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How Repetitive Strain Injuries Almost Ended My Career…and How I’m Recovering

Molly McCowan Business Storytelling Leave a Comment

In late June 2017, after working a 70-hour week and pulling multiple all-nighters to finish two huge copyediting projects, my hands suddenly became so red-hot painful that even thinking about typing on a keyboard triggered waves of nausea.

Within a few days of initially noticing the pain and tightness in my hands, wrists, and arms, I couldn’t hold a toothbrush to brush my teeth. The bones in my hands felt bruised, and they hurt so much that I didn’t even know what to do with them when I sat down—laying them on my legs hurt. Holding them out in front of me hurt. Crossing my arms hurt.

I couldn’t wash my own hair. I couldn’t brush my dog or hold her Flexi-leash, which suddenly felt incredibly heavy. I couldn’t pick up a pot of water to boil pasta, or use a knife to chop lettuce. I had trouble opening doors. I couldn’t drive because gripping the steering wheel, especially while turning, hurt. I couldn’t even hold up a book to read because keeping my elbows bent that tightly caused shooting nerve pain and numbness.

Using my cell phone became difficult and painful, and got to the point where I would mentally count how many times I would have to touch the screen in order to call or text someone, and decide if it was worth the pain. Each tap on the screen felt like a sharp nail being driven up into my finger.

This also (of course!) happened while my husband was out of town for two weeks on a business trip. I had to call friends and family members to bring me groceries and help me do basic things around the house. I relied on my editorial mastermind group—two wonderful colleagues—to help me figure out what to do with my current projects and the clients who had booked me out for months.

It was my worst nightmare come true: I’d always been a fiercely independent person, and my business was incredibly important to me. I worried that clients would be angry and upset, adding even more stress to an already overwhelming situation. I worried that this would mean the end of my company, and that I’d have to shut everything down for good. I worried that my career was over, and that I’d have to figure out a completely new path.

All that worrying, predictably, did not help me feel better. My stress levels went through the roof, and by the time my husband came home from his trip, I had sunk into a thick fog of depression.

I hated the financial stress that I was putting my family through. I hated the fact that my husband had to take on so much of the burden, both financially and at home. But more than anything, I hated feeling useless. Work was my life; I had poured everything I had into my business. It was how I could be helpful, of service, and in one fell swoop it was taken away from me.

The Long Road to Recovery

The first few weeks after my hands “collapsed” were some of the most stressful, painful weeks of my life, but I was lucky to have an amazing network of people who supported me and helped me through it.

Fellow editors stepped up and offered to subcontract projects. Neighbors offered to walk my Shetland sheepdog, Rosie. My wonderful, close-knit writing group offered moral support and understood when I went into “turtle mode,” as I called it, to focus on my recovery.

And you know what? Thinking about what would happen if worst came to worst and I did have to find a new career path forced me to confront some of my greatest fears and realize that they weren’t really so bad. If I absolutely had to find a new career, I could do it. What was more important to me than work? What had I neglected during my years of focusing too much on my business?

My marriage, for one. My friendships, for another. My hobbies had also been thrown out the window. And for what? Nothing. My perfectionism and workaholism had driven me into the ground and nearly taken everything from me.

Now, I vow never to go back to that life.

My New Normal

A little over a year into the recovery process, I still have my ups and downs. I’m recently able to work on a computer for more than five hours a day, which is huge for me, and has allowed me to return to the work I love (hooray!).

I still have bad days where I worry about the future and get frustrated that my hands still hurt and throb and burn when I push them too hard. But they’re bouncing back faster, and my pain level is a fraction of what it was a year ago.

Computer work is still the most challenging activity for me. Washing dishes and handling heavy pots and pans can also be hard, but it’s doable now. And I’m excited to finally return to one of my favorite hobbies: fly fishing. (Next up, hopefully in a few months? Playing electric bass again.)

Making Friends with Fear

Repetitive strain injuries this severe never completely go away, and I would be lying if I said that doesn’t make me sad, and scared. Fear and I have gotten very close over the past year. If I can’t trust my hands to be on my side, to function and allow me to do the work I love (and earn an income with), what can I trust?

My therapist recently compared this to an earthquake. After a serious earthquake, you lose trust that the ground beneath you is solid. And if you can’t trust the ground to be solid, what else can’t you trust?

Partially losing the function of my hands was my earthquake, and I’m still not sure if I’ll ever regain 100 percent of my former trust in them. I still get scared that if I take one misstep, do a little too much work, the quake will hit all over again. And while that’s somewhat true, I’m learning to live with, and quell, the fear. I’m learning to gain back trust that my hands are on my side, that they won’t betray me.

Moving Forward

I recognize the positive aspects of my injuries, too. They’ve (finally) forced me to have better work–life balance by physically stopping me from overworking. And let’s be honest—this was probably the only way I was ever going to learn that by working myself to death, I was turning my back on everything else in life.

My injuries have taught me that work, while still hugely important to me, is not the most important thing. I’ve had the time I needed to rediscover what I want, and to devote more attention to the relationships I’d been neglecting. I try to make more time for hobbies now, which makes me happier overall. I’m also doing a lot more teaching, coaching, and public speaking, which I absolutely love, and I’m only taking on editing projects I know I’ll enjoy.

Thank you for your caring messages, support, and love during what has been one of the most difficult years of my life. I’m so happy to be getting back to work, but I’m also being much more careful, and realistic, about my time management. My hands are my greatest asset in this—if I listen to them, they’ll tell me what I need. And I’m getting a lot better at listening to, and honoring, myself.

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Cover photo courtesy of DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University on Flickr.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.