Goodbye April

I haven’t had the opportunity to post here, however I hadn’t realized that it was over a month since posting something substantial. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything different going on in my life, so much as that, upon reflection, perhaps I’m spending a bit more time seeking comfort where I need it.

I got back into a martial art that I started before the pandemic, called baguazhang, or simply bagua (pron. bahg-wah). It’s a little idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream forms like karate, taekwondo or BJJ. I’d say it’s somewhere between what we in the West call “kung fu” (external) and tai chi (internal). Let’s just say there’s a lot of walking in circles. That said, I needed something that allowed me to move/train my body in a way that was different than going to the gym or distance running, which can feel static. Bagua is anything but static. Also, crucially, the very place that teaches it is literally across the street from my office in Chinatown. It centres me and its choreography is demanding enough without the more wild kung fu-style kicks etc. It’s also nice to do this with other people — something I was also sorely needing (ie a form of socializing that wasn’t chatting with someone at a pub)

I also started Book Four (I know, I know), which is coming along. I can’t really say much about it because it’s very early, however I’m liking its shape. What’s funny is that my previous long-form entry here was about not wanting to be stuck with Author/Psychotherapist in publicity material…and yet the protagonist of Book Four is exactly that. It’s also nice working on a book where the protagonist is a woman. Radioland had two protagonists — male and female — and The Society of Experience had an intermittent female narrative in the form of Seneca’s diaries, however I’m looking forward to keeping things female this time around. Book Three is in revision-mode now, for the last round I think.

I’m trying to keep myself informed of what’s going on in the world, but the world is too big and there’s too much. I think the curse of social media is that there are so many perspectives on so many things that it can be paralyzing to even log-in some days, so currently I’m not. I’m very thankful that I re-subscribed to the London Review of Books this past summer because their coverage of what’s happening in Gaza is extensive and authoritative, without the self-censorship or bad faith arguments that have poisoned coverage of this conflict in much of the mainstream media. I’m not a prolific magazine subscriber, however I can’t help but think of how lucky I felt when I happened to subscribe to Harper’s just prior to the towers falling on 9/11, the drums beating towards a disastrous war. Reading informed, well-written arguments isn’t going to stop the worst of humanity from manifesting, but at least I can form my opinion from a source that isn’t compromised by a fear of spooking advertisers or an editor casting a dark shadow over someone’s shoulder.

Yes, and reading. Lots of reading. Let’s see…Labyrinths (a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays), Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which is fabulous), The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton and Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World by Cris Shore and Susan Wright.

I hope this finds you well.


Pain, pt. 3

So, according to the chiropractor I was referred to, I have an irritated disc [“subacute grade III mechanical low back (irritation of the L5/S1 disc, affecting the L5 nerve root on the left”)]. It’s nice having an answer. It’s also nice to hear that, contrary to what my impatience tells me, I’m doing very well (though I’d leave out the “…for your age” part, ahem). Basically, she said to keep doing what I’m doing and give it time.

The pulled Achilles is slowly healing. Ironically, though it didn’t stop me from running that 8K race, it does prevent me from doing my baguazhang forms due to the crouching stance required.

In the meantime, the weather is warming up, my winter coat is spending most of its time unused.

Again: give it time.


Pain, pt. 2

The short version: it turns out that what I have isn’t piriformis syndrome.

The long version is that if it were piriformis syndrome it would be gone by now. The pain has been alleviated greatly, but there is an odd pattern to the soreness, and overall it’s overstaying its welcome. I’m inclined to believe my TCM clinician when he suggests it’s a herniated lumbar disc. This would explain the prolonged condition, as well as how the pain is activated by any unhealthy sitting that messes with my spine’s alignment.

So, I need to be patient. This is new territory for me.

The good news is that I was able to take part in the Spring Run-Off 8K in High Park — something I’d signed up for a couple of months ago. I was prepared to sit it out (albeit miserably), however I felt good enough to take part, so long as I kept my target limited to crossing the finish line vs achieving any particular run time. In the end I crushed my expectations and pulled off a solid performance for someone who hasn’t run in weeks (and didn’t injure anything in the process).

The bad news is that, the day before the race, I was stepping off a sidewalk to cross the street at a light when I pulled/tore something in the heel of my right foot. This would be the Achilles tendon. Luckily, as running goes, I’m not a heel-striker, so it didn’t bother me on race day (now that would have been a cruel reason to cancel). That said, I have yet another part of me to rehab.



I have this weird, recurring thing. It starts with a dull soreness in my left glute, kinda like someone kicked it the day before and it feels bruised. Then, in a day or so, an odd stiffness and soreness stretching from the glute all the way down the back of my left leg, going down to my ankle. Within a day or so it reaches the zenith of its pathology: pain.

Two weeks ago yesterday I tried getting out of bed. I swung my legs over to the side of the mattress, and between that everyday action and my feet touching the floor I became a crumbled mess, bent over in agony. I was in so much pain I was crying. I was unable to stand. I was unable to sit. I was unable to do anything without experiencing the sort of intense, unrelenting pain that makes you realize in seconds why anyone would unhesitatingly reach for opiates.

What I have goes by two names: pseudo sciatica, or piriformis syndrome. The sciatic nerve travels from the spine and down the leg where it provides sensation to the skin of the foot and the lower leg. Unlike classic sciatica which involves irritation of the nerve from the spine via a disc, what I got is caused by the irritation via the piriformis muscle — something you’ve likely never hear of, but it’s a band of muscle in the core of your glutes. If the piriformis is aggravated it can bother the sciatic nerve in a similar way to classic sciatica. [Update: please see the follow-up post]

I’ve described the pain to people as like having your hamstring replaced with razor wire. It’s actually worse, because of how the pain “glows” all through the leg. At its worst, the pain cuts through your thoughts, your feelings. It takes priority over everything. It doesn’t care if you are happy or if you had plans to go somewhere that day. I’m always humbled by how quickly physical pain cuts through everything, taking priority, and how it terrorizes me with its power. I end up impatient with others, downright angry 24/7. I catastrophize: this is never going to end, I’m going to be like this forever.

I can afford physiotherapy, which makes me lucky. I don’t have health benefits because I’m self-employed, so anything not covered by provincial health care comes out of my wallet. I immediately checked myself into a physio clinic and I remember being furious: this again. This being physio. Physiotherapy (and related physical therapies) is something I have a good deal of experience with and I never hesitate to recommend it to people; the irony is that when I find myself being forced to return to physio it feels as if I’ve failed at something. Something tells me I’ve been irresponsible, which is silly.

Piriformis syndrome can happen to people who sit a lot. While I’m one of the most physically active people I know (I walk to work every day, I go to the gym, I run, I practice baguazhang) my job as a psychotherapist means I’m sitting for an hour at a time. Piriformis syndrome also prefers distance runners, which makes me a prime candidate.

For the last two weeks I’ve been doing physio exercises three times a day, combined with visits to a clinic, combined with acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Progress was very, very slow. The last time I had this it lasted all of a week or so, and I was able to work it out on my own with stretching and massage. This time it’s been remarkably more painful and long-lasting.

Yesterday, on the two week anniversary of not being able to stand out of bed, it felt like something had subtly changed. My mobility felt more easy, I didn’t have the feeling like I couldn’t extend my lower leg when I was walking on the sidewalk doing errands. I stayed outside, pushing myself a little, forcing myself to stay active. Today, for the first time in many weeks (partly because of the terrible weather we’ve had) I was able to practice ba gua outside on our terrace. I nearly cried.

My relationship with physical exercise is a personal one. It allows me to connect with my body. It is embodied movement, whether it’s running a 10K circuit or doing ape offers fruit. I’ve gone two weeks without any chance of significant exercise, and so the things that gave me internal relief — running, baguazhang, gym — were off-limits, which in turn made me miserable, feeling imprisoned.

I suppose I’m sharing this because it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the relationship between body and mental health. How it directly affects my spirit. The pain is slowly receding, I have my mobility, and I know that soon I’m going to be able to run outside and feel better. But my experience pales beside anyone with chronic pain, and I am humbled when I consider anyone who has to go through life under such conditions, be they due to injury or living conditions. Not to mention the fact that, when this has passed, I will have spent hundreds of dollars on physical therapies that many cannot access.