or receive little or no information from your health care practitioner. You will need to prepare yourself for dealing with this newly minted diagnosis. You may have been waiting for 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years, but now you have a name for your constellation of symptoms. What do you do with it?
Research! The internet provides all kinds of information, but you don’t want to rely solely on one or two resources. (Similar to how I listen to more than one weather forecast). A good starting point is the website of any national organizations that focus on your particular health issue(s). There you will find important pieces of the puzzle: information; links to resources; support groups; and the knowledge that you are not alone.
From there, you can branch out to other websites, face book groups, medication websites (some of which offer discount co-pay cards if applicable), information sources. But remember, not all websites and facebook groups are created equal. You will need to shift through the information, look for patterns, take things with a grain or two of salt (or ice-melt in my case), and analyze your findings, just like you may have already analyzed your illness/symptoms. Don’t rush to conclusions based on one internet article or one person’s experiences.
Your tools might be real: mobility devices; glucose meter; heart rate and blood pressure monitor; or syringes. Your tools can be virtual: membership in online chat and support groups; pain journals/diaries; or symptom trackers. In either case, these are part of the toolbox you will need to deal with not only the new diagnosis, but also with the prognosis is for your particular health issue.
You will be navigating your way not just through the canals, lakes, and rivers of your illness/diagnosis, AND the health care system in general. You may need referrals to specialists, a pain management team, further tests, hospital stays. Can your health insurance (if you are lucky enough to have it) be a tool? What treatments, specialists, and medications does it cover in terms of your particular situation? Questions like these are both tools (to get the answers you need) and technique: being an active and involved in your diagnosis.
Technique, of course, is how you handle those tools. You will need to be your own best health care advocate, so you should practice your technique early and often. You will need to develop your own technique based on your unique, individual set of circumstances. However, you can draw on the experience of others with the same or similar diagnosis, folks with other/different chronic illness/source of pain than your own.
You will also need to adjust your technique as the conditions warrant. You may need to slow down, or switch to a different lifestyle in order to deal with your illness. Just as the weather and snow conditions require my to alter my technique. I have my basic chunk, squat, carry, and toss with variations depending on the situation.
Flexibility is being able to change along with your illness and your needs. Your diagnosis of having a particular illness is only the beginning of your journey. It is your illness and will carry with it the uniqueness of you. However, there are certain paths that will present themselves based upon the track of the illness, it’s nature, and the treatment route you choose. You have to be willing to look for/at the sign/guide posts along the way.
Remember that acceptance of your diagnosis doesn’t equal giving in. Just as changing your lifestyle to better suit your physical condition is not letting the illness have the upper hand. It is recognizing that you are you WITH an illness, you are NOT that illness. The diagnosis gives you the tools and technique to deal with your constellation of symptoms; mental and emotional (as well as physical – but not in the sense of moving the body by stretching, but changing the way you interact with your physical environment) flexibility allows you to come to accept the diagnosis, change what you can, adapt where you have to, and continue to get the most you can out of each and every day.
And being flexible means being open to new treatment options, new opinions, new studies, new medications. The knowledge and understanding a particular disease (physical or mental), it’s course, and treatment can change radically over time. I have mainly been discussing receiving a diagnosis of a chronic physical ailment/illness. But the same can be applied to certain mental health issues such as depression as well.
There is snow. I have to shove it. How I approach the task in the beginning, middle, and end requires that I am flexible emotionally, mentally, and in my interaction with my physical environment (as well as physical flexibility). And, one of the things that I must pay attention to is my stamina – some days/conditions require pacing; others not so much.
This is having the physical and mental stamina to deal with all the information, options for treatment, health insurance provider, and health care system. You may need to rely on others for help/assistance at any point along the course of your illness: from first symptoms, through diagnosis/prognosis and to living daily with what changes this diagnosis may bring.
If you don’t have the stamina at certain points in time, that’s okay. Support groups, organizations, communities, government agencies exist that may be able to help you deal with your illness, get medication, assistance with transportation, or whatever bumps in the road there are. You may find some friends and family drifting away while others put out their hands and hearts in support. If you need to rely on them, do so. It’s not weakness, it’s not giving in; it’s being realistic, active, and aware.
Today, I ignored my body, the conditions, and my technique. While I was flexible to my physical environment – the snow was light, fluffy, and not that deep – I didn’t incorporate my main technique into my flexibility. My stamina was fine; my technique not so good.
And you will have days like that: all your prep work, the fullness and depth of your tool box, the finely-honed techniques, the flexibility, and stamina won’t be enough. But these days are lessons for tomorrow. These are days when support networks are so important. (Snowpeople in the backyard for me, lol)
The next snow storm is forecast for tomorrow afternoon. It will start slow, build over night, and mean that the driveway will be a mess right around the time that my husband would usually leave for work. I need to start my prep now for tomorrow and Thursday’s shovelling. I think I’ll go put a heating pad on my neck, a lidoderm patch on my back, and relax for a while before the snow starts to fall again.