Human Matters: Pain, physical and otherwise
I fell in love with basketball at a summer baseball camp at Northern Arizona University. I was 8 years old. We happened by the gym during “free time,” and I found myself in a pickup game. It was like I’d played this game in a previous life. I became impassioned.
I played endlessly, against myself, in my driveway, where my father had erected a cemented post and backboard built with his own hands. I imagined I was Dick Van Arsdale, shooting over the outstretched hand of Jerry West.
In the summer, I played into the night by the orange glow of a single, 60 watt bug light above the driveway. The sound of the bouncing ball would hammer against our neighbor’s house until, long about 10:30 p.m., Mrs. Morgan would open her bedroom window and yell, “Go to bed, Steven!”
I played competitively for the next 35 years. “Retired” in my early 40s. Never had a knee injury. Not a bruise, not a bump, not a strain or a sprain. Which is why I was surprised last year when I tried to get up from my office chair to find my right knee was locked at an angle.
I got it unlocked with a bark of pain and a colorful metaphor. But it hurt. Badly. I couldn’t run. So did what I always do, which is nothing. I’m not a run-to-the-doctor kind of guy. I waited for my body to heal itself. Only this time, for the first and only time, my body bailed. My knee didn’t get well. Running felt like shards of glass. If my house was on fire, I’d have to amble out.
So, a year later, finally, I mentioned it to my doctor, who referred me for an MRI, which revealed a meniscus tear. Then I was referred to a knee surgeon, who gladly pointed to the tear in 3-D on the flat screen.
“But, I’ve never had a trauma to my knee,” I protested, haplessly. “I’ve played basketball since I was 6. I played all through high school. All through college. For nearly 20 years after that in industrial leagues. How did this happen?”
“You just told me how it happened,” the good doctor said, expressionless.
Apparently my Maker didn’t anticipate basketball when he created The Knee. It just wore out. Gave up. Gave way. Said, “I’m done.” But, the doctor said he’d be happy to stick a robotic camera into one side of my knee and a robotic scalpel into the other side and trim, sew and otherwise repair my exhausted meniscus with a few jiggles of a surgical joystick.
All right then. Let’s do it.
The folks at Sahara Surgery Center are nice people, save for their habit of asking, in turn and while holding the same clipboard, the same questions over and over again. Do you folks ever compare notes? Is this like an FBI investigation where they see if your story breaks down?
When was the last time you ate or drank, Mr. Kalas? Is this the right knee? Do you have any allergies? Five different nurses and two doctors asked me these same questions, verbatim.
But it’s not because they think I’m stupid. It’s because they live in a world gone mad with tort. It’s because, if I was stupid, my country gives me the right to blame my stupidity on them.
General anesthesia is surreal. Like a light switch. A black curtain. Boom, I’m gone. Boom, I’m back, wondering if an entire football team had run down my trachea wearing cleats.
Twenty-four hours later I was in physical therapy. I dig the science of physical therapy. It hurts, yes, but it hurts good! You can feel your body appreciating breaking through the adhesions.
This pain helps you heal. It gives you back range of motion. It is liberating.
It’s an interesting way to think of my job. Nobody comes to therapy who hasn’t lost something. The heart is injured. Limping. Constrained by psychic adhesions. Aching, either obviously or just behind the curtain of consciousness.
The therapeutic relationship is the MRI. It reveals what’s torn. What’s exhausted and worn out. We dig in. We clean things out. Sew things up.
Then, just like the physical therapist, I push folks to work the injury. To face discomfort in service to wellness and liberation. To go one inch farther than they think they can. Hold it for five seconds. Next time for 10. You can do this.
And now your heart can love again. Live again. With all the depth and range of motion a human heart is intended to have.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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