September 27th, 2012 | filed in News

Pinched Nerves are a Pain in the Neck (and Shoulder, Arm and Hand, too)

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how I am these days. It’s been over a month and a half since I posted anything official to this blog, and it’s long past time I told you the whole story. If you want to skip the gory details, the short version is I’m doing much, much better now. I’m in the final stages of healing, and I’m slowly creeping back to work. It’ll be some time yet before I’m back to full capacity, but I will get there eventually. Paradigm Shift isn’t going away, but it’s going to slow down in the short term.

This all began last summer when I began an extended period of writing. Over the years I’ve cultivated a habit of writing out my ideas and scripts in longhand on paper. I do this best when I’m out of the studio and away from the Internet so I can focus on my own thoughts instead of constantly being interrupted. I cultivated a habit of doing this on the couch in my living room. Before this year I would write in short bursts, maybe a week at a time every few months. However, this summer I was doing this for weeks at a time, hunched over my notepad, curled up with it on my knees and scribbling away.

Now, I’ve never been known for my posture, either. I think slouching is just something that comes naturally to cartoonists. Living in our own little worlds, we were always the ones who got picked last for kickball as children. A lack of self-confidence and slouching seem to go hand-in-hand at a young age. Unfortunately this also carries into adulthood, even after developing some actual skill and social ability, the slouching becomes ingrained. Over time the body actually adapts to it.

So, here I am, a natural sloucher, and then I finally get on a creative tear, writing away on the couch, when one day in June my hand starts to hurt. I think, “Hmmm, I must be writing too much with an ergonomically bad pen.” So I stop, take a break for the day and change pens. The pain subsides and the next day I go back to writing. Around this time I take a break from writing to pound out the last scene update for my self-imposed deadline for the beginning of July.

However, just a month later the pain comes back. I’ve also been noticing strange sensations in my arm here and there, but I’d been exercising several times a week (also a relatively new habit), and took it for using muscles I wasn’t used to using. Again I take a break, but it doesn’t go away. This was on the eve of Otakon, and now I scramble for ideas about what is going on. Did I sprain my wrist? Is it carpal tunnel? What is going on? I’m still on a creative streak, though, and so I work through the pain up until the eve of my departure for Baltimore, thinking that I’ll be getting a bit of a break during convention travels. It should subside when I get back.

Only it didn’t. Resting my arm only seemed to help a little, and on the drive back home to Boston, it really wasn’t doing any better, even though I was careful with it. I took a day off the day after I got home, thinking a full day of rest would help, but it didn’t. Even after taking a couple more days off that week didn’t help, and that’s when I wrote the first warning that the next update would be delayed. I resolved that if the pain didn’t go away over the weekend, I would go to the doctor.

Not only did the pain not go away that weekend, but when I went to go see “Dark Knight Rises” with some friends when I leaned back in my seat, my pinkie and ring finger went numb. That’s when I started to freak out. The next day I was visiting my doctor.

My diagnosis was “Cervical Radiculitis.”

In other words, a pinched nerve in the neck was causing the root of my Ulnar Nerve to become inflamed and provoke symptoms all the down my arm into my hand. The prognosis was good, but it involved painkillers, Physical Therapy and 6-8 weeks of recovery time.

As I stated in the “Medical Leave” post, the doctor ordered me to take the week off work, and I assumed I’d be back to it after the week was over. It didn’t turn out that way at all. Apparently damage to major nerves take awhile to heal, but that wasn’t the only factor. Not only did I need to give the nerve a break to recover, I had to retrain my body so I could hold my neck in the proper position so I wasn’t putting pressure on the nerve in the first place.

So, I have spent the last eight weeks trying to undo over thirty years of slouching, and it hasn’t been comfortable. I’ve spent my days sitting up straight, exercising three times a day, and resting horizontally. I couldn’t even lounge. I’ve been catching up on my reading, watching some premium TV via Netflix, but most of all — not working.

You might think the hardest part of all this would be dealing with the pain or the exercising, but that I could manage. It was the not working that threw me for a loop. I’ve spent the past 12 years working for myself, meeting deadlines, being in a constant rush, trying to achieve. Even when I took time off from work, my mind was in a constant buzz trying to figure out what my next step was going to be. Sometimes I would be planning out things in my mind that were weeks or months ahead.

And all of that came to a cold stop last month. It took weeks for me to spin down. To start paying attention to my body, listening for the signals that told me if I was holding myself in the right position. It took nearly two weeks before I started to notice the correlation between my neck position and the pain in my hand. From that point on, I was like a trained rat in a cage, getting an electric shock every time it reached for the cheese. If I put my neck in the wrong position: ZAP!

Needless to say, there was no working during all this. Not that I didn’t try. Even taking helpful suggestions to try using my left arm weren’t any help, because in the end it was my neck that was causing the problem. A couple times in front of the computer, trying to mouse around for a couple of hours left me flat on my back for days recovering from the pain. After doing this a few times I learned my lesson.

At first I comforted myself by watching TV I’d been meaning to catch up on. Getting hooked on “My Little Pony”, plowing through “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and finally going back to watch all of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” (still working on those). But finally I discovered some documentaries on Joseph Campbell, and before I knew it, I was in the mythology section at the library. Reading about comparative myths, Jung’s collective unconscious, and how psychology, myth and religion all tie together on a deep level.

All this reading and down time lead me to do some some serious contemplation about where I am in my life and career, about what it is I want to do going forward. I know that in some ways my career pushed me to this injury. Being so gung ho about chasing deadlines and appearing productive to an eager public blinded me not only the damage I was doing to my body, but to some dissatisfactions I’ve been feeling over the past few years. These are the same things I was wrestling with last spring when I took time off for the convention season and resorted to posting thumbnails.

The truth is I’m getting tired of doing webcomics. They’ve been an amazing way to start my career, but the fact is they are becoming increasingly incompatible with how I want to live my life. In some ways I lost sight of the original reasons why I was creating these stories in the first place. Somewhere along the way they ceased to be a joy and became a job. I’ve been running on a constant treadmill of updates and convention seasons, and suddenly I was only working to try to fulfill those outside expectations, and ignoring the increasing calls of dissatisfaction from within.

Now, this isn’t to say I’m going to stop drawing comics, let alone Paradigm Shift. However it does mean I need to honor that thing that keeps me creating. It may sound bizarre to someone who has never done the thing they love professionally, but when the need to make money starts robbing the original creative impulse of its soul, something is very wrong. In the end, if I am not creating my stories for the joy of it, I am doing it for the wrong reasons.

In some ways I was on the road to fixing all that this summer when I was doing all that writing on the couch, on a creative bender. And I’m confident that it is all still there in the back of my mind, waiting in the wings to take center stage again. However, I know that if I just go back to what I was doing before, it will only be a matter of time before another blow-out occurs, physically or mentally.

So, I am slowing down. My Physical Therapist has told me in no uncertain terms I can’t go back to doing what I was doing before. No more working long marathon sessions. No more writing on the couch. In short, many of the things that have defined how I work, I cannot do anymore if I wish to stay healthy. I need to find a new way of working that will allow me to pace myself, and it’s going to take some time.

Originally, I had planned to finish Part Four up this summer, exactly during the time when this injury occurred, with the hope of releasing a new book this fall. Clearly, this is not happening, now. I am going into a fall that has me booked for some travel and illustration work, not to mention trying to catch up on all the work that I could not do during my recovery period.

So instead, I’m going to work on PS as I can this fall, hopefully finishing Part Four this winter in time for a spring release. However, I’m not going to rush things. As much as the optimist in me would love to guarantee you regularly scheduled monthly updates like I’d hoped back in June, I can’t make you that promise right now.

I’m going to finish this book at my own pace. I’ll still post the scenes as I complete them, but I won’t know when they’re going up until they’re nearly done.

All I ask is that you be patient with me. Please don’t ask “When’s the next update coming?” because I don’t know that yet. I’m switching over to the Apple mode: no making announcements on anything until it’s ready for release. No more making promises I can’t keep.

Paradigm Shift isn’t going away, but it is changing into something new. The transition period might be painful in the short term, but like the recovery period I’ve just gone through, it will be worth it on the other end.

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16 Responses to “Pinched Nerves are a Pain in the Neck (and Shoulder, Arm and Hand, too)”

  1. Michele "Darth" Reznik says:

    I, for one, am really happy* for you Dirk. Change is intimidating but can be good! The major shifts you’ve taken already have brought you to new understanding and creative reawakening – I don’t think this one will be any different. Of course your health, above all, should be top priority.

    *totally not happy that you’re injured though. That sucks.

    • dirk says:

      Thanks, Michele. You got to talk to me during the period right in the middle of the creative bender, and believe me those ideas are still there. This has only reinforced the idea that I need to change how I’m doing things in order to move forward to a better place.

      Basically, short-term I’m going to focus less on product and results and more on simply reclaiming the joy of the process again. Of course, keeping in mind that breaks and changing up what I do over the course of the day to prevent future injuries, too.

  2. Tina says:

    Glad that you’re doing better now! I was thinking about how you haven’t been on twitter or anything much, just yesterday. I was hoping everything was okay.

    I think it’s great you’re working on this comic on your own time. It’s important to put your health before work. I had a rocky comic production time this year from health issues. It makes me feel guilty that I can’t get my updates on schedule, but in the long run taking care of yourself is more important.

    • dirk says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. I know you were put through the ringer last year. This was a much more invisible injury, but no less threatening in terms of career. It definitely forced me to do some in-depth thinking about where to go next.

      I’ve been avoiding Twitter and Facebook lately mostly because I didn’t feel like venting my frustrations to the world at large. I knew it was best to keep things quiet online and work through this with my friends and family instead. I know that the Internet prefers everyone to be a constant chatterbox, but in this case I knew it would only make things worse.

      My hope is that this will be a slow down in the near-term in order to reap greater creative rewards later on. Pacing is the key word, here.

  3. Lunaroki says:

    You do what you gotta do for you. Your fans are best served by looking out for yourself first. We’ll still be here, and if the updates aren’t as regular as before that’s just fine. If you have to slow things down and take things at the pace you can handle in order to preserve your health nobody’s gonna keel over from waiting for you. This is among the best webcomics out there and well worth waiting for. :)

    • dirk says:

      Thank you for understanding. While I’m technically finishing up the recovery process this week in terms of physical healing, it will still be a couple of weeks before I’m really back to work for real again.

      I’m in the process of reorganizing my studio to help avoid repetitive stress, as recommended by my therapist, and to toss out a bunch of stuff that’s accumulated over the years. And next week I’m going to be traveling to Ohio and West Virginia for family reasons and to attend Tsubasacon to do some guest speaking. Once I’m back in October I’ll be getting back to the swing of things again.

  4. ChineseWolf says:

    Anyway it’s good that you recovered. We will wait for the next update (RSS is useful).
    By the way, you say you will change PS into someting new, please don’t tell me that you’ll turn Mike into a vampire. Or even worse, a totally tragedy.

    • dirk says:

      No worries, there. When I say PS is going to change I mean in terms of format, not storytelling or content. This is beginning of a transition to treating it more like a book series than a webcomic series. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it, yet, but figuring out a new working method and finishing Part Four are the first steps.

  5. W. says:

    I am very glad you’re on the road to recovery! I understand completely about turning a hobby into a job and then somewhat regretting it. You have to listen to your muse and to heck with the rest. I know I’ll wait around and it was nice to see you on my feed again. Do take care of yourself and I’ll see ya when I see ya on the internets!

  6. GregC says:

    Glad you’re recovering! Fortunately technology has advanced to where it’s not as necessary to feed the scheduling beast.

  7. Beth says:

    The best stories are always worth waiting for. Absolutely, take care of yourself, avoid mental or physical burnout. Your creative endeavors will be better for it, your fans will get a richer experince through your work, and your quality of life will improve. Everyone will be better for it! Know that many of your readers are supportive and patient; we’ll be here when you are ready and able to post the next segment. :) Thank you for all that you do.

  8. Mark V says:

    Glad to hear you’re on the mend!

  9. msouth says:

    Dictation software has come a long way. I am shocked at how well whatever android uses for it works on my phone, for example. I tried it on a whim not expecting it to be able to get 50% accuracy, and I was blown away (which doesn’t mean it was perfect, but that it was way better than a not-ready-for-prime-time toy like I thought it would be).

    I think you could do it lying completely flat or whatever. That is, if all you were doing was script. If it included storyboard sketch then that’s probably why you’ve already thought of it and rejected it. :)

    I love the comic, and if I have to wait a year for the next installment, I will do so, and I will just be glad you did it.

    You do, of course, have the awesomest fans in the world, after all.

    • dirk says:

      Thankfully, I have no need of dictation software. The wireless keyboard seems to be doing the trick. Mostly this is more about pacing myself and being careful about how I work from here on out. I’m mostly healed now, but I have to be careful to keep from re-injuring myself now.

      • DinkyInky says:

        You’re art is amazing, and I have enjoyed reading your tale thus far. I’m glad you are following friends, family, and doctors advice, and that you are well on the road to recovery.

        Old habits die hard, and it only takes a minute to bring it all back(taken from years of experience). Take your time off and enjoy it. I agree with the “if it’s feeling like a job, stop doing it and reorganize/prioritize everything until you love it again”. We have the drive/muse, and sometimes it pushes us farther than we dreamed, sometimes more than we ourselves are aware of, or want/need.
        Well-drawn art, well-told story; that is the difference between the mediocre talent, & those that are great. Your art is worth the wait, and if the fans do not think so, well, there are other comics a tenth as good with ludicrous update systems that they can scour for a fix. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from your muse in the future. It’s definitely worth the wait.

        Being a painter, and an artist(though nowhere near your scale) of varying formats, that has creative ideas I write down on spur of the moment at 4 am all the time, I’ve experienced similar injury years ago. I second the vote for VRS. I use Dragon for my Windows machines(because I can’t set Linux up for it…yet.), and it saves hours of pain from me rattling off ideas in the middle of the night. Wireless made it less of an issue, but if you forget and sit wrong just for a minute or three, the result lasts for days.

        Sorry for the wallotext.

  10. TheBig1 says:

    Take all the time you need, any “fan” asking for timely updates is simply shortsighted, we love your work and we want to enjoy it for years and years to come, so take care of your health first!
    As for the “Apple mode” (no making announcements on anything until it’s ready for release) I personally prefer the Blizzard way: hint and tease all you want, but when asked for a release date, simply answer “it’s done when it’s done” ;)

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