It Never Seems to End - Post Rotator Cuff Surgery Recovery with Mental Illness

I really thought I had written more posts recently. Thinking back, I pushed myself to write the last post - and regretted it. 

I have barely been back to my desk since.

To be clear, it wasn't writing the blog post that took me out of commission... it was my anxiety. 

This recovery from rotator cuff surgery has been rough. I heard somewhere that it's the 3rd worst pain, just after childbirth and kidney stones. Now that I'm into my 6th-week post-surgery, I would say the pain isn't that bad (though it's definitely there)... it's the limitations that drive you mad.

Add to that anxiety and bipolar disorders and being very overweight and it's been, um, fun? 

I've had a difficult time staying out of my head while healing. There are mixed signals everywhere you look for advice on how to make it through this time. One YouTube video will say to keep your arm completely immobilized; a website article will say it's okay to move it some; then you'll come across a study that showed that no sling is actually best. 

There are tips on how to do a lot of things - like sleep positions (which also vary widely). On the other hand, some of the tips didn't work in my case.

This might be TMI, but I spent the first two weeks trying to figure out a way to pull up my underwear on the affected side. The only advice I got on it was a clothing assist tool - but due to my curves, that didn't work. I tried other similar tools - a grabber, tongs, a back scratcher, using a doorknob (that one did work... once!) - none of them worked.

If someone else was home, I swallowed my pride and asked for help. When no one was home, I would reach back, knowing it could cause damage to my shoulder. After all, who can function with underwear literally falling down? (And yes, I did try going commando but it was really uncomfortable for me and I only managed to do it a few times before giving up on that idea.)

Anyway, this is one example of a cause for the mind games I dealt with.

I would go to the bathroom and while I was, um, doing my business, I started thinking about which trick I would try this time. When inevitably none of these would work, I would take off my sling and reach back, being as careful as I could, to pull them up.

Then the anxious thoughts began. Did I hurt my shoulder? Was I erasing the healing that's already occurred? What if it never really healed? 

So then the spiral continued and grew worse... what if I never regained full function in that arm? I knew I could type so I could still do that part of my freelancing business, but what if I could never hold a professional camera again? 

All the while I'm also feeling judgment and guilt... reciting excuses in my mind like I was about to be sworn in and confess to the surgeon and/or my PT how I screwed up. 

This was an ongoing struggle. Being so uncomfortable in any horizontal position, I was constantly exhausted physically from not getting good sleep. 

However, the mental exhaustion from fighting this balancing act - doing what I needed to do to make it through a day vs letting my shoulder heal the "right" way - was much worse. 

Add to this the uncertainty of this whole procedure and recovery. 

When would I get the sling off? How was I going to deal with going on a trip to another state with a sling? I tried a multitude of slings, pregnancy pillows, neck pillows, bed pillows, folded-up blankets, etc to try to find the best combination for sleep. Which combo would I bring for the trip? 

There were also the questions of the progress of healing... when could I drive? When would I get the sling off? When could I safely use my computer and type again? When would I be able to shoot again?

And most importantly... since this is a surgery with a less-than-stellar success rate, will it even work?

There was one day I had a short manic episode where I couldn't sit still and I definitely did more than I should have with my bad arm.

That day the spiral took over my life. I couldn't stop crying - I just knew that I had messed it up and I would have to have to redo the surgery. No amount of reassurance from friends, family, and even some who had dealt with it before would calm me down. I was a wreck.

But, just like any anxiety attack I've ever dealt with, it eventually subsided. Part of this lessening was due to the years of work in therapy trying to combat this battle of the mind. Most of it, at least in this case, was the acceptance that if I had messed it up, there was nothing I could do about it at that point. 

I also recognized that no one is 100% compliant with post-surgery instructions and PT exercises - and that the majority of them do heal and gain back full function. 

Just like addiction recovery, this recovery had ups and downs and there was no one "right way" to do it. Taking it one moment at a time is key.

My advice to anyone about to go through this surgery is to research, research, research beforehand, but remember that you won't know what works for you until you get there. Listen to your doctor and PT but know that they don't know your body and what you have to deal with - and every one of them has a slightly different opinion on the best way to heal. 

On the flip side, don't be afraid to ask questions. If you have an anxiety disorder, let your medical team know that you might need a little more support than a neurotypical. 

In other words, don't be embarrassed to ask for advice on pulling up your underwear (unless you personally enjoy going commando.) :-)


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