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How Acute Pain Added to My Chronic Pain Almost Broke Me

I am astounded by what human beings are capable of tolerating and adapting to when they have no other option. We are capable of living with circumstances that might completely debilitate another person simply because we have no other option. I’m equally astounded by how tenuous that tolerance is and how easily the delicate balance is disturbed. Sometimes, it only takes one event, one additional stressor to push the needle into “meltdown zone.”

Since I became disabled over a decade ago, I have been living with chronic pain. Living with chronic pain is a constant balance of trying to live life as fully as possible while constantly assessing pain and tolerance levels. Every waking minute of my day is permeated by varying degrees of pain coming from up to six different areas within my body. Over the course of many years, I have explored every option available to me in a quest to mute, dull, ease, or eliminate this constant barrage of daily discomfort. While I have picked up some tools and tips along the way, I have discovered that most of these provide only temporary relief. So, out of necessity, I have learned to coexist with this constant companion. Unable to avoid it, I have relegated it to the background, where it plays a never-ending “white noise” soundtrack to my life.

Over a month ago, I was walking my dog. An encounter with another dog, coupled with a retractable leash mishap, resulted in a complete fracture of my upper arm. Immediately following the sharp “pop,” I was flooded with an exquisite pain that would end up taking weeks to subside. This intense new melody of pain, impossible to ignore, joined the chronic pain soundtrack, and the cacophony nearly overwhelmed me. Every tiny movement created a keen lance of agony and a sickening grinding sensation. I could barely move any part of my body. By the time I was transported to hospital, had X-rays taken, an IV administered, and was gowned and propped up in bed, my entire arm was on fire, and I was nauseous from the pain. I was finally given some fentanyl (I’m allergic to morphine), so that a nurse was able to build a splint around my wounded limb. Then, all I could do was wait for the orthopedic surgeon to come see me.

I lay alone (COVID protocols prevented my husband from being with me) in the dimly lit room, struggling to tolerate the steady drumbeat of pain emanating from my arm, and pushing away traumatic memories of my past hospitalization. Suddenly, I couldn’t do it anymore. My stoic façade began to crack. Small wounded sounds and warm tears began to ooze from the cracks. The internal pressure that had built up over the last several hours beat at this weakened barrier until it burst, and the pressure was released in a flood of miserable and frustrated sobs. The sudden relief and release of tension were overshadowed by a feeling of embarrassment and a kind of shame. What was wrong with me? Me, the survivor of long-term hospitalization, the warrior of rehab, the soldier of chronic pain, she who endured multiple surgeries, crying over a broken bone? Past experience told me that tears would not improve the situation. Time and patience were what was required now. But the more I tried to stop, the harder I cried. It’s like the heat had suddenly been turned up, and the already simmering pot of oil had boiled over, igniting a blaze of wild flames.

This was only the first of several moments over the next several weeks when I succumbed to a pressure-relieving yet shame-inducing meltdown. Opioids controlled the acute pain enough so I could drag myself through the day, but the side effects added another layer of discomfort to my existence. Every movement caused a spark of fresh agony, so I moved as little as possible, and slept sitting up, as the doctor ordered. After about a week of that, I developed edema. My lower body and hand swelled painfully, and I couldn’t even fit into my underwear. I needed far more help from my caregiver than usual, even for the simplest tasks. I began to feel useless, bloated, restless, agitated, and exhausted. I would stoically “soldier on” until I simply couldn’t cope anymore and the internal dam broke open. Each meltdown was laden with equal parts relief and shame. After a few weeks, I could feel the familiar bone-weary depression I hadn’t felt in years beginning to set in. The obsessive-compulsive disorder worsened. My face became decorated with angry wounds that never healed, and my mind teemed with repeating thoughts, lists, and dialogues. It seemed that this new source of angst, on top of the constant pain I already lived with, was simply beyond what I could stand.

And then it began to change. As my arm began to slowly heal, the pain subsided. I stopped taking opioids so the side effects disappeared. I was able to move with less pain and sleep lying down, so the edema subsided. Also, once again out of necessity, I began to adapt and fold my new source of discomfort into my daily existence. I have managed to re-establish my daily routines and get on with living my life. The depression is lifting, and my face is healing. The pot of oil is back to simmering, and I have settled into a place where I am able to tolerate the “white noise” soundtrack again.

I have gained some valuable insights through this experience. Pain is relative, and stoicism is not required for survival. I am capable of being resilient and adaptable, but there are limits to what I can tolerate. Reaching my breaking point may actually be a safety mechanism, designed to relieve the pressure that might have been damaging in other ways. I will be kinder to myself now, more compassionate. I will celebrate my resiliency and strength, but forgive myself for meltdowns borne from added stressors. After all, everyone has their limits, even veteran chronic pain warriors.

Getty image by madsci.

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