RADICAL EMPATHY

Now the Real Work Begins

I’m determined to keep going

Terri E. Givens - terrigivens.com
3Streams
Published in
4 min readNov 13, 2023

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Every time I look at this picture I see something new — for example, the pink flowers that are lurking behind the haunting image in the foreground. This is why I love Velda’s art.

I have been through bouts of serious back pain many times in my life. I have been able to turn to my team of caregivers to find relief, which have mainly been chiropractors, physical therapists and personal trainers. There have been so many people who have helped me to build a strong body that could support the spine issues I was born with. This time was different.

The level of pain I began experiencing back in August was far beyond what I had felt before and it was the first time in about 30 years that I had to ask for pain meds, mainly gabapentin for the nerve pain and muscle relaxers. I had to get help from friends to find the doctors that could help me — e.g., I had never heard of physiatry — and once I did, I had to make sure that I got the full treatment I needed, injections of steroids to calm the nerves that were causing the pain. After my second set of injections last week, I was able to drop the pain meds and I felt like a fog had lifted from my brain.

Currently, my pain levels are back to “normal” — of course normal for me is still a relatively high level of pain for the average person. As an athlete who had to “suck it up” when I had injuries, and a work-aholic who has ignored illness and pain to keep going, I have no illusions that I am reasonable in this regard. What’s important is that I’m determined to keep going — having just turned 59, I am nowhere near ready to say that I can’t get past this by rebuilding the strength that has kept me going for so long.

However, as I know from my work on #RadicalEmpathy, the first step is vulnerability and being honest with myself about who I am. I tend to bear a great deal of responsibility, and as I was telling a friend over lunch the other day, it can’t always be my burden to bear. I know that if I’m not doing certain things, there aren’t very many people who can fill my shoes. But I also know that if I burn out, I won’t be able to help anyone, including myself. Like my observation of the photo at the top of this post, there’s always more to discover about myself, which requires me to look closely and update what I am seeing.

Now that medicine has done what it can do, the rest is up to me, and I will be blogging about my progress here — in part because writing is therapeutic for me, and also because it helps me with accountability. I’m still working with a team — my wonderful physiotherapist at McGill, chiropractors here in Montreal and the Bay Area, and a personal trainer who will work with me in person and virtually. I recognize the privilege that I have with insurance to be able to afford all of this, but it’s also important to be persistent and I’m definitely not settling for being in debilitating pain. I should also mention that I have arthritis throughout my body and that will also benefit from being more active.

I have been thinking a lot about how I got to this point. I have always remained active even after mostly giving up running after foot surgery 7 years ago. I do yoga, walk, and keep up with my physical therapy exercises. What I have figured out, however, is that my body needs a higher and more intense level of activity, and as I told my physiotherapist on Friday, this is for life. I have to get into a regular routine in order for me to maintain my weight and muscle mass at a level that can support my aging and degenerating spine. Seeing the MRI and x-rays of my spine was sobering, even though I knew what to expect. That can’t be reversed, but I don’t have to be symptomatic.

My initial goal is to focus on getting back into a regular workout routine over the next eight weeks. That means weights, TRX, spin bike, walking (including some stairs), etc. My PT has given me exercises to challenge my core (it’s already strong so now we have to pinpoint areas to build), and I’m excited for this challenge, while being aware of the limitations of this 59 year old body. Life is always full of challenges, and as we are facing so many major issues in the world, it’s hard to want to focus on myself, but I also want to come back stronger and be there for the battles to come.

So today I am taking that next step. I can feel those previous versions of me cheering in the background. I hope what I share is encouraging and will help you develop empathy for yourself. It’s a never ending process but it helps me to maintain hope for a better future.

My home-based gym!

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Terri E. Givens - terrigivens.com
3Streams

Professor of Political Science, McGill University. Higher Ed Leadership, Immigration & European politics. Author of Radical Empathy & The Roots of Racism