The sunshine feels amazing on my face! I absolutely love the beach. I love the warm air, the sunkissed skin, long conversations with good friends, beach pictures, and the contagious positive energy! I love how quickly time passes, while simultaneously life feels inexplicably slow. At the beach, I can truly relax.
Except, I live with chronic pain – so not quite.
When I go to the beach, I have to prepare for moments of bliss interrupted by moments of pain. I experience allodynia as a symptom of my chronic pain. That means my nerves are incredibly sensitive to stimuli that would not typically be painful. Some prominent examples of painful stimuli for me are vibrations, lotion, wind, and flip flops.
There are a myriad of ways allodynia inhibits my beach enjoyment. I’ll talk about three here.
First, I’m a huge advocate of sunscreen, but I’m also notorious for getting burnt at the beach. Here’s why: applying sunscreen, lotion or spray, causes me a lot of pain. Often, the discomfort associated with applying sunscreen is greater than the pain I experience from being burnt. Also, I used to apply lotion as part of a therapeutic regimen to desensitize my nerves; that challenging memory only reiterates my reluctance to eagerly apply sunscreen.
I usually get a sunburn when I go to the beach because my skin is so sensitive both to sunscreen and the sun in general. Yes, absolutely, the burn hurts, and there are adverse consequences of sunburns. Yet, sometimes, since I’m so used to pain, I don’t notice I’m getting burnt until it’s too late. And, because it’s so uncomfortable, I tend to push the boundaries on the length of time between reapplying.
The worst, by far, is the sand! Most people enjoy the feeling of sand between their toes. Most people, absentmindedly spend their days at the beach digging holes in the sand with their heels or making shapes with their toes. For me, even just the idea of that is practically unbearable. The sand irritates me when even a small amount is on my towel because the feeling on my skin causes me pain. I’m so sensitive I can feel even one grain.
It’s especially uncomfortable when it is caked on my feet after it dries. When the wet sand dries and becomes hard and scratchy, most people would simply wipe the sand off, but for me, that pain, even thinking about it, makes the hairs on my arm stand up. I’d prefer to wait hours and hope the sand naturally falls off than rub the coarse, unforgiving sand off my feet.
The sand is also a culprit when walking to the water. When I step on hot sand, it’s not just slightly uncomfortable, it’s unbelievably painful. Usually I end up doing a dance, like a jig, jumping up and down attempting to acclimate my feet to the abrupt temperature change. If you’re looking closely, you’ll notice my skin will change colors once it makes contact with the hot sand. My toe nails especially will turn bright red. Later, if I brave the cold water, my legs will turn purple and blue. I’m basically a chameleon.
Getting in the water presents an entirely different challenge. In New England, even in the summer months, the ocean water is particularly cold. My friends with typical nerve reactions have confirmed this fact. When I step in the water, my body panics. It’s so painful! I have to slowly enter, leave, and reenter the water multiple times before I’m able to submerge myself in the ocean. Even then, it hurts all the way to my bones. It’s sort of like how it feels to be outside in bitter cold, winter temperatures. What’s worse is my body cannot adjust to this feeling because the waves continue to make disturbances in the water — yet another sensitivity. And, the deeper I submerge myself, the higher the waves hit my still warm skin – it’s a catch 22. Sometimes, I’m that person who goes to the beach and doesn’t go in the water.
Anticipating and then experiencing all this additional pain and excess stimuli might make some people question why I would ever want to go to the beach. To be honest, there was a time when I opted-out of activities I knew would cause me more pain. I missed out on a lot of amazing moments because of that! So instead, I grin and bear it. Yes, going to the beach is excruciating for me. I need to acknowledge that and be ready. I sometimes spend days after recuperating. However, even with the pain, I have so many great summertime beach memories with friends and family. I can’t let my pain direct which experiences I enjoy — which is why, I’m already planning my next summer beach day, and I can’t wait!