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When My Mental Health Pushed Me to Seek Chronic Pain Help

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That’s the word I’ve heard describe me since I was little. For as long as I can remember, for all the descriptions (positive and negative) I’ve heard about me, tough has been one that’s stuck around.

I was tough when I would fall down and scrape my knee, only to get back up and insist I was fine.

I was tough when I would tell the popular kids to stop being mean to the outcast kids.

I was tough when I sprained my wrist and kept playing in gym class.

It got to the point that “tough” became part of my identity. I wore it as a badge of honor. The fastest way to get me to do something was to insist I shouldn’t because I wasn’t tough enough to handle it. That sprained wrist I mentioned? I played harder than I ever had before in gym class to prove I was tough enough. I wouldn’t take Tylenol or anything if I had a headache because I was tough.

Sometimes this toughness is a good thing. It’s helped me get through some difficult times, both physically and mentally. But sometimes toughness goes too far and becomes stubbornness. And then it can be a problem.

When I first started experiencing my chronic pain, I avoided treating it. I had gotten over the phase where I refused Tylenol, but I was still hesitant to treat my chronic pain or even talk about it. I started going for long walks to prove to myself I still could. I stopped taking the elevator unless it was a particularly bad pain day because I wanted to be able to take the stairs. You never know how valuable it is to be able to do things until you can feel that ability slipping. My toughness wanted to cling to all of this as long as I could.

Slowly but surely this stubbornness was being defeated by my limitations. As my pain got worse, I started allowing myself to rest more and more. I allowed myself to budget my “spoons” for tasks. I allowed myself to lie down when I needed to. I allowed myself to use balms and heating pads and massage sticks. I was beginning to embrace life as a chronic pain warrior.

Except for one thing. I didn’t want physical therapy. I thought about it and researched it, but I kept deciding not to do it. I didn’t need it, or so I told myself. I could still get through my day without it. I would do it if I got to the point where I truly needed it, I told myself.

I thought I would know if I needed it based on my physical limitations. But really it was my mental health that told me it was time for physical therapy. And it came down to a pie.

Yep, a pie. Let me explain. I was with my beloved grandmother one day. We were making her famous sour cream pie together. She was teaching me her recipe. This happened to be a bad pain day in the middle of a bad pain week for me. She kept insisting I was doing something wrong. Really, she was being gentle and only trying to help. She wasn’t being mean about it at all. If you knew her, you’d know that. She’s one of the sweetest women alive.

My pain brain didn’t see her sweetness. My pain brain lost patience. I yelled at her. I yelled something I’m deeply ashamed of at her. I felt ashamed the second I saw her hurt face. I feel ashamed now thinking about that moment. She and I talked about it, I apologized and she forgave me, but that feeling of shame didn’t leave me for a while.

It was one small moment. The entire interaction, from her critique to my apology, probably lasted two minutes. But that moment stuck with me the rest of the day. That was the moment when I realized how my pain was affecting me. I knew it had been affecting me physically, but I hadn’t stopped to think about how it was affecting me emotionally. That moment wasn’t like me. Not before the pain, anyway. I realized that while, yes, I could live with being in pain, I couldn’t live with being irritable and impatient like that. I couldn’t let myself turn into that person. I could give up a slice of how I viewed my “toughness” if it meant I would gain back more important parts of myself.

I booked an appointment with a physical therapist soon after that. And let me tell you, the good side of my toughness has been necessary for getting through that. I once heard a joke that “PT” stands for “pain and torture,” not “physical therapy,” and I agree some days. But it’s been worth it. The amount of improvement I’ve seen in this time has been incredible.

My pain hasn’t completely disappeared, but it’s been far more manageable since I’ve started PT. When I do my exercises, it’s easy to get discouraged by how hard they still are and how much it still hurts. But I’m reminded of how much happier I am again. I may never fully be recovered from my physical pain, but I will never go back to being that unhappy, irritable person again. On days when my physical pain is bad enough that my PT doesn’t feel worth it, I remember my mental health and I remember how worthwhile it truly is.

That thought and my toughness are what get me through the hard days.

Getty image by Anna Pustynnikova.

Originally published: June 25, 2018
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