The Blog

The Pain in My Neck

For reasons I could not explain in 10,000 words or less, I moved to a small town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, for three months or more, to determine how I begin with all of this that has happened, and to wait for this story of the pain in my neck to resolve.
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I'm not sure where to begin with any of this, so I may as well begin with the opening line of an email that I sent to my friends.

Dear Friends,

For reasons that I could not explain in 10,000 words or less, on January 4 (i.e., if all goes according to plan, later today), I am moving down to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica for three months or less, spending the first month earning my yoga certification.

I have now spent more than three months down here and feel that if I were forced to point to any one reason for remaining in this place, and to describe that reason in 10,000 words or less, it may as well begin with the pain coming from my neck.

During one of the last weekends in July, while I was transcribing an interview, I began to notice an unpleasant tingling sensation running down the last two fingers of my left hand. Having experienced problems with my hands before, I thought nothing of it, but by the end of the weekend, the tingling reached up my hand and past my forearm and up to my shoulder and then down my back, too strong and widespread to ignore. A week later, the tingling changed into a burning sensation, and about a week after that, several of the muscles in my arm started to go into spasm, and by the time late August rolled around, I had the near constant sensation that my left arm had just been slammed in a car door. The pain remained a constant, all day and all night, no matter what I did. The first in a series of doctors said that I was suffering from tendonitis of the shoulder, and the first in a series of MRIs confirmed this.

So, they (physical therapists, acupuncturists, muscle activation therapists -- essentially, everyone short of a magician) began to treat the problem as though it was a shoulder injury. For whatever reason, these treatments only seemed to make matters worse. And yet, despite this pain, I still worked whenever I was able, and still typed and typed and typed. I complained to acquaintances and editors about vague back problems, attempting to cover for my distracted behavior, my glacial pace with deadlines. On a good day, I had an hour or two of solid desk time, or interaction with the outside world, in me.

Before these problems began, I'd been nothing if not active to the point of exhaustion. On most days, I woke up at 6 o'clock, wrote until lunchtime, ran three or so miles a day, returned to my work, and then practiced at least an hour of yoga at least five days a week. And so, at that point, my initial impulse was to power through -- more writing, more running, more yoga.

After a few short weeks of this regimen, it was all I could do to get out of bed in the morning. I found it difficult to complete certain everyday tasks, and simple actions, like carrying my iPhone in my left hand, would cause the hand to seize up. My creative output trickled to a halt, and every ounce of my being that wasn't spent focused on the pain shooting down my left arm was now spent in an attempt to keep my head afloat. There were times, during these long months, that I felt as though my body -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- was going to snap in half.

Toward the end of September, I knew that whatever thing was happening to me was most certainly beyond the realm of any rotator cuff injury, because my scapula started to feel like it was protruding from the muscles in my back. I went to an orthopedic specialist, who gave me a diagnosis that finally made sense: some sort of brachial neuritis.

A fairly rare disorder that I've been told is more associated with concert pianists at the turn of the 20th century, this problem involves a disruption of the cluster of nerves that gather at the side of the neck and run down the shoulder, powering most of the sensation in the arm and the muscles in the back. There was a round of nerve conduction tests -- very similar to a game of "Itsy Bitsy Spider," save that it's done for roughly two hours, and with electrified needles. The doctor told me, quite optimistically, that I shouldn't worry about a thing. If I didn't lift weights over my shoulder, I'd be fine -- as he put it -- in no time at all.

For those of the Hebraic faith, "don't worry about a thing," especially when uttered by a medical practitioner, usually translates to, "start worrying about everything -- pronto." I started doing my own research. These sort of problems with the brachial plexus can last up to a year, though sometimes longer and, on occasion, permanently.

To tell the truth, there was a part of me that wasn't at all surprised this had happened. I used to tell my writer friends that if you can't stay solvent, you should stay relevant, and had spent many years at my desk, in the full practice of this philosophy. For a while -- specifically, since 2008, when a novel that I had spent several grueling and uncertain years writing and refining, thanks to various forces beyond my control, arrived dead in the water -- my life could be described as a series of never-ending panics. It felt as though I had spent years under the deadweight of hauling a boulder up a mountain, and now, I had an even bigger boulder to haul. I didn't take weekends off for fear of missed work, missed emails, missed opportunities. I suffered under a generalized discipline, one that kept me at my desk and on my keyboard for stretches of lonely, uninterrupted hours, hypnotized and meditating upon that which lay on the computer monitor before me. A friend once caught a glimpse of me at work. When I finally stopped, she remarked that while I was writing, judging from my facial expression, you could set my hair on fire and I probably wouldn't notice.

I assume that years of typing was probably the cause, and that most physical activities involving the affected arm, or even the unaffected arm (running, swimming, driving a car, sitting at a desk, sitting up in bed indeed, most actions that involved movement), were aggravators, and that the only thing that could make the situation worse was exercise involving overhead weights. This included yoga.

In college, once a week, I would join a friend for an evening Ashtanga class, and kept up this routine for many of my undergraduate years. As my writing progressed, so too did my physical practice of this discipline. Coming from my desk and returning to the corporeal self, even for just an hour, helped me confirm that I wasn't just a writer, wasn't just the words written on the page; I was a person. Over time, whenever the panic began to increase, or increase more, whenever I found myself swimming in it, the only things that eased the sensations were more of everything -- more writing, more running, more yoga.

Though typing may have been the cause of my problems, an overly-exerted physical asana -- my hyper-extended Downward-Facing Dog, or my powerful jump-backs into Chaturanga -- were almost certainly catalysts. The human body isn't meant to spend seemingly endless hours isolated at a desk, only to then bend and twist and power aggressively into contorted shapes, no matter what sort of release the human mind needs. But bend and twist and power I did, because when I did so, I didn't have to think about that which lay outside my physical self. In this way, my yoga had become a unyogic.

In graduate school, a writing professor once posed the question, "What do you do when you are what you do?" I spent as much of September as I could (with the exception of New York Fashion Week, which just about killed me) at home in Florida, lying on my back, oftentimes on the floor, and pondering my own variation of this question: "What do you do when you are what you do, and you can't do it?"

There were some interesting moments during those times when I returned to New York and weathered through the days of Hurricane Sandy in a darkened apartment, and then, when I sat in doctors' offices and lay in MRI machines, when I received steroid injections directly into the neck, when I began to see the financial effects of my productivity ground to a halt, but especially when I took to bed and had to ponder this very basic existential question of not being able to do what I do. In a way, I suppose that this was when the real yoga began, when I could no longer rely on the physical practice, or the escape of writing, to assuage my panics and fears. It was the yoga that allowed me to accept this as a certain moment of new beginnings. (I even gave the posture of lying in bed, watching television and eating chocolate a name: FatAssana.)

I do not know how this story will end. The malady affecting my neck is of indeterminate duration. It seems to be resolving, though slowly, slowly, slowly. I have regained much of my strength -- in many ways, I am stronger -- and yet I still cannot escape into many of the meditative postures of my former yoga practice, cannot type the way I used to, cannot work for hours on end. I am in pain as I write this.

Despite this pain, and for reasons not yet apparent to me, I find myself returning again and again to the finishing line of a story from Hafiz's The Gift, introduced to me during my time studying the transformational philosophy of yoga:

Dear Ones,
Use your own storytelling abilities
To end this tale
In a way that will most
Uplift your heart.

And so, for reasons I could not explain in 10,000 words or less, but especially because of the above, I moved to a small town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, for three months or more, to determine how I begin with all of this that has happened, and to wait for this story of the pain in my neck to resolve.

Read more about writer Martin Marks' adventures in a small town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, "Walken in the Jungle."

For more by Martin Marks, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.