By Jennifer Sey
My left ankle is a disaster. I knew it looked funny. Puffy and distended and misshapen. Bulbous on the left side. And the right. Sometimes even hot to the touch. It has been this way for about 20 years and I had gotten to the point where I didn't think about it too much.
“That's just my ankle!” I'd say, palms to the sky mock sit-com style, when some new friend, someone unaware of my gymnastics history, noticed the monstrosity at the bottom of my shin. Perched atop a perfect stiletto, of course. Yes I wear heels. I like them. They look pretty. They make the legs of a 5'3” woman look long, the calves well-toned and they distract from a disfigured ankle. I feel pretty bad ass in a perfect pair of heels. I'm not giving that up.
I should preface all of this by saying, I was a gymnast (if you've read this column or my memoir , sorry to be redundant). An intensely competitive one. Towards the end of my career I sustained a mysterious, extremely painful and, what went on to be undiagnosed, injury to my ankle. The short and short of it: a bad landing in a competition, swollen to the size of unrecognizability, grotesque shades of purple, green and blue. I knew there was something terribly wrong. My doctor, who was in cahoots with my coaches, insisted there was not. And I went on to train and compete for another two years, winning a national championship in the process, all amidst the haze of steroid shots and enough pain killers to choke a horse.
A minor surgery to remove some bone chips before I went to college and I thought the whole thing was taken care of. Not so. A doctor friend recently got her hands on it. “This isn't right, Jen. You really need to get this checked out.” She did an okay job of hiding her dismay. But the worried look in her eyes prompted me to get to the orthopedist. Eventually. It took me another seven months. But when you are used to pain, it just becomes a normal state of being. Not an emergency.
After an x-ray and an MRI, I spoke to the doctor. He entered the office shaking his head. “It isn't good. There is no cartilage left, you have grade 4 arthritis (yes that is the highest, the worst) and the bones in the joint are rubbing together. You're bone on bone in there. That's what hurts.” Huh. I honestly thought he was going to tell me I had a few bone chips, he'd go in there and suck them out without any major cutting and I'd be good as gold. Ready for Iron Man. Not so. “I was hoping for some cartilage so I could use it to help you out with that joint. But there is nothing left. I want to try to get you through as many years as possible until I can replace it.”
Replace what? The ankle! You're going to replace my ankle! Are you fucking kidding me?!
“I do ankle replacements on occasion. They are much more rare than hips or knees. But I do them. I don't like to do them until the patient is 60 because they don't last forever. [chuckle chuckle] So I'm gonna go in there and clean it out and then we'll do a series of joint injections to blah blah blah...”. I kind of blacked out at this point.
Now that I've collected myself, done the necessary research amongst doctor friends and on-line, I am going to embark on the course of treatment this sports medicine guy recommends. I am hoping that by the time the joint completely fails me there is some bionic version available that will make it so that I can not only walk without pain, but do back flips again. That would be something for a sexagenarian. But I've got to get through 20 years otherwise I'm likely signing up for two replacements, which, I don't have to tell you, is undesirable. The thing that upsets me most is that he could see what a horrible, traumatic injury I had sustained back when I was 17. He could see the catastrophic breaks and tears on the x-ray today, more than two decades later. So the malpractice involved enrages me, but mostly, I'm dismayed by my own inability to recognize pain that goes too far. Pain that is begging me to stop.
Pain is a signal. If you are trained not to hear it when it screams, you can do long term damage to yourself. But how do we know when it's a reasonable amount of pain to work through to get to satisfaction on the other side vs an indecent amount that will inevitably result in long term damage? If we wuss out the minute any pain at all rears its head, we'll never accomplish anything! No pain, no gain, right? These are words I've lived by, to a fault. Clearly my pain-o-meter is off. And I don't know how to get it back without becoming a hypochondriac who runs screaming to the emergency room for every paper cut.
And it isn't just my physical pain barometer that needs a tune up. I think my gauge for all kinds of pain – both physical and emotional – is broken. I've gone through periods at work which have caused intense discomfort. Long hours, missing my kids, frustration at not being promoted when I'd done the work to earn it. I was doing the proverbial head banging against wall for months on end. But I persevered and now I find myself in a job I love, working with people I trust, admire and just plain old have fun with. But, will that period when I put myself in psychic distress have long term effects?
When I wrote my book , while working and mothering full time, I experienced more than a little suffering. I was tired, anxious and practically convulsing with the need to get the words on the page. But still needing to get my ass to the office every day and manage the ongoing challenges of leading a team, running a business. Ultimately I got through it, sold the book and experienced a great sense of satisfaction and pride. Will that period in time come back to bite me like this damned ankle?
And, of course, like every married person, I've gone through some lonely painful times in my relationship. We've been married for ten years and together for 15. Pain inflicted on the other and sustained by each party is inevitable. But how much is too much? What are the long term effects on me, my husband, my kids? I really don't want the equivalent of grade 4 arthritis in my marriage come the passing of two decades.
I think I may be the worst person to ask to assess acceptable levels of pain in myself or others. I need a major adjustment to my pain yardstick. I need to have other people measure it, hold it against theirs to calibrate and then tell me what I should do. Level 10: “Stop! Enough! You're doing long term damage!” Level 5: “Hang in, I know it hurts but you'll get through it and be proud, thankful, that you did.” Level 2: “That's not pain. This is pain [zap]! Get back to work you pussy!”
And that is what I will do. Engage a team of friends and experts to help me get to a sharpened and more realistic internal pain measuring device. One that more closely resembles my pre-gymnastics levels. Though I probably always had a relatively high (read: skewed) threshold which is what enabled me to continue in the sport in the first place. Right now I just need help finding some sort of centered, reasonable appraiser's capability. And as long as sky high heels fall within acceptable limits of infliction, I will heed their advice until my own benchmarks are normalized.