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First of all, this is not a story about war–okay, it’s about a little war, but mostly it’s a story about piece. Namely, a piece of me that I have pushed beyond its limit. It’s my left arm. I’m not left-handed–my right hand still does all the intricate work of a householder, writer, cook and tai chi teacher. After months of pain and torture coming from the vicinity of my left arm, I started to analyze the ways in which I have overused, neglected and took its functioning for granted. At this point it is so fed up with my demands that it’s making signs that it wants to break up with me, go its own way, retire from active duty. But I’m digging in. One shouldn’t just give up on such a long and fruitful relationship. But I must confess, the blame has definitely been one sided.
They call it the “non-dominant” side. How unfair. My left hand can write. The product looks like the work of a first grader, but it is legible if I’m not in too big of a hurry to scribble out a narrative. I learned to type over 50 years ago, and at that time, it was evident that the left hand performed as well as (or better) than that ego maniac, so-called dominant right hand. This was around the time I learned to play the flute, a task requiring equal effort of both hands. It wasn’t until I started playing the guitar and then later the ukulele that the superiority of the left hand, holding down strings to produce chords, stood out in sharp contrast to the laziness of the strumming right hand.
As time went by and I acquired more and more skills relating to the tasks of living, I mostly ignored the stamina with which my left hand and arm performed the rigors of labor without complaint…until that arm started to rebel, quietly at first, with twinges and minor aches. In middle age, my work load became enormous with cooking, cleaning, working a physical therapy job and tending to the needs of a family, I did not have the time to be dainty or even very attentive to the musculature that supported the task load of my existence. My entire left arm, having felt its abuse, decided it had had enough. The ensuing ache (and accompanying annoyance) was diagnosed as a condition called lateral epicondylitis. This was later followed by a frozen shoulder.
Lateral epicondylitis is a type of tendon inflammation that starts in the elbow where the wrist muscles originate. I’ll spare you the technicalities. In plain English, it hurts like hell to move the hand or grasp anything. If you are a stoic (stubborn) person like me, you keep going because to stop doing what needs to be done would mean certain death. A tad overreacting, but such was my attitude at the time. I kept going, which in retrospect, meant I made it worse until my arm was unusable. Since I worked with physical therapists, I was promptly diagnosed and commanded to wear a wrist brace after being iced up a couple times a day. It got better. I quit my job and went back to school, where the demands of my appendages were lessened. Then I got a frozen shoulder.
These are the professionals I saw to relieve me of an immoveable arm: orthopedic doctor (shot), physical therapist (waste of my time–long story which I would be glad to tell you over a couple beers sometime), massage therapist (when is a massage therapist NOT helpful?), chiropractor (very painful but effective). By the end of this ordeal, I was working in a gym where the chiropractor was in residence. My coworkers urged me to go visit him to at least get advice. The convenience of this visit consisted of his office door being mere feet from my office door. I went out of desperation. I was afraid of chiropractors as a friend of mine had been injured by one. But this guy traveled to other cities to treat professional athletes and had helped many of my coworkers. I had nothing to lose, so I went and endured the brutal, physical breaking of the adhesions in my shoulder capsule, sessions after which I needed a beer and a massage. Success should be rewarded.
I’ve taken great care in keeping full range of motion in my shoulder over the years since that tragic incident. But the lateral epicondylitis sees no future in giving up its kingdom in my elbow. It’s been an on-again, off-again relationship for a drudgingly long time. Now, Mr. LE has reared his ugly head once more to nearly paralyze all action in my left arm from the elbow down. After years of making excuses for my abuser, such as it’s my fault, not his, I’ve now come to the conclusion that it actually is my fault and I need to take this situation in hand–the right hand, since the left hand is balking at any functional demands I wish to place on it. I iced my elbow (where the pain is) daily and did some gentle stretches for a couple weeks. I immobilized my wrist in a cute little brace which garnered much interest and sympathy in my social circles.
After analyzing the way in which I use my left arm, throughout all the stuff I tend to do, I discovered the two most pain-provoking activities were typing and cooking/cleaning up in the kitchen. This realization caused my heart to seize up and my mind to spin in irregular directions. These are the two things I spend a lot of time on and could not possibly entertain the notion of cutting back. After my breathing settled back to a normal pace, I decided to look at how I could do things differently–at least in the kitchen.
As soon as I started to cook, I took the cute little brace off my wrist so it wouldn’t get wet or gunky. I thought of doing some sort of taping (like I do for my knees), but taping one arm with only the other arm to do the taping is awkward. I noticed how my left arm was the real workhorse in the multitude of actions that come with cooking. Try holding a nearly full pot of stew up with your left hand while spatula-ing the messy contents into a bowl with the right hand. My left arm has been the foundation of food transferring actions, while my prissy right arm merely scrapes the stew/soup/pasta outward, putting great pressure on the lifting arm by pressing down with the spatula. I can’t do that right now, but I can ask my husband to hold the pot with both hands while I perform this maneuver or balance the pot on the edge of a bowl while transferring food so that my left arm needs only to steady the load.
Since I have a Hobbit-sized kitchen, I have to wash dishes and utensils throughout the cooking cycle to get them out of the way. Once again, I hold bowls, pots, food processors, knives, cutting boards, etc. up in mid-air with the left hand while I scrub them furiously with the brush in my right. This has been totally unnecessary, as a matter of fact, I think I have been dimwitted for washing dishes this way. Now I have forbidden my left arm from performing these ritualistic scrubbings in this manner. I place the pot either on the counter or on the divider in my double sink to scrub away the mess. I hold the cooking vessel with both hands as I rinse it off under the tap and then place it in the dish drainer. My right hand is mightily confused. My entire left arm is pacified for the moment.
Picking up stuff is another activity fraught with peril. If I grab the top of a jar of mayonnaise and lift it from the fridge with my left hand, I am rudely reminded of what a bad idea that is. My cooking experiences tend to be chaotic and fast paced and I rarely have the where-with-all to harness a meditative state in the thick of things. So to help myself with kitchen consciousness, I chant this little mantra: Use Both Hands, Use Both Hands, Use Both Hands, to keep myself aware of the dangers of single-handed grasping. Now my right hand is getting in a snit about having to do all this menial labor. Such a diva.
So, with a little bit of help from my brain, I am managing to sling a few meals onto the table without causing my left arm to revolt. Typing is another story. I skipped a couple weeks of blogging to give my arm a rest, but as soon as I came back to it, the pain started again. I could hire a secretary or buy some of that dictation software like Dragon to assist with getting the words on the page. Neither of those solutions appeal to me. Typing is how I write these days. Even if I use pen and paper, my story will eventually have to be typed into the WordPress Posts page. For now, I am trying to limit the number of hours I spend on the computer, writing a little each day and icing my wimpy arm afterwards. Ethel might be coming out later than Tuesday, but my stubborn resolve demands that my will be done. Tippy, tap-tap typing while maintaining a neutral wrist position helps until I get an idea and start typing like a mad woman who has to record said idea before she forgets it! My gentle typing becomes sloppy and somewhat manic…until I shout “Rein it in Socrates!” which confuses those nearby.
Things are starting to ease a bit though I still can’t play any of my three ukuleles. I am hoping my new habits will continue past this tendonitis crisis. I’ve stopped holding my phone in my left hand and have adopted the hugging-carry method for moving objects about my house. It looks as if I am in love with my salad spinner, but who cares. My left arm is grateful for the adaptations and life is getting back to being productive. Seems like my little war may soon be over and I’ll be able to keep the piece.
Use Both Hands,