When Life With Chronic Pain Feels Like Solitary Confinement


I was recently watching an episode of “Law and Order” that discussed the psychological and physical trauma associated with prisoners who are sent to solitary confinement. At the end of the episode, I felt a lightbulb shine above me and I thought to myself, what a fantastic analogy for what it is like to live with chronic pain day in and day out!

I know it is tremendously difficult for people to understand or be empathic to an illness they are not experiencing. I know many of my friends and family members have doubted the severity and longevity of some of the pain I have experienced, and that has always been really hurtful. But I think we can all relate to what it feels like to be alone for an extended period of time.

One of the main characters of the show, a cop, had doubts about how being in solitary confinement could cause someone to regress in ways that are unimaginable or cause a change in personality so strong that they are no longer recognizable. So he took it upon himself to voluntarily go into solitary confinement for a three-day period, and asked his fellow law enforcement to not let him out until that period of time was over. This is what he experienced: severe loneliness and isolation, anger, frustration, depression, anxiety and severe mood swings. Auditory and visual hallucinations. Physical and emotional stress that caused him to have irrational thoughts and make impulsive decisions. Begging for a minute of human interaction when someone slipped food to him three times a day. Suicidal ideation. Loss of time and space in the real world.

I recognized each of these personally, since this is exactly what I have been experiencing for the last 13 years I have had chronic pain. I actually couldn’t believe how much of what these prisoners go through in solitary confinement I felt a connection with, and it automatically made me think of how this concrete example is a great analogy of what it is like to live with chronic pain. Many friends and family have left my side because of the discomfort they felt with my personality changes. I always wanted to say to them, imagine how these personality changes have made me feel. I have lost a sense of my true self that may never come back. At times, I am unrecognizable to myself, and that just fuels the depression and anxiety more. One vicious circle that spins round and round, and gets exaggerated with isolation from others.

I often have no idea what time or day it is when I am in the midst of a terrible flare or attack. I sleep when I can, eat when I can, watch TV as a way of blocking out the excessive spinning of my own head. I don’t leave the house for days for fear I will get confused or won’t be able to speak coherently when I encounter others. After a while, it just becomes easier to stay inside for days at a time so I don’t have the additional stress of how I will present to the outside world when I am feeling pained, emotional and irrational.

The mood swings, which are both a physiological part of the migraine cycle as well as the reaction to severe pain that doesn’t seem to have an end, are the scariest to me, and I am sure to others who have encountered me during these times. I am not ashamed to say I have had auditory and visual hallucinations during the aura phase of my migraines, as well as during a long stretch of isolation. Sometimes I visualize Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” talking to his weathered soccer ball during his time of isolation and feel I could relate. When you are isolated for long bouts of time due to pain, you will look to anything to make you feel like a connected person in the universe.

At times, I am not sure which is worse: the chronic pain or the isolation that becomes a daily part of life due to necessity, ignorance of others, fear of the outside world not being empathic to my limitations. Indeed, living with chronic pain is absolutely a life in solitary confinement and you are always desperately looking for a way out.

This post originally appeared on My Life Is a Journey, Not a Destination.

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Photo via Ralwel on Getty Images


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