On piano bars, support systems and fellowship

Surgery was not the only lifeline for me after a potentially career-ending injury


“I’ve got friends in looow places, where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away, and I’ll be OK … ”

If you’ve ever been in a piano bar, or heck, any bar, you’ve probably sung that song ... badly. Or maybe the tune you were butchering was “You never even called me by my name,” or perhaps “Sweet Caroline.” It’s like a campfire singalong at summer camp, only with adults in their forties. And alcohol. And the excessively peppy camp counselor who keeps it all going has mad improvisational skills and plays the piano.

Now that my voice is no longer hoarse and my CHECK LIVER light has gone out, I’ve had time to reflect on the larger meaning of such shenanigans, and it’s more than just blowing off steam and behaving in a way our wiser selves would warn us against. It’s about fellowship, and connecting, and it’s something we’ve had precious little of in the past 18 months or so.

"It’s only when I recognize the behavior pattern for what it is that I make myself get out of that damned chair and go live again. I may have to fake it until I make it, but soon enough, I’m not faking it anymore," Grayson writes.

I’ve written in this column before about my depression, and the coping strategies that help me control my mental illness rather than let it control me. I remind myself that happiness is often a choice, as simple as focusing on the things that bring me joy and ignoring the things that bring me down, and I go out and do those things – things that my depression whispers in my ear that I’m too tired, or broke or busy to do.

I’ll tell you a secret: I’m actually an introvert, I just play an extrovert on the internet and at EMS conferences. I don’t “people” well. But despite being an introvert, too much self-isolation is bad for my mental health. Eventually, I find myself sitting in my chair, isolated and unproductive, with half a dozen overdue columns or articles open on my laptop.

It’s only when I recognize the behavior pattern for what it is that I make myself get out of that damned chair and go live again. I may have to fake it until I make it, but soon enough, I’m not faking it anymore.

Except, from August through early November, I couldn’t go do those things that help with my depression. After a canoeing trip in late July, I began to experience a burning sensation in my left shoulder and arm, my fingertips were numb, and I was rapidly losing strength in my left hand and arm. An MRI revealed a herniated C5-C6 disc, and even more ominously, significant compression of my spinal cord itself. My hips began burning, and my gait became affected. I couldn’t walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway without excruciating pain.

The neurosurgeon used words like “career-ending condition” and “congenital spinal stenosis” before he threw me the lifeline of a less-common corrective surgery. It was the first time since high school that the word “skinny” was used to describe me, except, unfortunately, he was referring to my spinal canal. He immediately forbade me to drive, work on an ambulance or lift anything heavier than a coffee cup until I had cervical arthroplasty. I was relegated to my chair again – even sleeping in it – for three months.

Goodbye hunting.

Goodbye shooting.

Goodbye jet-skiing.

Goodbye hiking.

“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again … ”

It was even harder on my fiancée than it was on me. Nancy is the polar opposite of me; she’s a social butterfly who doesn’t have to fake being an extrovert. It’s hard enough for her to be stuck in a house with an occasionally depressed, self-isolating paramedic who is perfectly content saying nothing to the woman sitting next to him for hours at a time – only now she can’t prod the morose, silent paramedic into getting out of his funk because he’s an invalid.

And an angry invalid, because his self-worth has been destroyed. He can’t even earn a paycheck, and getting out of the chair requires help. All he can do is eat, sleep, watch television … and get angrier.

Finding the safe space

Thankfully, surgery was the lifeline I needed, and I awoke the next day with no pain in my shoulder and arm. Within two weeks, I was totally asymptomatic and looking forward to being physically capable again. I could begin to dig out of my hole, but it wasn’t until I went to an EMS conference the week before Thanksgiving that I realized what a huge part of my support system had been missing.

That’s you people.

Isolation, even when necessary to blunt a pandemic, is not good for the human animal. Even connecting virtually cannot meet that need. Zoom meetings suffice to impart information, but they have no heart. Increasingly, social media seems to divide us more than it unites us.  We are social creatures, and we can accomplish far greater things in concert than we can on our own.

And speaking at EMS conferences, hanging out at hotel bars and sharing war stories, overeating at restaurants – “Grayson, party of 14!” – singing and drinking at piano bars until we’re hoarse and tipsy, has been that human connection that even an introvert like me needs to survive. You see, there’s a secret about introverts that you may not know: when they’re in a safe space, with people they know and trust, they can and will cut loose like anybody else. The problem is finding the safe space.

I’m extremely blessed that I have such a safe space in this column, at EMS conferences and shooting events; places where I can just be Kelly, not Ambulance Driver. We all need that, and I’ll do whatever we must do to make that commonplace and safe again. So, as you gather again with family and friends these holidays, take a moment to be grateful for the connection you have with them, because it’s important.

Perhaps more now than ever before.

Listen for more

In this emotional episode of the Inside EMS podcast, cohost Kelly Grayson talks through his emotions as he prepares for surgery and what navigating the disability process has been like. 

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