How Living With Chronic Pain Has Made Me Stronger
Having an “invisible” illness has presented me with numerous obstacles and lessons. The obstacles I’ve faced include not being able to commit to plans, not being able to enjoy my hobbies and interests, not being able to spend as much quality time with my loved ones, having fear and anxiety about the future and my health. I’ve learned how to “push through the pain,” I’ve learned to be my own advocate, I’ve learned how to research my issues, I’ve learned how to help others facing the same battle.
People look at me and probably see a 30-something female who looks like a perfectly normal person. However, if they looked a little closer, they would notice that I don’t walk like a normal person, I don’t bend and twist like a normal person and, if they looked into my eyes, they could see the immense pain I am in 24/7.
I struggle with chronic back pain. I have degenerative disc disease, arthritis, spinal stenosis, bulging discs, sciatica, permanent nerve damage in my legs, not to mention constant pain in the nerves in my legs. I also have fibromyalgia. I have had a three-level lumbar fusion, a laminectomy, a spinal cord stimulator trial and a permanent spinal cord stimulator implant. I’ve struggled with this pain since about 2004 or 2005.
I spent years pushing through the pain and continued to excel at my physically demanding job. I spent years hiding my pain from everyone, until that one night when I bent over and physically could not straighten back up. That night changed my life. After my fusion, I continued to enjoy my hobbies, spend time with loved ones and for the most part enjoyed my life, until recently. All the years of pushing through the pain did nothing but cause more damage. I finally had to admit out loud that I just couldn’t do the things I used to, and I wasn’t the person of strength everyone thought I was. Or was I?
I’ve come to realize that being physically strong isn’t all that matters. I’ve learned that mental and emotional strength are just as important. In 2013, my pain management doctor suggested the spinal cord stimulator to me. I had never heard of that, so that is when I became the researching machine I am now. I researched for hours, and at that time, decided that the spinal cord stimulator wasn’t for me. I opted to have another laminectomy. That was a failure. So for four more years I suffered in agony, just getting worse each day it seemed.
Countless X-rays and MRIs later, the spinal cord stimulator came back up. After conducting more research and seeing the advancements that have been made, and countless hours of weighing my options, I went for it.
People tell me quite often how strong I am for going through all of this. The reality is, I have no other choice but to go through all of this; there is no alternative. Most of these people have never experienced this level of pain, and I hope they never do. I never knew what the real meaning of strength was until I faced all of this. Yes, physically, I’ve always been strong, pushing through pain. Mentally and emotionally, I thought I was strong, and then this happened. I tried for so long to handle everything on my own. It wasn’t until I had to admit I couldn’t do things I used to that I realized I needed to become stronger mentally and emotionally. For me, saying the words, “I need help” was a foreign concept to me. I was always able to do most things myself and not ask for help. Even after I knew I couldn’t do it all myself, saying those three little words scared me to death.
Mentally and emotionally, I had to come to terms with my “new” life, and make adjustments accordingly. That could be as simple as asking someone to help me make the bed or asking someone to lift something heavy for me. The range of emotions that came along with this new way of living was and still is intense. In the beginning, I went through the whole “why me, poor me” thing, but that got me nowhere besides depressed and playing the victim. Now I look at it like this: I don’t believe God brings us to anything we can’t handle or anything He can’t get us through. Sure, there are some times I feel myself slipping back into the negative, but that’s where the pep talks come in. I try to be positive as much as possible, and not give my pain the power of speaking about it.
Hearing people say things like “I wish I didn’t have to work” or something about being on “vacation” really bothers me. Working is something I’ve done on the books since I was 16. I’m 34 now. I did auto detailing for a friend of my Dad’s when I was even younger than that, so I’ve always prided myself on working and earning my money. Now that I am on short-term disability, yeah, I get a check, but it’s not the same as going out and working for my money, and being a hard worker. All I have now is time on my hands to recover, rest and think.
That’s where the mental strength comes in. I have to keep the negative thoughts away, I have to reassure myself I am a survivor and I am stronger than the pain. The demons of my mind are never too far away, and there are times it is a challenge to keep them at bay. I start to question what I did to deserve this kind of pain, I question why I had to always be so prideful and never ask for help, and I blame myself at times for making choices I never thought would affect me so badly. The reality is I don’t deserve this pain – nobody does. All the choices I made are in the past and I can’t dwell on them any longer. It does nothing to help my situation currently.
It is going to take some time, but I truly believe this whole experience has happened for a reason. Whether it is to write about my experience to help others in similar situations, share tips and advice in support groups or simply to show me that despite the dark times I experience, I can be a light in other’s lives. I hope this helps at least one person realize they are not alone, and that there are people who understand and are willing to help.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Thinkstock photo via Dirima.