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Chronic Pain, Special Needs, and a Death in the Family: COVID's Weight on One Greenville Mom

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Provided by Jessica Sterling

Remember when the coronavirus pandemic put all those “unnecessary” medical procedures on hold?
Well, they weren’t so unnecessary to people like Jessica Sterling. The pause in most surgeries came just two days before Sterling was due to get an operation that she needs (on an ongoing basis) to help her cope with chronic pain.

Plus, while it might sound shi-shi to say she’s missed her Botox injections and massages, these procedures are not indulgences for Sterling. They relieve the severe pain wrought by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or EDS – a condition that softens connective tissues and joints. Regular Botox injections and “not at all relaxing” massage treatments alleviate the pain, she says.

The good news is, with regular and repeated therapeutic attention, Sterling’s overall health and well-being had improved. The bad news is that when procedures like these stopped back in the spring, it effectively stripped a whole year’s worth of healing right out from under her.

“I had made so much progress in my health,” Sterling says. “And it was very slow.”

The halt on unnecessary procedures “just felt like the biggest kick in the pants,” she says.

Yes, most of those procedures have been happening again for a few months now. But their hiatus delayed treatments that hurt Sterling not just physically, but emotionally, right in the middle of what was, even as 2020 goes, a rough year in the Sterling household.

On top of weakened health, Sterling also had to do what parents everywhere did this year – learn how to be homeschool teachers. Her two sons, ages 10 and 12, are able to pitch in, even make dinner from time to time – which makes her feel both proud and guilty that two young boys are having to man up so soon.

But her daughter, age 9, has special needs. “Mentally, she’s about 5,” Sterling says. So she requires extra care – which is not easy to provide whenever untreated EDS and the lingering issues of endometriosis put Sterling on the couch for long periods of the day.

In April, Sterling says, she and her husband, Cody, decided to stop the school year early. The school district was very understanding, because on top of all of the above, Cody’s mother lost her five-year fight with cancer just as the quarantine hit.

“It was too much,” Sterling says.

But here is where the story picks up. Amid the Book-of-Job-like series of bad breaks, Jessica and Cody Sterling found a new direction. They had grown used to being individuals in their marriage. Both are highly independent and, she says, both Type-A. And while she was always busy with her counseling work at Greenville’s Grace Church, as well as volunteer projects, he was often away from home, serving in the U.S. Air Force.

When Cody left the Air Force, he started work as a project manager for the U.S. Department of Defense, which also kept him busy and, often, out of the house.

Then COVID-19 hit and this couple of individuals found themselves at home together, all the time, amid a mounting set of unpleasant issues. Sterling says she and her husband had “a very intentional conversation” about three days into the quarantine, with a very focused question: What are we going to do with this pandemic?

“We were very aware it could make or break a marriage,” she says.

In that conversation, and a few following, the Sterlings worked out what each of them would bring to the parenting situation. But as a couple, they also got to know each other in ways they hadn’t. Remember, they were used to living lives fairly separate from each other. Now, with both of them home, Sterling says she and Cody each gained a new perspective on the other. She got to see his loving side and he saw what it looks like when Jessica stopps being brave amid the pain and it finally overtakes her.

“I can push through the pain,” she says. “But it always catches up with me.”

She also learned that she can be controlling, if she’s not called out on it. She was used to being the one who was around the kids all the time, which means that she was used to raising them and communicating with them the way she did it. But she’s come to understand that Cody’s way is not the wrong way, it’s just another way.

A good example: Remember that guilt she feels for seeing the boys have to step up so young? It’s Cody who reminds her that they’re not raising little boys, but future men, and that learning responsibilities and pitching in is good for them.

Jessica also feels a certain guilt concerning her mother-in-law’s death. She doesn’t feel as if she was there for Cody in grief as much as she could have been. But given what else she was dealing with, he understands that too, she says.

So despite the rocky year, Sterling says being home with each other “has been a really beautiful time” for the family. And she did, finally, manage to get the surgery that helps with her pain. At the moment she (and the family) is doing fine.

But she says she won’t be sorry to see the other end of the pandemic once it gets here.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan. And follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio and on Facebook.