Calling my Bluff – The Emotional Side of Spine Surgery

medications for spine surgery

I had an intuitive friend basically call my bluff the other day as I get ready for spine surgery. She asked via email, “Your [Facebook] posts sound pretty positive – are you actually miserable, or are you doing ok?”

The short answer is both, alternating sometimes rapidly. I’ve been on an emotional and physical roller coaster since spine surgery a week and a half ago. For whatever reason, I’ve been trying to publish mostly positive things in short-format Facebook posts, and my plan was to save the darker things for longer blog posts where I had more space to explain and give context to the situation. So, here comes the darker side of spine surgery —

The emotional roller coaster is a steep and wild ride, and I was expecting it but that doesn’t make it much easier to manage and contain from the outside world. I’m no stranger to major surgeries and the painkillers and medications typically prescribed. I’m one of the “fortunate” folks who doesn’t get too nauseous when taking oxycodone, so it’s the painkiller of choice for the surgeons to give me. I definitely feel an initial “high” when it kicks in. I debate if the high is just what I’d normally feel like without crippling pain, or if it’s boosting my mood and making me a little more animated than I’d normally be.

Either way, I don’t care as I enjoy the sweet relief from pain even for a bit.
After the high, as the oxycodone wears off, I get quite emotional — typically weepy, depressed, very “doom and gloom” about my situation. Two days ago I swear I bawled for about 2 hours straight over what should have been a minor altercation regarding custody schedule…. dammit. Apologies were made, they weren’t accepted, and I feel like I’ve done what I can and I’m trying to move on. I can also become very blunt and angry and this tends to be focused on the loved ones closest to me. The poor dears.

Every time I go through something like this I have a higher level of compassion for those suffering an ailment (physical or emotional) that people can’t SEE. If there’s someone in your life that you know deals with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, grief from the loss of a loved one, etc. please ask them how they’re doing – REALLY ASK – and if they need to talk, you’ve given them an opening and let them know that you’re willing to listen. 

Two medications are new to me this time around — gabapentin and valium. I’ve been taking the gabapentin since before surgery, and it’s meant to help dull the nerve pain but also makes me feel like I’m living in a cloud. I can say that the nerve pain part works quite well; I tried to wean myself off of it for a few days in the weeks leading to surgery and the nerve pain came back with disastrous force. I had tried to wean because I could tell in the months leading up to surgery that I wasn’t as articulate and my brain didn’t function as quickly as it normally does. It was frustrating to feel like I was mentally wading through molasses but still expected to perform normally at work. During the weeks leading up to surgery I spoke with another professional in my industry, a person with a PhD in Chemistry who also said the gabapentin made him feel less articulate and less useful at work. This tidbid of information was extremely validating – just knowing you’re not alone and it’s not “in your head” makes it easier for me to tackle. I survived, and luckily I have a very understanding and compassionate boss who supported me through the process. It’s unclear how long I’ll stay on the gabapentin as I’m still having nerve issues — more on that in a future post.

I have less experience with valium and in general it just seems to knock me out. I get uncontrollably sleepy, often dozing off mid-sentence when on higher doses of it. In the hospital I was trying to figure out what to order off of the lunch menu and couldn’t manage to get it done because I’d begin reading “salad .. chicken strips .. hamburger .. tomato soup .. zzzzzzzzzzzz……..”

I’m aware of the addictive personality traits that run in my immediate and extended families, so I very closely monitor my medication intake. I’ve kept my doses lower than prescribed for the medications with a high risk for abuse, and started tapering them as of this past Wednesday, one week after surgery. It’s contributed to the mood swings and emotional roller coaster — if anything I’ve tended to cut the medications too low, and “catching” the pain after it gets very high is hard to do. I made a table outlining a dosage schedule and annotate when things didn’t go so well (this is both an outlet for my organizational tendencies and a way for my spacey brain to keep things in check.)

Long story short, I’m a mix of the positivity you see in my Facebook posts these days AND the sadness, misery and isolation that surgery recovery brings. Every time I go through something like this I gain a higher level of compassion for those suffering an ailment (physical or emotional) that people can’t SEE. If there’s someone dear to you in your life that you know deals with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, grief from the loss of a loved one, etc. please ask them how they’re doing – REALLY ASK – and if they need to talk, you’ve given them an opening and let them know that you’re willing to listen. Listen, don’t judge, and don’t try to fix them if that’s not what they’re after. Ask them how you can help and find a way to ease their suffering, even just a little.

One thought on “Calling my Bluff – The Emotional Side of Spine Surgery

  1. Holly Scherer says:

    I’m happy to hear that your recovering. I’m sorry to hear it’s been a roller coaster. ☹️
    I totally understand how you feel about the meds. We treat them as a last resort around here, we would be struggling the same way. And the mood swings …😢 I imagine that every woman has fallen victim to the uncontrollable crying. It’s the worst, but it’s bound to get better.
    I like how you pointed out how it felt to get validation from your colleague. That’s so true, but I’m not always one to speak up. Great lesson!
    Wishing you a speedy recovery!
    PS – thought about you this week and IF. Check out the latest Tony Robbins podcast for some great information about timing fasts.

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