A sharp pain developed between my shoulder blade and spine, like I was being stabbed in the back with a pencil.
I thought I pulled a muscle while weight lifting, although it might be a stretch to call it weight lifting. I’ve reached the age when it’s more like glorified stretching with some weights.
So I stopped “lifting” and devoted all my time to the elliptical. I was getting addicted to working out before the pandemic closed down my Planet Fitness, losing weight and feeling better than I had felt in years.
But when I went to spring training in February, I started experiencing a tingling sensation in my right hand and a sharp pain in my elbow. I thought I had an elbow injury. Maybe from throwing javelin for four years on the track team in college. Or maybe, it came from years of throwing batting practice to my son’s travel baseball teams. Or maybe, it was from using the elliptical too many days in a row.
I listed my symptoms to one of the Tigers trainers near a dugout on the back fields at Tiger Town.
“It doesn’t sound like an elbow problem,” he said. “It sounds like a nerve issue.”
He nailed it.
Seven months later, I’m still dealing with the pain, which has grown far worse and more frequent. At times, it feels like somebody is hitting my hand with a hammer. At other times, I’m so weak I can’t open a bottle of pickles.
The pain has left me lying on the floor in the press box at Comerica Park and forced me to try marijuana-infused gummies for relief — something I never thought I’d do.
Surgery is just a few days away.
Nerves from hell
After the pandemic shut down everything, it took months to navigate the health care system to try to figure out what was wrong. Everything was moving in slow motion and backed up, from setting up appointments and going to different doctors to getting a batch of X-rays, nerve tests and an ultrasound.
Finally, an MRI revealed that I have a bulging disc in my neck along with three messed up vertebrae, which has caused all kinds of pain and strange symptoms. Two fingers on my right hand have been numb for about six months. That’s been the only consistent symptom because the pain moves around, depending on the day.
At times, the pain is dull and aching, almost impossible to pinpoint or describe. It’s deep and constant, as if it is coming from my bones.
At other times, it hurts to breathe. Then, the pain skips from my back to my forearm to my hand to my shoulder blade and then to my triceps.
On some days, my right hand feels like it is burning, like I’m touching a hot stove. And then, without warning, it feels like somebody is smashing it with a hammer.
Nerves can be funny that way. Incredibly unpredictable.
This has created some awkward moments. My wife has had to cut my dinner into small bites, like I’m a toddler who can’t hold a knife. In the shower, my right hand can be so useless that I’ve had to lean my head under the shampoo bottle and push the lever with my left hand, so it would squirt into my hair.
Other times, the pain will arrive out of nowhere and I’ve had to get out of the shower and laylie on the tile floor, still dripping wet.
Brushing my teeth with an electric toothbrush is beyond comical, just trying to turn it on with fingers that don’t work. And typing with a couple of fingers that are numb and tingly has been a challenge. All summer long, I would write a little, take a bath or ice my arm, and then write some more.
While covering the Tigers during their summer camp, I would watch until the pain woke up and then I had to laylie down on the carpet in the press box.
Finally, I figured out it was easier to type while sitting on my couch, propped up by pillows.
Thankfully, the Free Press has worked with me, trying to make accommodations or change my assignments. I’ve been lucky and I’m thankful for that. How many people are stuck in jobs where bosses aren’t accommodating for all kinds of ailments?
‘I’m in incredible pain’
The pain kept getting worse. In July, it was nearly impossible to sleep. I tried sleeping on a bed but the pain fired through my arm like I was hooked up to electrodes.
I tried different pillows, different positions. But nothing helped.
I slept on the floor for more than a week but couldn’t get more than a few hours at a time. Late at night, I would wake up in pain, go downstairs and amble around in the darkness, in a daze, because it didn’t hurt as much as trying to sit down.
I went to physical therapy and the only goal was to get me to a stage where I could lay flat long enough for an MRI. God bless physical therapists.
I was taking all kinds of medications — from painkillers to anti-inflammatories — and if I’m being honest, I was exceeding the recommended daily dosage on all of them. I was desperate. I tried ice, heat and countless baths to trick the nerves into calming down. And I used a simple traction device, a head hammock that dangled off a door handle.
I even carried it with me into the Tigers’ press box at Comerica Park.
But nothing gave me relief.
When the pain becomes debilitating, you become desperate. There were nights when I would drink several glasses of wine, just to knock myself out. I realize that is not exactly healthy and certainly not recommended. I’m just being honest.
At one point this summer, I got a nerve block. “A 50% chance of working,” my doctor said.
I guess I ended up on the wrong side of those odds because the pain came back after a few days.
When I was asked to go to Cincinnati to cover the Tigers’ opening game — a last-minute assignment — I was afraid my back would seize up on a plane and my boss was worried that I might get stuck in a hotel, unable to get off the floor. So I drove. Actually, my wife drove because I couldn’t sit behind the wheel without upsetting my back. I had to recline in the passenger seat to find a position that didn’t aggravate my neck.
I filed a story with a note on top to my editors: “Please give a good read. I’m in incredible pain.”
All of this has made me appreciate injured athletes even more.
I know several have had neck and back issues: Peyton Manning, Jordan Zimmermann, Tiger Woods, Tony Romo and Mario Lemieux.
When we hear that an athlete has a serious injury, they kind of disappear onto an injured list. We rarely consider the pain-filled sleepless nights or the grueling hours of rehab or any of the lingering issues.
First dance with Mary Jane
One day, my wife was talking to one of her friends. She described my symptoms and he said: “Has he tried marijuana to sleep?”
Ah, no. I’ve never done pot in my life. As a kid, I saw somebody struggle tremendously with addiction and it has scared me for my entire life.
But the more I struggled with pain, the more I started hearing about people who take edibles for pain.
So-and-so’s mom takes edibles for her back.
So-and-so uses marijuana because she has cancer.
So-and-so’s husband took edibles for a bulging disc.
I was shocked. And it made me start to consider it.
Finally, I hit the breaking point. I broke down and went to a local marijuana dispensary.
It was as easy as walking into a McDonald’s. And the menu was even bigger.
“Recreational or medicinal,” a guy at the front door asked me.
“Ah, recreational,” I said, because I don’t have a card.
I was directed into the recreational line, although I was hoping for medicinal benefit.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I guess, I thought it would be a dark, creepy, smoke-filled store. Or maybe, I pictured some dude in a back-parking lot, selling stuff out of his van. But this store felt like an upscale convenience store and five cashiers stood behind a counter. There were at least 10 people waiting in line. I found it surprising that most of the customers were in their 50s or older.
Everybody was required to wear a mask and remain socially distanced because of the coronavirus pandemic. Thank goodness for the masks. I don’t think I would have had the courage to walk into a cannabis store without one. I put on my mask before I even parked.
“I’m waiting to have surgery on my neck,” I told the salesperson, a woman who looked like she was in her early 20s. “I need something for pain and inflammation. Something that can help me sleep.”
“An edible?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m not looking to get high.”
She gave me a colorful box of edibles, which had a mix of THC and CBD that, she said, counteract each other and reduce the high.
“Take one,” I was told. “It will help with inflammation and pain.”
It looked like a small slab of purple Jell-O in a white tray, about the size of a deck of cards. I went home, cut a small square with scissors, took it and … a few hours later, it felt like I was being sucked into the couch. I became incredibly mellow. Not high. Just completely relaxed. The pain in my arm was still there but it felt distant.
I slept all night for the first time in weeks.
Pot meets kettle
I’ve been taking edibles for about 1½ months now — only at night and always after I was done working — and it has helped tremendously. More than anything, it seems to deaden the pain. It helps me fall asleep, and the next day the pain doesn’t seem as severe.
More importantly, I have been able to cut down how much Tylenol and prescription anti-inflammatory medication that I’m taking. I’m sure my liver is thrilled.
And now, I guess I have something in common with Darren McCarty and Calvin Johnson. McCarty, the former Red Wing, has been a marijuana proponent. And Johnson told Sports Illustrated that he used marijuana after games for years to deal with the pain.
I’ve gone back to the same cannabis store three times and I’ve tried different edibles with different ratios of THC and CBD. I had no idea there were so many products, so many variations that do different things. At least, that’s what they claim.
Every time I’ve gone, the store has been packed with people, mainly in their 50s and older, and I’ve overheard several of them talking about getting something for pain.
You don’t realize how many people are struggling with extreme pain until you go into a place like this.
“I don’t really feel a high, although I’m not entirely sure what a marijuana high feels like,” I told the salesperson on a return visit.
“You won’t with this type, with this ratio,” she said — and kind of laughed.
“I take one,” I said.
“It would take four to get me high,” the woman said.
All right then, so I’m a newbie.
For weeks, I took a single edible at night but didn’t tell my kids, who are 24, 22, and 20. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed after all my speeches about avoiding drugs.
And now, I feel incredibly hypocritical and even had apprehension about writing this column. For most of my life, I have looked down on people who use pot, and I have certainly preached no drugs to my kids. But I have tried to justify it in my head: It’s a plant. Plenty of other medicines come from plants. How is this any different?
I came to a conclusion: it’s legal in Michigan. I’ve never been against cancer patients using it — if it helps them, go for it. And if I can tell my story, and if it helps somebody in pain, or if it helps take away some of the stigma, then I should be honest about this. It sounds a heck of a lot safer than somebody turning to opiates.
Because I now know what debilitating pain can do. Pain can affect everything. It can leave you cranky and miserable, can make working nearly impossible and keep you up at night and make you feel like you are going crazy.
But most of all, it can push you to a point where you do something that you never thought you’d do.
I sent a rough draft of this column to my kids — that’s how they found out I am using edibles. They were stunned. And then, within a matter of minutes, they sent me numerous GIFs making fun of me, including one of Homer Simpson totally stoned.
“When we went Up North, I told our friends,” I told my daughter. “When Snabes (a friend) found out, he Googled Cheech & Chong to tease me.”
“What’s that?” she said.
Ah, never mind.
I’m scheduled to have surgery in a few days.
A surgeon will remove the bulging disc, fuse three vertebrae together and pack it with bone stuff (I have no idea where this bone comes from and don’t want to know). It is called a cervical spine fusion. I will have to wear a neck brace for a month or so. I am under strict orders: I can’t drive, can’t bend or twist or push or pull and can’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk, so I won’t be doing any yard work or vacuuming for a long time (that little detail is for my wife).
And I won’t be back writing columns for at least a month (that little detail is for my boss).
I hope to return to work in mid-October or early November, at which point, the Lions could already be out of it, I know.
Or maybe, the stars will align, and the Lions will be undefeated and Matthew Stafford will be playing like an MVP and Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn will get extensions.
OK — that’s probably the pot talking.
See, I can even joke about it now.
I don’t plan to continue taking cannabis after this surgery. Hopefully, the surgery takes away the pain. The doctor says it has a “90%” chance of full recovery. I like those odds and realize I’m lucky. Far too many people put off major surgery because they can’t afford it or they are suffering through something that doesn’t have a cure.
For all of you, I just hope and pray that you find some relief, as well as some sleep.
I’m not telling anyone to try edibles.
But it helped me get through the worst summer of my life.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.