18 Sep Finding Myself Through Chronic Pain
As a child, the words chronic pain elicited images of weathered faces and gnarled, knobbly joints, hobbling around with walkers and canes. Hard-faced lawyers demanding to know if I’d been injured, because I may be entitled to compensation!
Not once did I ever picture someone my own age, carrying the outward impression of health and normalcy, someone next to whom I could sit in a lecture hall, or pass in a bar. I couldn’t envision it for the people around me, my friends and peers, and I definitely couldn’t envision it for myself.
I was first and foremost a teenage girl — a teenage girl whose hips just happened to be defective.
It began as a young teen, with a puzzling, painful hip condition. One minute I was walking, hiking, and biking without issue, the next I could hardly be on my feet for more than half an hour before the pain became unbearable. I bounced from specialist to specialist, undergoing CT scans and MRIs and nerve tests, waiting until someone could figure out exactly why I had developed geriatric joints seemingly overnight (it took four years to receive the diagnosis of hip dysplasia, but that’s a whole other story). Despite this, there is no doubt that those years were otherwise healthy and happy. My days were defined by sleepovers with my friends, eating salt-and-vinegar chips until our tongues bled as we scoured the pages of Seventeen magazine, and writing angst-ridden, affected poetry about boys I didn’t know. I was first and foremost a teenage girl — a teenage girl whose hips just happened to be defective. As the years went by, I grew increasingly excited for the prospect of university and all it entailed: independence, adventure, the opportunity for redefinition. University, I decided, would be where I came into myself fully, where I could finally grow into the me I felt I hadn’t been allowed in high school. And when I began my time at Queen’s, I did, at least for the first semester.
It was January of 2018 that profoundly shaped the trajectory of the last year and a half of my life, that threw everything off balance.
To make a long story short, I was one of the lucky few who won the minor-procedure lottery: after a routine wisdom-tooth removal, rather than a welcome excuse to eat obscene amounts of ice cream, I procured a stay in hospital for sepsis. This particular infection, treated by an extensive cocktail of antibiotics (of which, don’t get me wrong, I am exceptionally appreciative), lead to another infection, which then lead to a myriad of other health issues and uncertainties, tests and exams, doctors and doctors and more doctors…
I felt as though every time I seemed to be regaining my footing, another ailment would materialize to pull the floor out from beneath me.
In the months that followed, with an immune system shot to hell and the dark cloud of doubt looming over my head as I waited on test results, I began to feel stuck in a state of survival, my threat gauge perpetually switched to on. Every symptom, every pain was a new and life-threatening illness, every new illness a one-way ticket down a spiral of panic. It was a depressing, exhausting cycle, robbing from me any sense of the person I was before. I felt as though every time I seemed to be regaining my footing, another ailment would materialize to pull the floor out from beneath me. My days, thoughts, conversations, even my sleep were consumed and defined by my unwell-ness.
Although I don’t generally like to think of myself as a negative person, I’ll be honest: it’s pretty depleting to feel so crummy all the time. It’s the worst kind of thief: the kind that slowly steals you away piece by piece until you are an alien in your own skin, a desolate shell of your former self.
I found myself stewing in a ubiquitous anger towards life: I was angry at my defunct body for betraying me, and I was angry that no matter how hard my friends and family tried, no one seemed to fully understand. It was a vicious cycle: I felt incredibly isolated, so I allowed myself to become incredibly isolated. I lost touch with friends, my passions, my motivation for school. My family watched helplessly as my usual zeal for life dwindled. I found myself in the clutches of a brief but debilitating stint of panic disorder and depression, the world seeming cruel and uninhabitable. I lost any desire to do anything, even get better. I was damaged goods, unlovable, merely a ticking clocking to the next bout of illness. There was nothing left of me to fix, I figured. In fact, I didn’t even know who I was without the plethora of health issues — that scared me more than anything.
I’d like to say there was one solution to all of the problems, that I woke up one day with an epiphany, or I found the doctor who could finally prescribed the magic cure. While that would be ideal, it’s not entirely realistic. Besides, that’s not what this article is about. Even if I had found the holy-grail treatment to physically feel like a million bucks, it wouldn’t have solved my biggest problem: I had lost myself through it all. I had let the illness win. It wasn’t until I began to accept my life and all its messy frustrations that I was able to come back home. It was gradual and painstaking and at times, discouraging, but eventually, the me I knew reappeared.
Even if I had found the holy-grail treatment to physically feel like a million bucks, it wouldn’t have solved my biggest problem: I had lost myself through it all. I had let the illness win.
I reappeared because I finally allowed myself time, time to accept and heal and distance myself from the thick of it.
I cut myself some slack, to know I was doing my best in each moment.
I talked to therapists, found those who could be professional and objective, help me navigate this overwhelming path.
I began creating and accepting my own limits. This is something I still struggle with today, acknowledging the variability of my physical capabilities, and knowing what works for me each day.
I started appreciating the health I have, and not succumbing to the negative spiral. I began readjusting my baseline, knowing what was an improvement from the day before.
I was able to prevent those bad days from eclipsing the good days, the days where I felt just a little bit better.
But most of all, I finally gave myself over to the love I had kept at bay for so long. The fierce, unwavering love from my family that was, at a point, the only lifeboat in a sea ready to drown me (unfathomably grateful would be an understatement.) The quiet, steady love from friends, old and new. The love from a boy who could have so easily decided I was far too onerous of a task to embark on, but decided to love me anyway. Love for a world whose beauty I had unintentionally put on mute, yet allowed me back in without a second look. Love for the little things that had once brought me joy. Love for myself, whoever the hell I was, an appreciation for the body that had managed to protect me despite all it was put through.
All of these things lead me to myself again, the long-lost girl emerging from the layers of fear and frustration. And once I found her, I could better manage whatever cropped up. If you are any sort of control freak as I am, accepting that we cannot choose what we are handed is a tough pill to swallow. There is power, however, in knowing we decide how we react. I am lucky in so many ways, something I never want to take for granted. And while I’m not about to pretend to be grateful for all of the illness and discomfort, it’s true that these experiences have shaped who I am today. They have made me a more empathetic person. They’ve allowed me to fully appreciate the good days. They have given me the chance to analyse who I am, and who I want to be.
Love for the little things that had once brought me joy. Love for myself, whoever the hell I was.
I am a writer.
A musician, a reader, a student, a learner and lover of languages.
A daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend.
A dog person, a devoted ketchup enthusiast, an environmental advocate, a worrier, a fan of campy musicals and blasting “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners when I drive.
But most of all, I am so much more than the pain. And I promise you: so are you.