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Illustration by Drew Shannon

If frozen shoulder sounds old fashioned, that’s because it is. The term was first used in the 1930s to describe a condition where the shoulder joint slowly and painfully loses mobility. Almost a century later, everyone still calls it frozen shoulder. Like my joint, the term stuck somehow.

If you want to get scientific, which my physiotherapist does, you can call it adhesive capsulitis, which implies my right shoulder is full of glue. If you want to get basic, the condition is described as inflammation. It’s also idiopathic, which means its origin is unknown and unknowable.

I can’t hang a shirt on a rail that’s higher than my ribs, shampoo my hair or grab a pot from the back of the cupboard. I can’t wear pullovers, lie down with my arms at my sides, pour a cup of coffee or slip my wallet in my back pocket. When I type, nervy little sparks shoot to my thumb. When I sit still for a while, my hand goes numb.

This problem is small, in the grand scheme. It’s a part of my whole system that still pretty much works just not quite, like everything these days. Like a trip to the grocery store, like seeing friends, like raising kids, like work itself. This is my new shoulder normal. But why me? Why now? Nobody really knows, says the doctor. Maybe stress. Maybe your age. And it’s more common in women.

Well. I’d shrug my shoulders if I could. Anyway, it was probably my own fault.

I built a backyard shed office. It was a construction project for which I had no experience or inclination.

Before COVID, I’d worked from home for years. Now, with the husband and kids, the dog and cat, the ever-present cloud of oddness and precarity, inside began to feel airless. Outside there was a lot more air. For an hour or an afternoon, I could put a closed door between me and all the unmet needs.

What if there was a roof out here to keep off the rain, I began to think. What if there were walls and a chair. What if there was a desk where I could put down a pen and find it in exactly the same place the next day. What if I could just work.

For $20 I downloaded plans for a 6-foot by 8-foot structure called Modern Shed. I whacked tent pegs into the ground and set up plumb lines. I ripped out sod and dug parallel trenches in the backyard and filled them with rocks and put down a pair of treated railroad ties. I congratulated myself for figuring out what crushed stone was, what galvanized nails were, how big a 2x6 board actually was (smaller than described). I’d be done in no time.

The day I knew for sure the shoulder had gone wrong, it was five months later and 40 degrees colder. I was holding my arms over my head to drive screws into cedar boards. A nice salvaged ceiling. The cedar boards belonged to my kids’ abandoned playhouse, which my husband built a dozen years ago and which I dismantled to make way for Modern Shed. I overrruled the kids’ objections to this dismantling with a ferocity nobody expected, not even me. How was I expected to do my work if I had no space in which to do it? What did they think: that I’d do Google Meets from the kitchen table forever, trying not to be in the way?

It wasn’t their fault. It was my fault for existing in a constant state of neglecting obligations to family or to work or both. Or at least, that’s how I felt. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was my age. And it’s more common in women.

There is only work-life balance if packing a lunch, managing child care, laundry, grooming, commuting and setting wake-up alarms is considered not-work. There is only work-life balance if we don’t think work is part of life and vice versa.

At the start of the pandemic, I was out of work for three months and the balance went absolutely haywire. Suddenly, there was too much life. I didn’t know what to focus on. Work had always required me to push life to the edges. If life was now in the centre, who was I? What was the point of me?

I knew enough to know thinking this way wasn’t right. I knew enough to know work-life balance was a false premise because work-life is a false dichotomy. But I couldn’t do a thing about it.

So I built Modern Shed. Without it, I tell everyone, I don’t know how I’d be able to work. What’s one shoulder compared with that?

These days, I have a job again and my set-up in Modern Shed is pretty great. Modern Shed is where I make money. This is good ROI! I want all my professional success wrapped around its uneven rafters and patched holes and bent nails, under that shoulder-destroying cedar ceiling.

Plus, people are impressed with what I made. No one expected it of me. The compliment I get the most is that I should start a shed business. As in: You have done something that might be worth money. As in: The point of cultivating any skill is to monetize it. That’s not what they mean, of course. It’s not their fault the only way to express admiration is to put it in terms of valuation.

Illustrated diagrams of frozen shoulder present a pair of shoulders: one normal and one frozen. In each, you can see the scapula, the clavicle and the tapering stick of the humerous, with the shoulder capsule at the centre. The normal capsule is white or very pale pink, a plump cushion keeping the bones comfortably housed. The frozen capsule is shot through with bloody streaks and puffed up like a rotten gum.

In the end, how much can I really complain if within the box I’m confined to, I had the means to create another box? What’s one shoulder compared with that kind of productivity?

Anyway, these days the pain is getting smaller and the range of motion larger. Every so often I feel something give, and all of a sudden I can reach a little farther.

It’s fine. I’ll be okay. I’ll just keep doing the work.

Julia Williams lives in Calgary.

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