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I Used to Wish My Pain Was Visible, but It's Not That Simple

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In the invisible illness and mental illness worlds, I often hear that it would be so much easier if this was an obvious physical injury. I’ve often felt the same way: if only the doctors could see the cause of my pain, then maybe they would believe me. Maybe my friends, family, and coworkers would be more supportive. People can’t ignore a broken leg or an arm in a cast.

Recently, however, I’ve learned how misleading this can be. I hurt my ankle six months ago. I waited too long to see a doctor (mostly out of fear of not being believed), but when I did, an MRI showed that I had torn several ligaments in my ankle. Obviously, I hoped that this would lead to a clear and quick solution. After six months of pain with every step, I was eager to spend a few weeks on crutches and get better. But unfortunately, that wasn’t what I had to do. Even though I had been in physical therapy for months, the only suggestion the doctor had was to keep doing everything, and it would heal with time. When I asked if taking a break from running would help (since it was always so much more painful after running), he replied, “No, definitely don’t do that. Keep running. Keep doing everything.”

It’s been hard. It’s reassuring to know that what I’m doing isn’t making it worse. But it isn’t easy to come home and go for a run after my ankle hurts so much just from walking around all day. Throughout this process, it has reminded me of previous experiences with chronic mental and physical illnesses. When I was dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, and I just wished the doctors could see the problem. I wished they could see something wrong, and I wished it would help them understand and have ideas for treatment.

But sometimes seeing a problem doesn’t lead to treatments. Sometimes, even when there is a clear issue, even when they can see your pain, they can’t do anything. In these situations, whether they’re from chronic illness or sudden injuries, I think there are two important things for us to do: find support and keep doing the small things.

Finding support is the most important thing to do in these situations. Support can come from doctors — maybe it’s the physical therapist who pushes you harder every week, but encourages you along the way. Maybe it’s the primary care doctor who asks you to keep checking in with him, even though your conditions are being treated by specialists. But we can’t rely on doctors to be our support systems, we need to build our own.

Family and friends can be the best support systems. Some of my friends don’t even know what’s been going on (either with my recent injuries or my chronic illness), but I can still turn to them when I need a distraction from thinking about these problems. Then there are my friends who I can call anytime and complain about a doctor’s appointment or a hard day, and I know they’ll always listen and support me. Obviously, every friend can’t play that role, but I encourage you to find at least someone who can. Maybe it’s someone you know who has recently recovered from a similar issue. Or someone from a support group, or even a therapist. I think it’s important to have many different people to support you, and at least some of them need to be people you can talk to about anything.

The second most important thing to do in these situations is to do the “small” things. Even when there’s nothing doctors can do to help, there are usually “small” things that are important for recovering. Sometimes these small things feel too small to make a difference, and other times they just feel overwhelming. But we have to keep trying. For my ankle injury, I try to do my physical therapy exercises daily, and stand on a balance board several times a day. I also ice it often, especially after doing any physical activity. For my mental health, the small steps are usually things like exercising, eating filling meals, and making sure I take my medication every day. For my chronic illness, they’re things like sleeping, doing some type of movement, and seeing other people. Sometimes it’s hard to keep doing these things, because it feels like they don’t make a difference. But over time they do, and we need to keep trying.

I think it can be easy to wish that our pain has a clear reason and a simple solution. But in the real world, that doesn’t always happen. In that case, I hope you’re able to find people to support you, and keep doing the small steps to get better. It takes time, but it will be worth it.

This story originally appeared on Purple Garlic.
Getty image by Halfpoint.

Originally published: April 14, 2022
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