I’m lying on a bench with electrodes strapped to my elbow and neck. A weird, low-level current oozes into me, feeling like something between a tickle and an electric shock.
“This will break up the scar tissue and the chemicals in the neck and elbow,” says the latest physiotherapist.
In three days I’ve seen four “ists” to try and fix my pain – or rather, two types of pain – a neck and shoulder injury, and tennis elbow in my “writing arm”.
A chiropractor cracked my neck (no warning, he was behind me gently cupping my head when suddenly ARGHHHHH), and didn’t even charge me because it took only five minutes and was “fun”. Fun for him.
A massage therapist spent an hour on my right shoulder, grunting and straining as if he was breaking rocks. Before he even got to my arm, the hour was up.
A physiotherapist put his too-cold hands on a spot on my neck and pressed and jabbed for a while, like an impatient man waiting at a pedestrian crossing for the lights to change.
And now this second physiotherapist is treating my injuries with a hectic combination of electricity, an ice pack (elbow), heat pack (neck) and massage.
“You’ve got the posture of a 70-year-old!” he tells me. “Look at you! You’re hunched over as if you’re looking at a screen! Pull your head in!”
I realise he means this literally, not just metaphorically. I pull my head in. Ugh … chins.
This clinic is full of people like me – people whose bodies have marked the end of lockdown by completely breaking down.
In the first few weeks of Covid, the physio tells me, “It was DEAD! I thought I was FINISHED!” He is yelling at me from another room, as I receive the electricity and he is microwaving wheat bags.
“I mean no one is going out, so no one is falling off their skateboards or injuring themselves playing footy or twisting their ankles while running!”
“Then people like YOU COME IN!” He turns the dial on the electricity up.
He dials it back. “All you work-from-home people! YOU’RE NOT SET UP PROPERLY!”
Instead of sports injuries, he’s been flooded with dodgy backs, tennis elbows, crook necks, misaligned jaws, RSI and sciatica.
“People have been WORKING FROM BED!” says the physio with disgust.
I do not tell him I have been working from bed.
“One man went from working in an office, with a proper desk, TO WORKING FROM BED ON HIS STOMACH!”
This is a bigger shock than the electricity. How can anyone work lying down on their stomach? Did this guy take Zoom meetings, on his bed, while lying on his stomach?
“I know! I know! It’s crazy – and now his back is wrecked!”
My right arm is wrecked. The physio says I’ve got tennis elbow. It’s almost impossible to type for more than a couple of minutes without pain radiating down my arm and up to my shoulder.
While I did work from bed during lockdown (which definitely caused the neck problem), I also played tennis every day.
Could the culprit of my tennis elbow actually be … tennis?
I am meant to be playing tennis in a few days. “Can I still play tennis with this injury?”
The physio raises his voice, but slows his speech, like he is talking to the most stupid person in the world. “NO YOU CANNOT PLAY TENNIS AS YOU HAVE TENNIS ELBOW.”
I do not tell him my suspicion. This is not a tennis injury – it’s a curse.
I’m in Sydney to start writing a book on Stoicism with my friend Andrew.
The day before my injury, and the day before we are meant to start work on the book, we go for a long walk along the cliffs and discuss our process.
“Is there anything that you have trepidation about?” I ask Andrew.
He nods: “As you’re a journalist and used to writing every day, you’ll be a faster writer than me, and I won’t be able to keep up.”
We are sitting on some rocks, staring out to sea. In the distance are people running along the path.
I reassure him: “We’ll be like those runners. I’ll be the fit one, and you’ll start as the unfit one, and in order to keep up with my pace, you’ll be forced to write faster. It will be painful for you at first, but you’ll get there.”
I’ve never been the “fit one” (I’ve always been at the back of the pack), so I revel in the imagery of this analogy.
The next morning I wake up and my arm is dead. Literally … It has died. I cannot use it. I try to text but there is no strength in my forearm or wrist. Normally I would assume I’d had a stroke, but my arm is throbbing with pain.
I wonder if out on the rocks, Andrew put some sort of curse on me. The problem of me being a faster writer has been solved by disabling my writing arm.
I can’t even text him to tell him to lift the curse. I send a video message instead: “My arm doesn’t work anymore. I HAVE A DEAD ARM! Now I can’t type AT ALL. Did YOU DO THIS TO ME SOMEHOW?? So, yeah, you will be a faster writer than me after all.”
All week I try for workarounds.
I dictate notes for the book but Google dictation turns the Roman orator Cato to Keto, the low-carb diet. Slave-turned-Stoic teacher, Epictetus, becomes “epic tennis”.
Epic tennis. The whole thing is like a cosmic joke.
Each day I get more treatment. I practise the Stoic technique of negative visualisation where I imagine instead of having the annoying, low-level painful and inconvenient injury of tennis elbow, I’ve had my arm violently pulled off at the shoulder after my hand got caught in a wheat thresher. It could always be worse, according to the Stoics.
I stop typing altogether. I rest. I get treatment. I start drifting off when electric shocks are applied to my broken right side. I imagine a different origin story for the injury: it’s not because I was working from bed, or playing lots of tennis, or because Andrew put a curse on me – instead maybe my arm subconsciously felt compassion for my friend being a slower writer than me, and so stopped working so he would be able to catch up.
Instead of setting a cracking pace, I sit on those rocks and rest.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist