Do You Play Through the Pain?
I’ve had a lifetime of joyful physical activity. From a childhood on the beach with hours spent in the ocean, on bikes, in the sand playing soccer and volleyball or hiking in the cliffs, there was never a day we kids weren’t in motion. As a teen I learned to love running and as a college student I took up mountaineering and cycling, both on the road and on the trails. Early adulthood brought me back to running and it was only during the 2007 City of Angels Half Marathon that I thought to myself, “If I play tennis there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll win. If I keep doing these runs I’ll never win a thing.” And because I missed competing I took up tennis. In retrospect it’s also the first time I knew that something was wrong with my body. I felt fatigue and joint pain and intuitively knew there was a problem, a big problem and decided to ignore it.
I’m not a great tennis player. I’m not even very good. I’m a solid 3.5 club player and the only reason I’m a 3.5 and not a 3.0 is because when we get to the third set I’m not tired. I’m just starting. My body is built for distance. I’m happy running (now quite slowly) for a couple of hours. My lungs feel like they’re full of glass the first 20 minutes but sometime around 30 minutes in they feel full and sweet with air and near the end of the first hour I feel a surge of lightness and joy and that’s when I know I’m about to have fun.
When I exercise I stop thinking in words and that’s the most important benefit that exercise has given me. This brain shut off comes around the end of the first hour and it’s a joy unlike anything I’ve ever known. It’s higher than any drug and sweeter than any candy. You know the sound of a baby’s laugh? My body feels like that laughter has been bottled and injected into my veins for a full hour. It’s bliss. Golden bliss.
Except that a year ago my tennis racquet fell out of my hand. And I dropped a dinner plate because my hand couldn’t support it. And the acupuncture that I was having three days a week wasn’t taking the pain away and I’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to live in a body that doesn’t hurt. I don’t even miss the pain free feeling anymore because it’s so unfamiliar, so lost.
My elbow hurts. Most days it only hurts a bit. I’m still having acupuncture and doing the physical therapy that was prescribed to me a year ago. I haven’t required a pain pill and I’m using topical anti inflammatories only. I can pick up a plate and I even bowled right handed (though the score is really no better than when I use my not dominant left hand). I miss tennis and I’m ready to get back to it. Perhaps even with a small ache in my elbow.
I’m going to beg the doctor for a cortisone injection next week and live my life again. I can’t be a runner again. Yes, I can run about 3 miles straight and not ache the next day but if I run the fourth it’s impossible to get out of bed the following morning. For some reason the side to side, sprinting and bouncing of a tennis court hurt a lot less and quite often not at all.
When I was younger and wanted to run faster, jump higher or just look better I trained through the pain. But before rheumatoid arthritis the pain wasn’t debilitating. It was the sweet pain of muscle growth. This new pain is the pain of joints deteriorating and I have to decide if I want to be happy now or later. Part of me knows that getting back to tennis without being 100% healed will hurt me down the road, but the other part of me really needs to play. It’s the part that needs to compete and is bored silly with Pilates. I’m at war with my own immune system. Hopefully my rheumatologist can give me secret weapon next week.