In July 2014 Don suffered a burst disc in his lumbar spine. The injury was revealed by an MRI scan and confirmed by a neurosurgeon. He was told that it would take several months to heal. He saw a physiotherapist who recommended core-strengthening exercises to better support the spine, which helped somewhat but also at times caused greater pain. It was a slow process. A friend recommended Pilates treatment but by the time Don was ready to begin Pilates he was unable to find any instructors who had time to see him before we left Vancouver for our trip across the Pacific. He continued gently with the exercises given by the physiotherapist. We traded our carry-on daypacks for rolling bags to reduce lifting to a minimum for me, and to nothing for Don.
By the time we reached Hawaii at the beginning of December 2014 Don’s lower back seemed better, and he was pain free. Hooray! In Samoa things were so good we went for a long walk around Manono Island. It’s normally a two and a half hour walk though we took four because we kept stopping, to talk to people and to take photographs and to simply enjoy where we were. Both of us were celebrating “We can walk again!” “We can walk again!” It seemed like a long time since either of us, especially Don, had been able to go for such an extended walk. The next day we tried to wade, against a strong current, out to a deep trench for some good snorkelling and that strenuous exercise resulted in Don having back pain again.
For the next few days, in Fiji, and the first two days in Canberra, he seemed to be okay. After staying with my sister for two days we moved to a friend’s place to housesit for two weeks. From my sister’s place together we carried one case at a time, sharing the weight, up the stairs and a steep path to the car. Don said later that he had felt pain in his back at the time but said nothing and just kept going. And that was all it took. By the end of the day he seemed to be in almost as much pain as he was when the injury first happened.
We rearranged our plans. We had originally planned to leave for New Zealand on about January 4th for five weeks. Instead we rented a small cottage in Canberra and found a physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, all the while wondering if we would ever again be able to travel the way we have done in the past. Although I haven’t written about it much, I’ve also been in chronic pain in my right hip, neck and shoulder for several months and have done a lot of work to discover the underlying beliefs that my body has been mirroring back to me. I still seem to be stuck in the grip of some beliefs about moving forward, about changed circumstances, which are making me anxious, and feeling guilty and unheard. With Don experiencing unrelenting pain and limitation it was also his turn to look deeper into the emotional cause.
The first thing that came up for Don was a message to just stop: stop all this travelling. “There’s no place to rest my head. I’m tired of all this travelling. I want to just stop.” Even while we were still in Vancouver Don had expressed a wish to cancel this whole trip to the South Pacific because he couldn’t see how he could continue to travel being so physically limited. Which immediately begged the question: stop where? Would being ‘home’ in Vancouver fix it all? When I asked him “If you were to feel as pain free and as fit as you were when we began our travels around South America would you want to continue travelling?” the answer was a resounding “Yes!” He had a dream about there being a civil war in Vancouver, suggesting some inner conflict. I believe his road weariness is genuine, as is mine. At the same time it comes and goes. And there was more going on than just road weariness:
From Don: 2 January 2015. I’m feeling rather stuck and mildly frustrated with the apparent lack of progress and particularly with my inability to go walking for any distance without having renewed pain. I’m not feeling defeated yet but I’m not far from it. I just want to be normal and fully functional again. I feel numb. I feel stopped. I feel like I’ve lost the thread as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. It all seemed so blindingly obvious before September 2011 when we began this journey. We were going to be nomads, free to travel wherever and whenever we wanted, and then after a couple of years we would write a book about our adventures. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been stopped – because I didn’t live up to my commitment to write about our journey, and because I lost the thread after the exhausting six months travelling in South America.
I keep feeling like I’ve been covering the same ground over and over again trying to discover what I need to do to find the thread and get back into the joy of travelling once more. Absent the back injury I probably would have continued travelling but without my former interest or enthusiasm. The injury has prompted me to look deeper into what is really wanted. At the same time I also feel like I’m in a hole that I don’t know how to get out of. Part of me wants to stop travelling, and my back injury may be a passive-aggressive way to avoid being bullied by Alison into continuing. Perhaps I am projecting my mother on to her. On the other hand when she asked me what I would want to do if I wasn’t injured I’d been positive about wanting to continue travelling.
3 January 2015. What is the pain in my body trying to tell me? My immediate thought is it’s trying to tell me to stop. Just stop. What if that is the deeper truth beneath the desire to keep travelling, to see more of the world’s wonders, and the world’s peoples? What if I do just need to stop this peripatetic lifestyle and settle down somewhere instead? It feels like a relief to acknowledge the truth of that idea. But part of the hope and desire to be fit and well again is so that we can continue travelling all over Australia and New Zealand.
The morning after writing this Don had a clear, unbidden, and spontaneous vision of his lower spine being completely healed, and today, January 8th, he walked for about an hour without pain. Progress.
Despite our ongoing physical aches and pains and injuries, healing is slowly happening. These injuries are bumps along the road. The pain that forces us to look inward and discover the deepest truth about ourselves moment by moment is an integral part of the journey. Inner conflict is fine as long as it is not denied, as long as the feelings are not suppressed. We commit continually to the truth, to speaking our truth, to feeling what needs to be felt, so that nothing is bottled up or allowed to fester inside.
We still plan to go to New Zealand, just not at the time we originally intended. In some ways it will be better in that the school summer holidays will be over so it will be less expensive, and more accommodation will likely be available than at the height of the summer season.
We don’t feel it is time yet for us to stop travelling, but we do both feel it is time to start looking to the future when we will be ready to live a more settled life. For the first time we’ve talked about being more stable and spending the summers in Vancouver and the winters somewhere warm like Mexico or Central America or Australia. This was in part prompted by the discovery of the furnished cottage we are currently renting which proved to us that it is possible to find affordable centrally located accommodation even in one of the most expensive cities in the world. If we can do it in Canberra we can also do it in Vancouver. In the meantime we have travel plans in the works that will take us through until the end of this year – Australia and New Zealand until the end of April, May and June in Vancouver, most of July in Sweden, a two month jaunt through Eastern Europe and Greece, and back to Vancouver for the remainder of the year. By that time I have no doubt we’ll be ready to head somewhere a lot warmer than Vancouver in January. Brrrrrrrrr.
Photo of the day: In Weston Park, down by the lake, not more than fifteen minutes walk from one of Canberra’s inner suburbs, we found a ‘hop’ of kangaroos: about twenty or thirty of them of all ages. We spent an hour or more watching, slowly moving closer and closer until we were as close as about two metres.
Every now and then half a dozen or so would bound away. And then we’d move a bit, and they would all regroup, watching us, grazing, lazing in the grass, doing their kangaroo thing.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.