An unexpected cause of pain: being short

May 19, 2018

Of all the things in life that can cause pain, you would never think of being short as one of them, would you? I’m not talking about being short due to some genetic condition or illness. I just mean, you know, short.

My mother is 5’2″. My father’s mother was 5’3″ before she shrunk in her later years. I was expected to be at least my mother’s height, but then scoliosis caused me to stop getting taller as my spine compressed a bit, and I ended up only being 5’1″. Ok, almost. Hey, my driver’s license says 5’1″ and I’m sticking with it!

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in the joint of the big toe on my right foot. Since that toe is essential for walking, and now it’s painful, this isn’t good. And I’m only in my 30s, so I need it to work for a long time to come. This sucks.

There’s a long list of things my doctor says I can no longer do: run, jump, sprint, stand on my toes, wear high heels….. hold on! Back up! Not stand on my toes?!?

The rest of those are no problem at all, but I stand on my toes All. The. Time!

In these past 2 weeks, and in the 2 months of pain leading up to the diagnosis, I realized that I stand on my toes even more than I had thought. I do this for things that you would never guess (unless you’re a fellow short person.) Some of it isn’t too surprising: reaching items on the top shelf in the grocery store. Looking through a clothes rack that’s too high (why do stores put them so high up?!) But then there are the things you wouldn’t guess, like reaching the shelves in my kitchen cabinets and getting things off a shelf in my closet.

And then there are the things that have been shocking my doctors and friends as I mention them. Things like sitting on a bus or subway, where I’m not “standing” on my toes, but my toes are in that same position just so that they can touch the floor. Ditto sitting on a toilet. This is true at home, where I keep a step stool next to the toilet to rest my feet on. I began doing that years ago for comfort, so that I could actually sit without leaning far forward to put my feet down, during the hours that I would be on the toilet dealing with diarrhea and nausea (thank goodness that’s mostly improved!) It’s so much worse on public toilets, which tend to be higher. When I drive, I mostly press the pedals with my toes. After all, it’s hard to get my foot flat on the pedal, thanks to my short legs.

Then there are chairs and couches. When I was couch shopping, I had to try a lot of couches before I found one where my knees could bend. Most are so deep, my knees don’t reach to the end of the couch. But even so, my feet don’t entirely touch the floor unless I put a pillow behind my back, which isn’t the most comfortable thing. Without that, I have three options: put my feet on the coffee table, tuck my legs up on the couch under me, or have only my toes on the floor. The first I can only do for so long, so I usually do the second, which leads to neck and back pain.

When I had surgery on my other foot a few years ago, I spent several months in casts. I wore a sneaker on my other foot with a lift on it, so that my hips wouldn’t be misaligned. Part way into my recovery, I noticed something shocking: my neck and back pain were gone! I think it was for a few reasons:

First, I was sitting upright. I wasn’t leaning to the side or putting my feet up under me or next to my body. I couldn’t. I was mostly sitting with my feet up on the coffee table, to keep the injured foot elevated. Sometimes I sat upright, and with the extra few inches I had, my feet could now rest on the floor!

I also found that not having to reach up so far to get things out of kitchen cabinets made a big difference for my neck. It’s simply a matter of degree. We all reach up, but I had to reach up more, often over my head, and I guess those movements all added up.

On top of that, when I washed dishes, instead of hunching my shoulders as I reached up over the edge of the sink, then down into it, I was now simply reaching straight down. Wow!

Finally, I wasn’t driving. At all. I was recently driving a much taller friend, and she commented that my shoulders don’t go back against the seat when I drive. Well of course they don’t! How could they? I would need to have the steering wheel practically in my face in order to put my shoulders back. My physical therapist told me to use a lumbar support. I mentioned it would be annoying to adjust it every time I leaned forward and it slipped out of place. She said I shouldn’t be leaning forward. But she’s an average height. So doesn’t realize that I have to lean forward just a bit to reach the radio, heat, and air conditioning controls, not to mention seeing all sorts of awkward angles when I make turns or park.

This society is simply not designed for short people. A short friend told me about the joys of traveling to India, where the average height is lower than it is here in the United States. She said that she marveled at her ability to put her feet on the floor of the bus when she sat, and to reach items on shelves. It sounds marvelous!

Unfortunately, I live in a society designed for taller people. Until recently, I only thought of this as an inconvenience. I ask strangers to get things off of shelves in stores for me. I keep a step stool in every room of my house so I can reach items. I don’t use the top shelves in my kitchen cabinets because, even with the step stools, I can’t reach them. I can’t carry suitcases, tote bags, and other items, the way taller people do, because I can’t let my arms hang down; the items would drag on the floor. Instead, I need to raise these items up to clear the ground, and that’s hard and sometimes impossible.

Ok, I live with those inconveniences.

But now I have realized the pain it has caused me. And I resent that. Not that I can change it, but I resent it.

At home I will try to wear shoes with lifts, which is absurd, because I should be able to walk barefoot in my own home if that’s what I want to do. But there are no solutions to driving, sitting, and the myriad other ways that our society is causing me additional pain, simply because I am short.

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Trying to manage when it feels unmanageable

May 7, 2018

Somehow I used to work 45+ hours per week, cook, clean, do errands and chores, and have a social life. How?

Now I feel more overwhelmed than I did then, and I do a lot less. In some ways. In other ways, I suppose I do a lot more, but it’s hard to remember that. Our culture is so wrapped up in “jobs” and “what do you do for work?” and “you must have a lot of free time without a job” that it’s easy to feel like a failure for being overwhelmed without the 9 to 5.

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I think that my mental and emotional tolerance for these kinds of things is way lower than it used to be. But I also know that I do a lot. Dealing with pills and physical therapy exercises take up time. So do meal planning, clothes planning, and all of the other planning around my health issues. Meditation, reading up on symptoms and treatments, and writing this blog also take up time. Then there are the many, many medical appointments. And that’s all before we talk about actual acute symptom management. Not to mention, the extra hours I need to spend in bed and resting on the couch. Put that all together, and that’s my full time job.

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Then there’s my work. It’s not a 9 to 5, but it’s all I can manage. Sometimes, it’s more than I can manage. I sell craft items I make. Or at least, I try to. I have an online coaching business. I just tried to start another online business, but it was too much, and now I’m in the process of shutting it down. I do dog sitting. Not every day, but a little is better than none. It has the advantage of giving me canine company. Right now, this beautiful dog is snoring next to me!

There’s also non-work work. I do a little bit of volunteering for a support group that I’m in. I speak to friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends about health issues and try to assist the best that I can.

On top of all of that, I have typical adult stuff: laundry (which I should actually be doing right now,) grocery shopping, cooking, dishes, cleaning, other errands. This week I finally got a haircut, which was about 3 weeks overdue. I wanted to do it sooner, but between feeling sick, being busy, and simply feeling overwhelmed, I wasn’t able to do it.

I have personal projects. I am currently writing a book about living with chronic illness. I am trying to clean out the clutter in my closets. I’d like to experiment with some new recipes. I want to spend more time reading.

On top of all of that, as if it weren’t already enough, I’d like to socialize more. Over a year ago I left the city and moved out to the suburbs. I want to make more friends out here. I want to spend more time with my old friends. I want to date. After a recent breakup I finally feel ready to date again, but I have no time or bandwidth for it.

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It’s true that I’m less efficient than I used to be. Let me sit in front of the computer to work for an hour, and I will accomplish less than I could have accomplished in an hour 10 years ago. Some of that is illness-related. Some of that is being out of practice. But I am working for that hour and I do get shit done.

It’s just that there’s always more to do than I can manage. And something’s gotta give.

Which is why I am not dating. Which is why I am closing one of the businesses I started. Which is why I don’t socialize nearly as much as I’d like to. Which is why I don’t have much fun in my life these days. Which is why I am stressed out and overwhelmed and feeling like a failure. Sure, I know that I am not a failure. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to remember that. To really believe it. All I can do is keep remembering how much I do, and strive to eventually get to a place where I’m less overwhelmed.

And for you, dear reader, I want you to know that you’re not alone. In the chronic illness world, we often seem to have 2 modes: doing a lot that never seems to be enough and feeling overwhelmed and stressed out; or doing very little “productive” stuff while we rest and take care of our health and feel guilty about not doing enough.  But we shouldn’t feel guilty. We are doing the best we can to take care of ourselves. Some folks are even taking care of families as well. It’s hard. Fucking hard. And we deserve praise and congratulations for everything we work so hard to do, even when it’s not as much as what we want to do. So give yourself a figurative pat on the back. And then go do something FUN and don’t feel guilty about it. You deserve it.

Note: I have written many times about being on benefits, so some of you are probably wondering why I’m busting my butt with multiple jobs. That is because when I add up social security, food stamps (SNAP), and fuel assistance, I still fall far short of what I need to pay my expenses. I live in affordable housing and my rent is currently over 90% of my social security income. Then I need to pay for utilities, car insurance, gas, car maintenance, medical treatments that aren’t covered by insurance, and maybe once a month I might even go out for a cheap meal. On top of all of that, I am nervous about the future state of benefits in this country, and don’t want to rely on them. I would much rather earn my own way and be independent of them. For now my goal is to earn enough to support myself with benefits. Down the road I would like to get off of them, though I know that’s a rare and difficult thing to accomplish.


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