Working with pain

November 21, 2019

spine

In 2013 I was in a minor car accident with my 8 months pregnant wife. I was so focused on her and my in utero son’s well-being at the time, I ignored my own. This was the start of back problems for me.

For years, quick chiropractic adjustments helped me manage my quarterly back pain. But two months ago, I was struck with my most severe back outage ever that continues even today. It got to the point where I would nearly blackout getting out of a chair. Chiropractic didn’t help, massage didn’t help, x-rays from an actual doctor didn’t show anything.

Thankfully, I was encouraged to try physical therapy and we think we’ve identified that my own ass (specifically where my sciatic passes thru my glut) is trying to kill me. It’s caused by sitting at a computer all day. Unfortunately this condition and how my body compensates means it hurts to sit, it hurts to stand, and it hurts to lay down. The only thing that does help is laying on the floor doing various stretching exercises.

As a result, I’m finding it difficult to work for sustained periods of time without my back crying out in pain. It’s like this old comic about interrupting programmers by Jason Heeris, except instead of an aloof manager breaking my zen-like state, it’s my own body asking me to go lay on a lacrosse ball every hour or so.

I don’t want to perpetuate a stereotype of “otherism” amongst developers where we’re a special breed of human who cannot be interrupted because our big brains are unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Most of my job is gluing two <div> elements together. I think the better term for it would be “long tasks” or the popular “deep work” concept. Experiencing chronic pain makes it more difficult to achieve that flow and barrel through these longer and more complex tasks.

Physically, it sucks. On an emotional level, it’s hard for me to feel very productive in this current state. I don’t say this for pity’s sake (don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine) but it builds empathy for people with more serious and even more debilitating conditions. It makes me sensitive to the fact that people suffering from chronic pain and illness might be labelled “underperformers” and get passed over for jobs and promotions. This experience is showing me that everyone has different private and sometimes invisible stuff going on in their lives. It can often feel like people can’t acknowledge your situation until you’re laying on the floor screaming.

Again, don’t worry about me, I have a pathway forward at the moment. Some people don’t get that. I just wanted to share how eye-opening this experience has been.

If you have chronic pain, let me just say I’m already impressed by the resolve you show each day. I’d love to know more about how you manage work versus your pain and how you manage to feel productive (DMs open).