Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


At the moment, we have 11 dogs and 3 cats. Nine of those dogs spend time inside the house; the others (who are just too big) are outside dogs. The oldest of them is our French bulldog, Georgie. He is 13 years old and aging fast. He often seems lost and confused (and no wonder, with so many other dogs coming and going). He is incontinent most of the time. He knows he needs to go outside to pee, but the urine leaks out as he hurries to the door. Lately he has lost control of his bowels. The whole incontinence thing is hard to deal with. I suppose we could put doggy diapers on him (assuming he would cooperate and that the other dogs would leave the diapers alone). It may yet come to that.

One of the hardest things for me is that Georgie's incontinence reminds me of Mom's. Like all the women on her side of the family, she had always had an irritable, small-capacity bladder. It wasn't altogether surprising when total urinary incontinence came upon her. The harder part, though, was bowel incontinence.

Mom had been this strong, capable person all my life. Hard-working, controlling, no-nonsense. One day when she and I were "visiting" (her listening to me talk about the dogs; me listening to her talk about the Dutch girl in an old painting on her wall, a girl with whom Mom said she had walked the beach somewhere), she suddenly said, "I think I just shit myself."

The surprised expression on Georgie's face when his bowels let go reminds me of the expression on Mom's face when she made that announcement. I can't say that Mom's loss of control of her bowels was any easier or harder on me than her loss of control of her mind. It's still inconceivable that such a super-competent person should become so lost, helpless and demented. And I wonder if the same fate awaits me.

Friday, March 8, 2013


One of my disabilities (or life’s challenges, if you prefer) is moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears. The problem was noted in a hearing test I took in the 1980’s when starting a new job in a manufacturing facility with noisy equipment. It was meant to be a baseline test, so I was surprised to hear about the hearing loss. Since I was in my early 30’s then and perceived no problem with my hearing, I didn’t take it seriously.  

Twenty years later, I began to experience hearing problems that puzzled me because I could still hear people talking, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I thought deafness was a problem with volume, not comprehension. At the time, I was also dealing with undiagnosed and untreated chronic pain, a new job in a noisy environment, the care of my elderly mother, and some other problems. I gave the pain top priority (and who wouldn’t?). Eventually I had another hearing test and wasn’t surprised to learn about the hearing loss. I didn’t have enough money to buy hearing aids at the time, which was frustrating, but at least I knew I wasn’t losing my sometimes tenuous grip on my mind. I’ve had hearing aids for 2 years now and although they do help, neither do they correct my hearing the way eyeglasses correct vision.  

Recently the header for a newspaper ad for a local hearing aid store proclaimed, “Use it or Lose it!” This was followed by:

§  Communication occurs in the brain.

§  When we lose our ability to hear, the ear stops sending needed information to our brain, affecting the ability to understand what is being said.

§  “Auditory Deprivation” can impair the way the brain processes sound.

§  In most cases the solution is hearing aids; sending the correct information to the brain, protecting it from atrophy. 

I don’t know how scientifically true any of that is, but it makes some sense to me, and it makes me wonder if 20 years of living without hearing aids caused some permanent damage in my brain. I might use a less discouraging term for this damage than “atrophy”. I know that my hearing loss has affected my relationships with other people, whose speech was so hard for me to hear and understand clearly, and who couldn’t understand why I seemed to ignore so much of what they said to me. I don’t think my poor hearing hindered my business career (though I could be wrong about that), partly because I spent several decades traveling overseas in order to work with associates whose language I didn’t speak, so that no one expected me to understand what they were saying and I was usually accompanied by an English-speaking associate who took pains to translate clearly. 

Just the official term for my kind of deafness – sensory neural – makes me wonder if the chronic pain I experience has also impaired my brain’s ability to process and interpret physical sensation. That could explain why even very subtle or gentle touch can feel like a bodily assault nowadays.