I’d been a typical Aussie sports nut while growing up, playing a range of sports and even making it to NSW state level in athletics. I had also represented the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) for netball while studying at university. My passion for squash, though, started young and grew to become my primary sport once I started working in my early twenties. I played four or five times a week throughout the next decade. This turned out to be the origin of my incessant lower back pain.
I decided to return to competitive squash in Sydney in 2006. Despite knowing that the game would stress my back, I really needed to find some enjoyment and pleasure in life again. Rejoining a team of friends I’d known for many years offered a physical outlet and provided much‑needed social connection. Playing squash always made me feel better, but it was ultimately a really dumb decision. It didn’t take long at all for me to fully rupture my L5/S1 disc, the lumbosacral joint right at the base of my spine. The pain was so unbearable that I could barely walk, and sitting was completely out of the question.
Poking and prodding from two different neurosurgeons, along with a dependency on as many as fifteen anti‑inflammatory tablets a day, led to the conclusion that I needed spinal fusion surgery to realign the disc and fuse the bone surrounding it. The procedure was intensely invasive, with no guarantee of success. My only other option was disc replacement surgery that my surgeons emphasised would last ten years at best before I would need to repeat the surgery. I refused to live with the constant and relentless pain that had left me with virtually no life. I was willing to go to extremes for a more permanent solution to that hell, so I selected the riskier spinal fusion surgery.
Even throughout my virtually penniless stage, I’d at least managed to maintain the payments on my private medical coverage which meant, after paying the AUD$500 excess, I was covered by my insurance and could proceed with the surgery without any waiting period.
Initially, the surgery went according to plan. I chose the older and more experienced surgeon. He sliced across my lower belly to pull the ruptured disc out, then flipped me over to take a bone graft from my hip. Through another very long cut down my back, he then used the bone graft to fuse my lower spine.
As I drowsily emerged from the anaesthetic, a handful of staff hovered over me taking my vitals and asking questions I couldn’t answer. I was so groggy that I was struggling to make sense of the state of my body. I was heavily bandaged, with tubes coming out of seemingly everywhere. I was also in a lot of pain – not the familiar, dull, deep pain of my back, but new, sharp, stabbing pain that struck intensely with even the slightest of movements.
Once I was back in my ward, the drugs gradually wore off and I started coming to grips with the extent of the surgery. It wasn’t until it was time to change my bedsheets that I faced a whole new level of pain. Several nurses had entered the room to prepare for their well‑rehearsed task. This required pushing me onto one side and rolling the new sheet under me, whipping out the old sheet, and then moving me back onto the bed. Even though I was heavily dosed on intravenous (IV) pain medication, it was agony. The stitches in my back strained and the internal pain of the newly placed pins was hellish. Tears flowed down my face and I looked up at Mum, who had been by my side throughout, and begged her to take the pain away.
She pushed the morphine‑administering button regularly, trying to give me some additional relief. When the surgeon finally did his rounds, he found me violently throwing up, muttering away at the dead people I was seeing float around the room. He asked Mum how many times she’d pushed the button and quickly determined that she’d pushed it far more times than had been prescribed in the hour. I was having a reaction to the morphine and the vomiting was causing distress to my back and stomach stitches. I was switched to another painkiller that, thankfully, took away the vomiting, as well as my hallucinations.
The next ten days in the ward felt like a lifetime. My external surroundings were leafy and luxurious, but my recovery was brutal. I saw very little besides the cracked ceiling. Without my brush and easel to paint the pain away, I felt so alone, so forlorn and so lost. Mum and Dad’s constant presence, the few friends who made the trek from the city to the suburban hospital and various roommates provided some small respite and chatter.
Once the catheter and surgical drain were removed and the murky, drug‑induced brain fog was finally starting to lift, Mum and Dad took me back to Lake Macquarie for my recovery. This required total bed rest for a minimum of ten weeks. My parents were only too willing to help me through this time. They’d seen how much my back pain had hampered my ability to fully recover, physically and mentally, from the ordeal of the past few years. In hindsight, I think they had determined, as I had, that some of my poor life decisions could partly be attributed to the constant pain I was in. Pain, I’ve learned, is a powerful distraction from living a happy and healthy life and can have a major impact on making the right choices required to create that life.
Recovery was long and tedious. Lying down to allow the bone to fuse was literally my prescription. Financially though, I simply couldn’t afford to stay flat on my back for as long as my surgeon insisted. Just prior to the surgery, I’d been approached by a managing director of a large design agency based in Sydney. I was able to negotiate an ambitious role heading up Marketing and Operations, managing the sales pipeline and blue chip client projects. With my contract at the liquor distributor completed only the week prior to heading into surgery, the agency had wanted me to start as soon as possible, so, needing the money and feeling ‘good enough’, I returned to Pyrmont to live with Janine after only four weeks.
I soon realised I was not at all physically or mentally ready to recommence work. As the weeks passed, I found I wasn’t coping in the new role. It involved dealing with a large group of disgruntled and unhappy staff who constantly needed to sit down with me to complain. Sitting in meetings for long periods was particularly gruelling. I soon realised I’d walked into an unhappy company environment, and my pain returned to a degree that was unmanageable. I needed to consult my surgeon again.
My disregard for the required recovery time, combined with the surgeon’s admission that he hadn’t done a substantial enough bone graft and fusion, meant that I needed the procedure redone. All over again. From scratch.
I was fired from my job in synchronous timing. The combination of an evening event, my pain medication, one too many wines and two months of hearing employees constantly complain, led to my at‑that‑time‑logical decision to tell my hiring managing director that he was part of the larger problem. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well and I was marched out the door the next day.
My humiliating dismissal signalled to me that I was clearly not in control. My constant pain meant that I wasn’t dealing with anything or anyone with much grace or clarity. Being back in a demanding role, on top of dealing with the continued aftermath of Joe, meant that my therapy sessions and self‑prescribed painting were no longer areas of focus or a priority. Six months earlier I’d felt that I’d made major headway in nourishing myself and tending to my emotional well‑being; now my early return to full‑time work and the career choice I made had landed me in a pretty sorry state once again.
The one consolation of being freshly unemployed meant that having the second surgery was administratively uncomplicated. I talked it through with Mum and Dad, since I needed them to help me recover again. It had been hard work for them the first time around, being at my beck and call as I tried to cope with the boredom and pain, but we all agreed that a second surgery seemed like the only way forward.
My parents were deeply concerned for me and sat me down for a heart‑to‑heart talk. Mum was uncharacteristically sombre. ‘Nat, we want the best for you. We want to see you healthy, happy and enjoying life. But you seem to be on a self‑destructive path. This time, you must stick to the full recovery time. We can’t keep doing this –you need to get it right this time.’
I knew she was right. I’d hit my quota of false starts and mistakes, and it was time to get my shit together. I still secretly harboured hopes of finding a partner and, if it was even possible now, having a family. I realised that if I didn’t get my act together, and soon, life was going to pass me by. I agreed to the full recovery process, as prescribed.
Yet just as I thought I had gotten myself in the right space to face it all again, my second surgery had other ideas. The opiate veil of my hospital recovery time meant that it wasn’t until I returned to Lake Macquarie that the true agony emerged. The transit from the hospital was a gruelling and bumpy five‑hour ambulance ride that required dropping off several other patients along the way. I was screaming in pain within hours of arriving at my parents. Something felt terribly wrong with my back, and there was a large, purple lump spreading across my belly.
After a sleepless night, my parents called the surgeon in concern; even though I was taking the maximum dosage of medication, it wasn’t helping my pain at all. This resulted in an urgent trip back to the hospital with me lying on the back seat of Mum and Dad’s car. The resultant X‑ray and MRI scan showed that my sciatic nerve had hooked around a bone spur during the operation, which required immediate rectifying with emergency surgery. Fortunately, when I woke from yet another round of anaesthetic, I experienced palpable relief from the unbearable pain.
After several days of observation, I was dismissed from the hospital and returned to the Lake to start the recovery process in earnest. This time, though, I returned in the back of my parents’ car.
I’d wanted to use my compulsory bed rest to reflect on how life had gone wrong, learn from it, regroup and create an action plan for the future. Alas, my drug‑hazed state allowed none of that. I struggled to follow TV‑show plotlines, and even reading was off the cards. Accompanied by the constant aching, pounding pain of my lumbar spine, I reached levels of quiet despair that eventually added antidepressants to my daily cocktail of medication.
Besides my steadfast parents, who were cooking my meals, doing my washing, changing my sheets and trying to find ways to occupy me and hopefully cheer me up, my only other regular companion was Molly, the adorable, active and scruffy mutt we’d inherited from my cousins. Molly showed me the most devoted canine loyalty imaginable, staying by my bedside for my entire recovery. She even seemed to cheer me on as I slowly undertook the short routine of repetitive exercises I had to perform in bed several times a day. These exercises helped my circulation and staved off muscle atrophy.
Molly was also by my side when I started taking short walks, even if it was only a few steps. She would be so excited when I’d say, ‘Come on, Molly! Time for a walk!’ Tail‑chasing and merry little barks would ensue, followed swiftly by forlorn disappointment when our adventure would end halfway up the hallway. ‘Okay, Mol. Back to bed.’
I slowly built up my stamina over the weeks that followed, eventually making it to the front door, then to the mailbox and then to the corner store. By the ten‑week mark, a relieved Molly and I would walk around the small peninsular suburb, enjoying the salty sea air and picturesque lake views.
When I was well enough, I returned to Sydney. I’d managed to keep up my rental payments with Janine, and I was glad to get back to the hustle and bustle of Pyrmont after the slow and quiet pace of Lake Macquarie.
I was truly on my own again and I needed to keep up the rehabilitation without someone looking over my shoulder. A week later, I went for X‑rays and a follow‑up with the surgeon, who saw my visible relief as he gave me the all clear. The fusion had been a success, meaning I no longer had an L5/S1 vertebrae, but a solid bone mass pinned with titanium screws. The surgeon requested I come back in another six months and referred me to Dr Arthur, a back specialist who would help me ‘reprogram’ my muscles.
The muscle reprogramming involved relaxing and contracting certain muscles in certain positions to get them to release. Muscular pain had replaced the back pain, so I also had to get anaesthetic injected regularly into the surrounding back muscles, my hip flexors and even into my groin to numb what couldn’t release. To top it all off, I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, which occurs when tissue pushes through a weak spot in your groin muscle. It most commonly occurs in men, but mine had been attributed to the squash I’d played when I was younger.
Luckily, I was able to reduce my medication to the point where I could feel clear‑headed again. I started working from my bed, using my laptop on a hospital desk Dad had set up for me. I picked up work from my previous creative agencies, beginning with small requests like, ‘Hey Nat, can you look at this brief?’ and ‘Can you help with this marketing response?’ I initially only took on work that I could do from my bed, but slowly, over the next few months, I started to go to the agencies for meetings, eventually setting up shop in two of them for the next nine months after that. I kept my independent contractor status so I could regulate what I signed up for and how many hours I worked, meaning I had control over the amount of sitting I was doing. I tentatively started to socialise with the people I was working with. I was doing well professionally, faster than I’d imagined it could happen.
I was making ends meet. I was not only paying the rent, but I’d started back on my mortgage payments on my Point Frederick townhouse, which my bank had granted me a year’s grace on. I also kept up my private medical coverage, with a little left over to buy groceries and keep myself afloat.
In the long term, though, I needed to rebuild all I’d lost financially. There was a nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me that my current contract work was not scalable; I could only offer my time and myself. It wasn’t secure work, either, and, for the most part, I was working on my own. An extrovert by nature, I missed the dynamic energy of the workplace and the interaction with colleagues. I began to thirst for something new and different. The required break from the corporate workforce, totalling close to a year, had created a perspective and lucidity about my career that I don’t think I could have achieved in any other way. It was time to put this newly‑found insight to good use and take a new direction for the next phase of my career.
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