I wake up a little before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled muscle acting up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gobble a bunch of Advil and hobble back to bed.
A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly wonder if I should mosey over to the Emergency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a couple more Advil, pack up my computer, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.
I’m eating my croissant and sipping coffee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my laptop screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.
Well, as you’ve likely figured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giving me grief. It was a kidney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a calcified something trying to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice: Refrain from getting one.
“It’s really good you came in,” said the medical technician, who started the IV drip to administer pain meds and fluids.
I hadn’t brought anything to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Holiday greetings from the Cooley Dick emergency room! Working hypothesis: kidney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.
Thanks to social media, I had instant company.
“I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make difficult experiences better by crafting the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or something like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped. She was talking about this, and in fact, I already was.
At the time the pain struck, I was finishing up a column for SecondAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Happiness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve sometimes jokingly call Plan B Nation “a Happiness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s picture perfect life—and I wanted to write about that.
But lying in the ER, my mind wandered to two of Rubin’s previous books—Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK. And then: Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re interested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in deference to whimsicality, I left the title unchanged.)
Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my misadventure. “I was so convinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”
As it happened, Lisa had her own such story. Walking down a dark Brooklyn street a number of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking characters ambling towards her. If you see something suspicious, always look at your watch. A friend had described having done just that after seeing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Towers. Now Lisa did it herself. In an instant, she saw herself on the witness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.
“Oh! I’m not a witness! I’m the victim!” was her first astonished thought.
You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” create stories, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accordingly. At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But helpful as our minds may try to be, they sometimes lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.
Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone
1. It wasn’t something worse
2. I got to meet the super nice super kind people in the Cooley Dick emergency room
3. I wasn’t out of town
4. I didn’t have the disappointment of cancelling holiday plans (had been feeling a little glum about not having any. Now I was glad.)
5. It didn’t happen right before a work deadline
6. I wasn’t screwing up anyone else’s holiday plans
7. It gave me an opportunity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again
8. It led me to appreciate health in a way I hadn’t the day before
9. It gave me another way to reflect on the quality of openness that I’ve been mulling; the ability to see outside expectations. In brief, my initial tendency was to attribute this to a flaring of a sports injury. In fact, it was something different.
10. I told a nurse about Greenie pill pockets for her aging cat
11. I appreciated living in a place with easy access to medical care
12. I now know what these symptoms mean in the event they strike again
13. I know I should be drinking more water.
14. Another way to connect with friends
15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least sometimes, I’m getting better than I used to be about life not going according to my plans.
16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.
17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.
18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.
19. Appreciate FB—didn’t have to call any one person but had community support, felt not alone + knew I had someone to call on if it turned out I did need help
20. Friends who offered to help
21. Made me appreciate insurance
22. Made me appreciate Mass, where health insurance is affordable
23. Made me appreciate my apartment—quiet, restful, safe space to recuperate.
24. Appreciate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER
25. Writing about this gives me a chance to connect with others—and maybe help someone else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research suggests that helping others makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.)
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.