I’m still getting the odd comment on my post in April about my back & why I was retiring from Ogre – thanks again to everyone for the best wishes. I haven’t posted any updates since then, both because I don’t want to ‘count my chickens’ too early, because I’ve been busy, and because I don’t want to be too self-indulgent; but it’s been 6 months now, and I figure some people might like to know my status, because it really has changed a lot.
I’m glad to say it’s good news. In the 6 months since I announced my retirement, my back has improved a huge amount. Withdrawing from my multitude of (over)commitments was hard, and I felt guilty for quite a while (as well as reducing my income since I switched to less stressful projects of my own), but it was absolutely the right decision. Literally every month that passed has made a small difference, and it has thankfully accumulated – right now it’s better than it’s ever been. I’m not in pain on a daily basis any more (only occasionally if I overdo something), and I feel a lot more confident that I’m not going to injure myself doing normal everyday things. You’ve no idea how much it means to me to be able to go to bed at night without dreading how much it’s going to hurt to get out of bed the next day – such a simple thing, but it’s a huge deal to me after 2 years of pain.
My physio’s theory (after being very puzzled because the problems I had were symptomatic of a major trauma, of which there was no evidence) was that the problem was a vicious circle of stress and excessive time being desk-bound that had caused a long-term shortening of the tendons / muscles in my back, coupled with a general age-related degradation of discs, which then (because of the pain) caused me injure the nerves far too easily, causing more stress and making exercise to alleviate the problem long-term very difficult to do. In hindsight, while I was skeptical for a long time it appears he was right – it’s just that to break that cycle required a massive change in lifestyle over a sustained period of time, and being consistent with that change even when it didn’t seem to be working early on.
I’ve always believed that success is just a factor of effort and consistency, and that there’s no such thing as a ‘quick fix’ for anything important. I think if there’s any experience in my life that has reinforced this philosophy (and also tested my ability to follow it), it’s this. Plenty of people (particularly in the USA) told me I should be looking for a surgical solution. I never wanted that – the spine is a ridiculously complicated structure and I had very little faith that such a fix would last (even if it worked short-term), particularly while the original cause of the problem wasn’t explained. I’m glad that the culture here is to operate only if there is no chance of natural rehabilitation, because even if there had there been a viable ‘quick fix’, without the lifestyle change I’m sure the problem would just have reappeared later anyway.
It also seems that there was a combination of physical and psychological factors contributing to this, which again undermines the surgical option. I’ve historically had quite a high tolerance for stress and work-related pressure – in fact I’ve done some of my best work in the crucible of ridiculous deadlines and seemingly intractable problems. My general attitude that I could ‘push through’ any difficulties, reinforced by the inevitable high in the aftermath, pretty much set me up for this kind of problem – because when my health started to falter, I took the same attitude. Obviously, it doesn’t work. Stress and frustration cause tense muscles, which exacerbate the problems of discs compressed by too much inactivity and make stretching them out to their proper state again even more difficult. So in addition to changing my work habits, I’ve had to learn how to relax again. It sounds ridiculous, but because of stress and a reaction to pain (which is to tense up), I had literally forgotten how to relax a certain bunch of muscles in my lower / mid back. I had to be taught how to do it again using breathing exercises and gradual, millimetre-by-millimetre changes in posture over time (too much at once would cause me lots of pain).
So, it’s been a long road and it’s not finished yet – nor will it ever really be finished, since I’ll need to continue with my new lifestyle for the foreseeable future. I have a newfound appreciation for keeping my stress levels lower and being more realistic about what I put my body through in the pursuit of work / hobbies. In many ways the old Steve is gone (the workaholic, coding at 3am Steve who created Ogre). The new Steve has a working back though, and frankly, that’s far more valuable.