I had a pinched sciatica nerve for about a month. It’s caused severe pain every day for that long. I have moderate pain most of the time from osteo-arthritis in my hip, knee, ankle and toes. This is caused by my limp from my neurological problem, transverse myelitis, which started when I was 16. My right leg is atrophied and weak. I walk by leaning over a bit, and kind of throwing my right leg forward. Still, I walked a lot and even rode a bike until my mid 30s. Since then I’ve had to use a cane, then a walker, and now I’ve added a wheelchair to my collection of assistive devices. I’ve accepted these challenges with relative grace, though I also have bouts of terrible depression and feel defeated.
The pinched nerve caused pain all down my right leg. I couldn’t find a position that was comfortable except flat on my back. My doctor was out of town. I went to a minor emergency clinic and they gave me an anti-inflammatory shot, which helped for a few days, and gave me a referral to an orthopedic clinic. That was on a Friday. The following Monday, a friend drove me miles and miles to the clinic. There was a 3 hour wait once we got there
The doctor took x-rays of my hip. When he came back with the film, he was concerned about the curvature of my spine. I gave him my information sheet that told of my neurological history, and my latest MRIs. He glanced at my information then suggested a course of steroids.
“I’m concerned about taking steroids. I have a bi-polar disorder and I’m afraid I’ll have a bad reaction.”
He looked slightly put out. “So are you like Robin Williams or do you just have mood swings?”
My brain froze and my guard went up.
It’s very hard to admit I have a mental disorder. It’s hard for anyone. I think the doctor may have been asking if I was suicidal, but I thought he was asking if I was talented like him, or as wild as him, or — I don’t know what. I don’t think I have it as bad as Robin Williams did, but like so many with bi-polar and mood disorders, I do have a little voice inside me that whispers I’d be better off dead. I’m afraid if I get manic on steroids, I might not be able to ignore it. I’m between psychiatrists right now and am self-managing, so I don’t really have a good team to consult or keep an eye on me. But I couldn’t say any of that.
“I self-manage now, so I guess it’s not severe but…”
“We can put you a short course of steroids to get the inflammation down and then we can figure out what the next step.”
“Can’t you give me an anti-inflammatory shot?”
“That’s not going to do much…” and after that all I heard was blah, blah, blah. I was standing on one leg and leaning against the examination table. My mind started going in circles. I wanted out of there. My fear of being a “bad” patient, not following doctor’s orders, and my feeling of insecurity about admitting my mental disorder had erupted. I kept a calm face, said I’d take the steroids, told the nurse I’d call in three days and then I got the hell out of there.
I didn’t take the steroids. I was already fighting a compulsion to chop all my hair off. I’d been in bed so much, that every time I looked in the mirror, it felt I was wearing a rat’s nest. But cutting my hair off is a compulsion that flares up from time to time, and usually I resist until I can get to a salon and have it properly dealt with. (Actually, a good way for me to fight that compulsion is to start an art project involving scissors.) I could see me on steroids shaving my head bald, then deciding I’d ruined my life, and then…. I was gripped with fear, and felt stupid, too, for being so fearful.
I called my pharmacy to cancel the prescription, but the clinic hadn’t called it in, so that seemed like a sign that I’d made the right decision.
I spent a lot of time in bed, sometimes in tears because it hurt so badly, and isn’t my life challenging enough as it is? Must I go through this, too? I thought about the people who think I’m an inspiration. If they could see me now, bitching and crying and whining like a little weasel weenie.
But my doctor was back in town after a few days. He’s a great doctor. I heard him in the next room talking and laughing with an elderly woman. Then he came in my room. I was stretching out my leg, leaning on the examination table, in obvious pain. He gave me a hug. I told him the steroid story, and he shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to put up with that.” He increased my pain meds, changed my anti-inflammatory meds, gave me an anti-inflammatory shot, and called my neurologist to get my appointment with him changed to an earlier date. He gave me stretches to do that helped.
So thanks to him, I was able to work on my paintings a few hours a day, and have the art show I planned. Then a few days ago, I woke up and the sciatic pain was gone. And due to the different anti-inflammatory meds, my normal pain is at a very low level.
I was so glad I waited it out.
It wasn’t the first time I’d refused steroids. When I was younger, and they hadn’t figured out exactly what was wrong with me and there were no MRI, I seemed to have the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. One neurologist I was seeing had been very nice to me, but when I refused steroids, he told me he wouldn’t see me anymore. “There’s nothing I can do for you.”
I know many people who’ve been helped by steroids. And I might take them in the future. If I lose strength in my upper body, if I lose my sight, I’ll try them if that’s the best option. I’ve talked to psychiatrists about it and they agree that steroids are risky for people with mental health problems. I would need to be monitored. Another fear then pops up. Will I have the good sense to ask someone to monitor me?
After this little drama, though, I’m more confident that I will. I’m also more confident that I’ll worry more about my own health, my unique situation, and less about following the doctor’s orders.
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