Beyond Adversity – New Nonfiction by Connie Larson

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction

Chapter 1: Twenty Years

I wanted to be back on the deck by the water’s edge, sitting there watching the flaming sun cast mirrors on the water – watch it disappear leaving us quiet in the vapor of dusk. Where was I? How many years had passed? I wanted to run from this place.

The neurologist, Dr. Watson was a tall, slim man. Strong intelligent features, in his late sixties, with pampered hands. He was soft spoken and straight to the point after formal introductions.

“What brings you here today?”

“I guess it’s been a year now, I developed this pain in my side.” Jim lifted his right arm and placed his hand over an area stretching along his rib cage. His hands were large. Football hands. His fingers round and firm like cigars. At fifty-six years old, he was in his prime – blue eyes, determined jaw, and impressively strong.

“Have you seen anyone about it?”

“Our doctor had us see a specialist about four months after it began. That was over a year ago. Originally, I thought it was a pulled muscle, but it just wouldn’t go away, and then the pain changed from burning to this needle sensation. It has affected my sleep to the point where I’m thinking Connie might want to leave me. I’m not very pleasant to be around.”  

“And what did the specialist, I assume neurologist, say about that?” He picked up a pen and slid a blank page towards him on the smooth dark surface of his oversized wooden desk.

“He didn’t do any sort of tests, but said I must have had shingles, and because I had left it without being treated had developed a condition called…” Jim shook his head slightly trying to remember.

“Post herpetic neuralgia,” I offered. I found myself frequently finishing his sentences, the silence of his struggling, tired mind, unbearably embarrassing. 

“Connie started looking on the internet and your name came up as being an authority of post herpetic neuralgia. Our doctor was happy to give us a referral to see you.” 

“Well, let’s take a look, shall we?” White outer jacket bristled with professionalism. “Jim, can you just slip off your shirt.”

As Jim removed his shirt, he inhaled a large breath. It was obvious that his pain centre was stimulated. He had so often described it to me – a volley of needles when the area was lightly touched. He had depicted it as each thread of the garment having a wasp stinger, spreading the venom intensely just below the surface of his skin.

The neurologist continued his exam. More questions. More information. 

“I’m sure lack of sleep is causing you additional problems. The reason that something like this occurs is usually an injury or a viral infection. I’m not certain it is post-herpetic neuralgia.” He looked at Jim expectantly.

“No. I didn’t hurt myself. I’ve been hurt plenty in sports. If I had hurt myself seriously, there would have been intense pain at the time. I’ve woken up lots from a sprain, a tear, or a bruise. I know what it’s like.”

“I’ve seen similar conditions. Many of them caused by radical mastectomies on women. If this is neuralgia, perhaps we will never know the cause.” He paused, carefully choosing his words. “Some patients just wake up one day and the pain is gone. I have some patients that I have been treating for over twenty years. We can moderate the pain level through pain medication.”

Twenty years. His words hung in the air, flashing neon TWENTY. It represented practically the rest of our supposedly best years.

This reality can’t exist, can it? We live on a remote island in northern Canada. We experienced falling through the ice, getting lost, being chased by wolves – things that threaten our survival. I had found my way, so many times along a path that proved I could bend, topple and grow roots again like the trees that clung to the shoreline. Surely this must be a mistake. Like so many mistakes I have made in my life it can be corrected by a turn of the dial.

Chapter 2: The Sentence

“What about operating?” I refused to believe that Jim would be like this for twenty years. He would never agree to take drugs of any kind.  

“I’m a neurologist, not a neurosurgeon. Operating on nerves has a high probability that damage can occur. I wouldn’t recommend it. You cut off a nerve and the response is the same as you are dealing with right now. It sends constant injury signals to the brain.”

“The pain medication. What is it?” Jim appeared very irritated; his best snarl hung on his lips.

“Oxycontin. A moderate dose to start. Combined with Gabapentin, which in combination has shown the best results for treating neuralgia. Likely Oxycodone for any breakthrough pain you experience.”

“Those are very addictive substances are they not?” 

I knew where Jim was going with this question. We had talked lots about drugs and even alcohol. His professional sports training and young brother who tragically died from a heroin addiction was enough reason for Jim to loath substance abuse.  

“They are addictive, but not in the same sense as use for recreational purposes. A narcotic like Oxycontin when taken for pain such as yours will mean a reduction of your pain, and nothing more, unless you continue to take it after the pain is gone. You won’t have urges to increase the drug, but over time the drug will be less effective. If you were to go off the drug, you would require assistance. You wouldn’t be an addict, in the true sense at least, with a highly dependent state of mind. You’ve never had dependency issues with alcohol or drugs before. Is my assumption correct?”

“True. If any thing I would be opposed to over-indulging in any form.”  

I was amazed that Jim could say it that mildly. I was certain he had the same images as I; the withdrawal; the methadone clinic; being treated like an addict; becoming one.

“The drug would not pose a problem for you. As I said, I would start you with a moderate dosage. Some of my patients take up to 240 mg per day, while you will be taking 60 mg per day. Because of your sports background, you have a very high pain threshold. I would say that your pain is quite a bit higher than you claim.”

“What about affecting life expectancy?”  

I could see that Jim was in a lot of pain. He pushed his elbow and arm into his side, providing pressure on the nerves for some relief. At least momentarily, he seemed to be open to the idea of getting help through medication.  

“There are no recorded changes to life expectancy in the tests that have been done in the past twenty years. Opiates are considered very successful for long term treatment of pain.”

“What about side effects?”

We were out of place – the city, the traffic, the noise, the lights, vibrations, shocking reality of a different kind. Let us go home to the island. We do not belong here. We do not belong in this reality. It is not ours. We will not accept this place – this existence does not belong to us.

Chapter 3: Denial

We filled the first prescription at the pharmacy on the first floor of the cornerstone. We did it in silence. We were scared. Both of us were experiencing a type of shock. We had suffered a tough year, unbearable at times. We had hope when we finally got this appointment. The neurologist was one of the best in North America. With several months in anticipation of seeing the specialist, we had predicted a better outcome.  

I felt sick inside, that nauseous fear that I had not felt in a long time – creeping into my stomach, making my hands tremble like I had hypoglycemia. I turned to our instinctual strengths as humans for survival. I turned to a part of my brain that denied a bad outcome, a forever bad outcome, an outcome I could not emotionally handle. I turned to sweeter days.

The sweeter days – the days of love and life and laughter – the days waking up to an eastern shore in the distance – of majestic pines – of tranquil sapphire waters – of blazing burnt orange sunsets – diving into the waters in the middle of a hot summer night amidst an explosive sky of blinking stars. Easy times, with sweat dripping from strong bodies.

Several hours later we lay back on the king size bed at the airport hotel. For the first time in a year, Jim felt relief from his pain. The Oxycontin and Gabapentin had provided almost instant relief. He did not appear to be high. He was simply relaxed, a slight smile on his lips, a calm on the muscles of his face that I had not seen in many months. He stopped telling me about the dismal realities I needed to face. Best of all, he noticed me as the person that he loved, and not the person who seemed to agitate him on a daily basis. He made love to me with every cell in his body responding, openly and freely with tenderness and absolute joy. We were back to sweeter days.

Chapter 4: Subtle Signs

It seemed a long time, a period of calm, of time when life seems to be in perfect harmony. 

It was a typical summer day. The beauty of the lake with the slightest ripple, a deep cobalt blue, the cutting edge of the boat bow sending a spray of diamonds. I was excited to get home after working at the local fishing resort, throw on a bathing suit and rid myself of the day’s events. I could not find Jim in the cabin. His little work boat was tied up in the boathouse, so I knew he was somewhere close. I yelled for him but got no answer. Sekima, our Alaskan Malamute was not letting on like he knew anything. The likelihood was that he would be in his carving studio, a small building independent from our cabin.  

There he was sitting upright in an old plaid armchair of my dad’s. Very asleep with jaw hanging slightly open, hands still clasping a carving knife and a half-detailed screech owl. I stood there for a moment looking at him; I finally got it. This one subtle sign became obvious and my unconscious released all the buried and obscure messages in a volley. The shortness of breath, the lack of energy, the nodding off before dinner, and the disconnection from me. The drugs.

I dove right in to regret it. “Hey, what are you doing?”  

He shook his head slightly, annoyed. “What does it look like?”

“It’s 5:30. How long have you been sleeping here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well what time did you get home?”

“This afternoon, early.”

He got angry at me. The way a person does that is woken from a deep sleep, not wanting to stir from the dream world. But once he knew I was onto him, we talked for a long time. He had been hiding from me. This was a common occurrence. Coming home early, falling asleep. Could not stay awake. Did not really care. Knew the drugs were poisoning his life. Had to get off the drugs.

There was a whole lot of sadness that I released that day. No matter how much I had tried to push through, and pretend our lives were okay, it wasn’t true. At a deep level, I knew we were in trouble. Jim had known for a lot longer than I. We both just wanted things to go back to what they use to be, and that was never going to happen. We were raw and bleeding, but we made a pack. He was going to slowly remove the Gabapentin from his medication. He believed it was the cause for his lack of energy, tiredness, and weakness. We were going to start looking for alternatives. We were both going to stay awake.

I wished that I had seen the subtle signs, but it was already too late.

Chapter 5: Isolation

The days of control of our lives seemed so long ago. Every storm brought a volley of predictable strikes against us. I would come home to find Jim frustrated and angry. Scraped layers of skin from being forceful with a wrench or some other tool. Stress and madness. 

I knew that stress was somehow a link to increasing his pain. He had become highly sensitive to my moods, and easily upset to anything that was slightly out of the ordinary. Anything and everything caused stress. I know he was accustomed to using stress in football to be a positive thing. Now stress somehow created anxiety and amplified his pain. He had become powerless over his reactions. I did not completely understand what was happening.   

At the end of the day, when all things should come to rest, his mind became active in a negative way, and so did his pain. He was frustrated and down. I wished he was his old self. I expected him to fix whatever was broken. The fights would happen. We were helpless to stop them.

“We just saw Bernadette and George last weekend. Why would you want to see them again this weekend?”

“They’re our friends. I happen to like spending time with them.” To me it was a change of scenery, and a way of escaping the weary unhappiness that kept pressing down.

“You know what happens for me. If I can’t get a chair with an arm, I’m in constant pain. It’s also not much fun when all people do is drink too much.” Jim’s complexion was pale. He was leaning over to one side, his muscled triceps pressing down on his rib cage where the pain extended on his side.

We were in the same discussion as before. Same reasons. We all do whatever we can to avoid pain – that included me. I found myself thinking about nature a lot. How it might help me in the present and the days to come. I pretend that I am that small fawn we saw lying in the grass. My mother has hidden me in the bushes. I have no scent but I can hear it coming for me. I shiver this rainy day. I struggle to my feet and find the water. I swim. My legs are thin, my hooves slightly bigger than a human’s hand. I make it – another island, exhausted – I lie on shore amidst the grasses. I feel heavy, weary, and in pain. I must move. My legs are nimble. I may not make the climb through the forest. My blood pumps adrenaline. Instinct tells me, I must go on.

“People tend to exaggerate excessively when they drink. And you know how I feel about that.” 

“Everyone will be completely gone in less than a month.” I could feel the tension in my voice, halfway between empathy and anger.

I knew all of it. I knew there was more to come if I pressured him. All of it hurt. If he went, there would be questions about how he felt these days. He would respond by saying something about nothing has changed; there is no diagnosis. He would be faced with the bitterness that comes with others not really understanding what he felt at all. He would be tired, angry, and in pain, and just want to be left alone. He wanted to be alone from me too.

So rather than go through all that, I would slip out on my own for a few hours. I would feel miserable and guilty, and there was nothing to be done about any of it. Sometimes I would just take Sekima for a walk, to lose myself on this small remote five-acre island, my home.

We would walk the tear drop island, the weeds growing tall on either side of our narrow path, beaten down by our presence. There was a spot midway that took us to large granite boulders by the shore, grey, with light pink and streaks of quartz. I wished that my mind would be this colour – light shades but so much strength in the granite, and so much transformation in the jagged quartz lines. It was none of that today. Not this day. I sat my back resting on the red pine, my legs extended on the rock. The water shimmered. To the west were numerous islands with a path that led to bigger waters. Beyond were our seasonal friends. They would be gone soon as most left late August or early September. 

Tears dripped from my eyes, flushing my anger away – realization of my own pain that hit me across my chest like burning embers. Life as I had known it was adrift, ever changing like the winds and the waves. Once again, nature whispered in my ears to keep me afloat. What lay below me was solid – billion old rock that stood the test of time – seen merciless storms and even the ice age. The tree that I rested upon grabbed through the boulders with tentacles reaching for a bit of earth and water filled with nutrients. I was on Lake of the Woods. I would need to be like this rock, like this tree – as solid and as fluid as the water that surrounded our island. As my eyes dried, Sekima dashed to where I sat and licked my face. I would need to be this strong for years to come. The pack that we had formed would need to hold on.

Chapter 6: Alternatives

Jim’s pain affected us every day. I did not understand how much it took for him to cope on a daily basis. I did not understand how far he had to reach inside himself to withstand the pain that was not masked by medication. He had taken a stand against increasing the narcotics. He had removed the Gabapentin, the enhancer for the other narcotics to be their best. What was left was just enough, but was it?  

I resented the pain as much as he did. Anger burned just below the surface. It was like he was having an affair with a demanding mistress who had control over his life, leaving me alone. There were such few moments that he was able to be tender with me. Pain was always on his mind. There were so many times he felt guilty about not being there for me. Pain took up so much of his time. We fought to regain control over little things rather than face the big things. Pain occupied our home and invaded our privacy. Pain would not let him go, and would never leave him.

I wanted him to fight back, but it was like the fight had gone out of him. His battle was simply to survive another day. Mine was to find some way of escape for both of us.

“I’ve tried that. It didn’t work.”

“But that was when your first got it. Maybe acupuncture would work now.”

“What makes you think that? There’s no reason,” he said flatly.

“What about going to a holistic practitioner? We agree that you get no relief from any of the topical creams anyone has suggested, but we haven’t tried alternative medicine.”  

My case was weak. But I refused to give up. I had purposely chosen to broach the subject on a Saturday morning. We had nowhere to go, and pain would be at bay for a few hours until the medication’s potency wore off. We were alone.

“I know you don’t want to increase the drugs, so that leaves trying other things. You haven’t given up?” I knew he wasn’t a quitter. He would rather die than quit anything. It just was not in his vocabulary because of his sports background.  

“Do you have a recommendation?” Once again, that sigh expelling carbon dioxide.

There it was. Just a slight movement, just a slight shift. I would take it. I went on to explain that although I did not have a recommendation from anyone, I could do some research. I was pretty sure he was placating me, but I would work fast. I reasoned with him. It was already late summer. We would need to make an appointment before the fall. Travel from the island became too difficult with colder temperatures and shorter days.  

If the pain reached any deeper into our lives, I was not sure that we would be able to cope living on the island. When winter came, we would be isolated. How far into the depths of hell would we find ourselves? How many forests had to burn before there was nowhere for animals to hide? How many droughts or floods – how many tornados or hurricanes – how many extremes – how much denial would take place before the human race realized that nature was only starting to unleash her fury?

Chapter: 7 The Reckoning

We both fought hard to have our lives be normal, to be the life we once had known. But it was all past. We tried to control the invasion of something we neither expected, wanted, or deserved. Many days we lost the battle. Our lives had changed, and there would be no return, ever. Our crazy but brilliant ideas of how to solve a problem, or meet a challenge did not work. More often, we fought about how to deal with our situation as the pain and narcotics wore Jim down. We tried pain management; we tried acupuncture; we tried naturopaths. Depression had set in, and we did not even recognize our new enemy.

I felt alone. Alone was a condition that got tremendously magnified by our world spiralling downwards. People run when they smell doubt. People sprint when they smell fear. People race when they sense the weight of sadness heavy around you. They don’t even know they are doing it.

There are some things I just didn’t try to explain; like well-kept family secrets guarded with layers of lies, fear and shame under the carefully manicured lawn of deceit. Part of dealing with Jim’s chronic pain was to keep it encapsulated in what Jim used to call “the box”. So long as he could keep it there, it was under control. In a way it was like denying it existed. In the same way, I had to maintain a certain level of denial about how I was really coping with my changing world. I was afraid if I looked, I would cave in on myself. I’d implode. I might start crying and never stop in an endless abyss of dark emotion. I would not survive. I rarely let anyone see what was going on inside, including me. 

Jim’s box was guarded by a sentry of narcotics and will. My box was guarded by wine and external busyness. Both of us guarded our pain, to the extent that only a very few people knew to what magnitude the suffering occurred.  We did not believe that anyone but ourselves could really break the cycle. We did not really believe that, if we let our guards off duty, there would be someone or something there stronger to pick up the pieces; not stronger than we had once been.  

So, I cried little, and reached out less. The few times that I let go, I realized that help was not on its way, not in the way that I imagined, not in the way that counted. It was so hard to answer those inevitable questions. “How can I help?” The answer was terribly shameful for me. I needed someone to sit and hold me for a very long time until the walls went down, and then hold me longer until the walls could be rebuilt again. I could not speak it. I retreated into the woods with the camouflage of a spotted fawn. I was terribly visible to one friend.

Chapter 8: Withdrawal

Gayle and I sat on a large piece of granite that protruded out into the water extending our feet into the cool lake. Our toes looked slightly magnified below the surface, and tiny minnows appeared interested but cautious.  Sekima perched above us on the deck eyeing what he considered to be his shoreline on a neighboring island. 

“Oh, kiddo, look at that view.”

“That rock right over there is where we drank champagne. Remember?”

“How could I forget!” She laughed. “That god awful snowsuit I needed to wear so that my ass wouldn’t totally freeze off.”

“Good times.” I sighed.

Our discussion turned sombre for a time as we balanced between the good old days and the not so good present days. Funny thing was that appearances only looked slightly different on the outside. Things that only people close to you recognize as being obvious.  

The garden looked the same. The plants were large and overflowing, bountiful with yellow wax beans, zucchini and ripened tomatoes. Some of the herbs were already flowering, and the wildflower bed was a blaze of color. The path to the deck and shoreline was trimmed back and the large half round log benches had a recent coat of sealer, their golden hues rich and inviting.  

It was in the details that change was recognizable. Things were haphazard, like someone made it so far, and then decided to do something else, or ran out of energy on the last mile. Things that used to be put away that weren’t. There was a visible façade of clutter.

“Oh dear, she is so blind, and I told her so. She wondered if there was something she had done to offend you.” Gayle gave one of those little huffs that meant she was perturbed. She was speaking of a mutual friend who had approached her. “Silly people. I just said it might have everything to do with the amount of pain Jim has suffered, and how you both have had to deal with it.”

There wasn’t much to say. We watched the orb of brilliant orange starting to settle in the west. Gayle needed to tell me that she knew. She had come to our defence. Some saw no signs. But Gayle knew.

Chapter 9: Time

It took time for me to come to grip with my new existence. Took time for me to find my internal strength and the one that walked along with me all along – it was nature. That large granite rock by the shore, it kept me strong – the ever-changing winds showing me a new day, and a new way. 

I heard the song of the warblers, watched the squirrels merrily chase each other, caught the breath of the wind in the white pine. I saw the bald eagle playing lookout on a naked branch, jump and take flight, circling in the sky, catching a ride on the summer breeze. I saw a small mouth bass take refuge beneath the underside of the granite rock, and a large wood ant crossed over my ankle like I was merely a part of the vegetation. The truth was I was totally part of everything around me, as it was to me. I could feel the connective energy rippling right through me. I would likely still feel loneliness at times, remorse at times, and even self-pity, but I certainly did not ever have to feel alone. 

From that rock, I could see things differently. It took me being quiet and still – looking outside so I could see inside with clarity and kindness. I could come home to our cabin with compassion and courage for both of us when we needed it most. I could watch Jim with reverence rather than pity; with hope rather than fear.

Winters came and went. Temperatures plummeted. There was a cold hard truth, a reckoning beyond denial. Raw biting cold that sent shivers down our spine. Survival permeated our thoughts. We withdrew in winter’s embrace to be reflective and keep the internal fire burning. Our love burning.

When spring would arrive, small leaves emerged with warmer temperatures, like ideas breathing into existence. It was time for rebirth and awareness to meet the changes of our lives. Summers came, sipping sunshine tea. Diving into the water in the middle of the night amidst explosive blinking stars. Accepting today for what it is because there would be a tomorrow.

Seasons changed us. Reminders lest we forget. As years go by. It has been more than twenty. 

In 1996, Connie Larson with her partner left a corporate environment to pioneer a remote island in Canada on Lake of the Woods. The small log cabin on the five-acre island became their home for 15 years. The island paralleled her youth with no modern services – no public electricity, no running water – it was just her, her partner and their Alaskan Malamute. Under pristine and sometimes perilous conditions, Connie was able to continue her life-long passion of writing. Her first publication was released in 2022 – The Pack – Perils and Peace of Nature. A re-write will be available soon. She continues to write adventures of living in nature filled with wisdom, lessons and the perils of life. She is an avid fisher woman, gardener, hunter, cross-country skier, musher, snow shoer, and kayaker. She is a Member of the Metis Nation and lives on a lake in New Brunswick with her spouse, Jim and their Alaskan Malamute, Koda. Connie’s ancestry was instrumental in her writing. Her Metis ancestor, Charles Thomas’ journals are held in the National Archives in Ottawa as a Writer of the Hudson’s Bay Company. She attributes her desire and her gift to his work.