Friday, April 6, 2012

Growing Pains by Ryan Hellmer

This is a guest post from a friend Ryan Hellmer.  He posted this on his blog and it was just too good to not share.  Ryan and his wife Jessica lost a baby girl, Abagail, to Trisomy 18 just a few months ago.  Abagail Mae was a beautiful little girl who was, and continues to be, the love of their life.  She had a beautiful little Irish twin Josie who will one day understand all that has happened over the last 8 months.  This is for Abagail...Traci 

So it’s been quite a while since my last post. I really don’t know if that’s good or bad. I have felt the need to post a couple times, but apparently not strong enough to get motivated to actually do it. We got a (relatively) pleasant surprise the week of my birthday, Abigail’s marker has been installed. They must have gotten several in the same week because a couple of her neighbors also got theirs. It’s sad, Abigail was the second kiddo in the new section at Mt. Calvary and already there are several more neighbors. I still find it to be a very relaxing atmosphere and spend lunch with Abigail a few times a week.

At least once a year I try to get out and run. It usually coincides with Lent. I view Lent as my kind of “new years resolution.” I think it’s a little easier to make a resolution that you only “have” to keep for 40 days. Plus its springtime and I think even humans need to get out and shake off the hibernation that we indulge in through the winter months. I ordinarily wouldn’t admit to liking running, but I do find it quite therapeutic. I think I have my most profound times of thinking while running or mowing the lawn. There’s something about the relative silence of those activities that really lets me think.

One thing I don’t like about running is pain. There’s always pain involved; sore muscles or joints or that cramp in your side that always hits you on the last lap or just the pain of discipline, forcing yourself to do something every day. I think in the physical sense, pain can be put in two loosely organized piles. There’s the pain that accompanies growth and the pain that accompanies damage. I think the key is identifying which is which and how to properly address it.

That first week of running, the muscles in my legs and even my shoulders can just ache. This pain accompanies growth. It is the breaking down and repairing of the fibers because I simply haven’t used them in far too long. I know that this is the pain that I can remedy with stretching and a decent warm-up and that I can push through it to help my body get back in shape.

I’ve been very fortunate to have never suffered a serious sports injury. I know plenty of people in my life who have had a couple knee surgeries well before age 30, others with more catastrophic injuries like broken bones or hips. Sometimes it’s as simple as a strain or sprain. The pain that comes with these types of injuries tells a different story. That pain is like the check engine light in a car saying “something is damaged and continued operation may result in failure.”

Response to pain is something that only the individual can control. It is really disappointing to see an athlete, particularly a young one, suffer an injury on the field. The pain makes them unable to perform. Is that pain growth or damage? How should they respond to the coach’s recommendation that they “suck it up” and get back out there to help the team? What if the athlete were offered steroids or a cortisol injection? Something, anything, to mute the voice of the joint/bone/muscle crying out for rest and healing.

I think this illustration has helped my understanding of emotional pain. There is pain that accompanies growth and pain that accompanies damage. I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying, something like “life is a marathon…” In the course of events, we don’t get to choose when a loved one will die or when we might get laid off or suffer a natural disaster. There are very few things that we can do to prepare our minds and spirits for the unthinkable. The question isn’t whether a painful event is coming, it’s when, and perhaps, how often?

Losing Abigail hurts. Every day. There are a hundred different ways that I’m reminded that my life is not the same as it was before. Sometimes it’s a dull ache that seems to stem from something “I did yesterday.” Sometimes it’s a tear or sprain that comes on suddently. Most of the time I’m feeling pretty good until I “twist just the right way,” then I’m completely immobile (I’m pretty sure anyone over 50 can attest to that feeling).

Every time I feel these pains I have to do an assessment. Is this an opportunity for growth or do I need to slow down before doing some real damage? I’m certainly no expert on grieving or psychology and I would not consider myself “life coach” material (although I think, like politics, anyone truly qualified avoids the scene altogether), but I think, unlike physical pain, we have a great deal of influence over whether the pain leads to growth or damage.

Much of the growth I’ve experienced as a parent has been entirely painless. It’s easy to forget, especially if all you know is this blog, that I have a wonderful, healthy, beautiful daughter that continues to inspire me to grow. The other half of my parenting experience has been altogether different. Abigail brings a great deal of joy to my life. I am proud of her and proud to have been her father in this life. I keep my favorite picture of her in my office. Looking at that picture never brings sorrow, it reminds me of how beautiful life is.

That previous paragraph seems like a bit of a disclaimer since a significant portion of my recent experience has involved pain. Emotional pain doesn’t mesh well with the current American way of life. It’s not quantifiable, not related to a discrete activity or anatomical locale. It’s not something that is easily “fixed.” We like problems to go away. Fix them, hide them, get away from them.

You know that “pain scale” at the doctor’s office? I’ve looked like all those pictures at some point in the last 4 months. As I trend towards the scary end of the scale, I try to be cognizant of what it is I feel, why I feel that way and whether or not I’m establishing an environment of growth or setting myself up for damage.

Neglect invariably makes pain worse. Neglect can turn pain that might otherwise result in growth into injury. Neglect of injury can turn a simple sprain into irreparable damage. Rest and recuperation are the key; trouble is, neglect ranges from doing nothing to doing everything. In fact, neglect most surreptitiously exists in the form of action.  Think of the injured athlete who gets a shot of cortisol or has a sprain taped up and then rushes back into the
game. But think also of the patient who forgoes physical therapy to get right back to work/play. Sometimes, activity can be a sinister diversion from the reflection and rest that is often required for proper healing of an injured soul; sometimes it’s the therapeutic activity that is the only path to recovery.

One of my primary goals after the loss of Abigail was to find the new normal. I hate it that people think you can get “back” to normal. Time runs only one way. I knew from the moment Jessica told me we were pregnant again that life would never be the same. That’s just as true with Josephine as it was with Abigail. Just as true with a “perfectly” healthy baby as one with a fatal genetic abnormality.

Finding the new normal was not intended to be quick or to get me “back” to the things I had done pre-Abigail. There are innumerable changes in my life even though there may not appear to be any changes to my routine. From the outside looking in, I’m sure it looks a lot like pre-Abigail. I still go to work. I try to get things done around the house. I have goals, dreams, some of which are unchanged. Some of my previous goals have been completely abandoned. Some have been replaced with things I’d never imagined.

I’d like to say I have been overwhelmingly successful in the quest to make the best of a painful situation. Truth be told, it probably vacillates from self-righteous hypocrite to that scary guy that talks about his dead kid at “inappropriate” times. Sometimes I feel like I need to sit a few plays out, other times I know that powering through is the best thing I can do, for me, for my wife, my family and friends. The one thing I’ve learned for sure is that you can’t just take that shot and make things go away.
                                                                                                -Ryan Hellmer