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See My Strength: Not My Pain

“I’ve lost track of the number of times in my life that I’ve wanted to give up.  The number of days, of moments, when I felt I could no longer tolerate the pain or keep up the pace of my life.  But, I’m STILL here.  Don’t ever tell me I’m weak or lazy.  Just like you can’t see my illness, you can’t see my strength.”

I have been sharing my story for over three years: the good, the bad, the scary, the inspiring, and the ugly truth of my journey with chronic pain.  At times I have shared stories of some of my amazing, strong readers who also have an invisible illness.  This week I interviewed a person whom I will call Patrick (in light of St. Patrick’s Day) and his answers were so raw and so well said that I feel the need to share exactly what this young man wrote.

  1.  When did you know that your pain was chronic, as is not going away as acute pain would and do you know what caused the pain?  My pain first started in June, a few days after my 18th birthday.  At the time I was in a program called Seal Fit. Seal fit is a program that trains you mentally and physically to go into the Navy Seal training and make it through the cut.  During one of the workouts, I was on a rowing machine.  An intense pain shot down my lower back through my left leg and into my foot.  I had never experienced anything like this.  I thought I had pulled a hamstring.  A few months passed and the pain only got worse. At the time I was trying everything that would help my recovery.  I was doing special stretches, using a TENS unit, and applying kinesiology tape.   I was still training just not as intensely.  The pain eventually got to the point that I could no longer take it and I went to see a doctor.  They thought I had a pinched nerve which caused sciatica and I was sent for an MRI.  I remember sitting in a pain clinic in Tallahassee, FL with my at the time girlfriend.  A nurse came in the room to alert me that a doctor would be in shortly to talk to me. I was facing away in a chair and twisted around to look at her.   As soon as I twisted around, the nurse gave me an alarming look and advised me not to twist my body.  I remember being so confused. How could twisting make ‘this’ any worse?  It didn’t make sense.  I then received what would be the first deep sinking feeling of many to come over the next two plus years.  I had a partially congenital  condition where my L5 vertebrae did not form on the left side.  The right side had broken from a previous dirt bike accident and my vertebrae had fallen out of place on my spine, crushing my spinal cord and sciatic nerve.  There was fifty to seventy five percent slippage of my spine.  They explained it was close to causing partial paralysis, which means it would have paralyzed my left leg.  That explained why I did not have feeling in a large portion of my leg.    I was then  scheduled to see a neurosurgeon to talk about having my spine fused.  I remember the first time I met this doctor, he seemed charismatic and confident.   At the time, I had no doubt that this nice man was going to swoop in and take all my troubles and pain away.  However, first impressions can always be wrong.  At the time of the spinal fusion consultations I was only able to walk about five feet at a time without stopping and getting off of my feet. The doctor explained that they were going to go in and pull the vertebrae back into a place and fuse it with rods and screws.  It was a “simple” procedure that lasted two hours and I would be able to go home in two days.

          My day finally came and I remember sitting in the waiting room waiting to go into surgery.  I said goodbye to all of my family whom all looked so worried, especially my dad.  This whole ordeal had caused some difficulties between my dad and I.  Our relationship had never been perfect and before this happened I worked for him.  When the pain first started he thought I was making it up to get out of work and that caused even more tension and fighting in an already difficult relationship.  That all changed once he was told that my spine was in fact broken.  I remember seeing him cry as they wheeled me into surgery and at that moment I knew he felt very bad.  I sat outside the OR doors for three hours.  I was finally on the table as they told me to count as they applied the anesthesia.  I was so relieved that this nightmare was about to be over.  I had no idea that my nightmare (of pain) was just beginning.  My two hour surgery ended up being six hours.  I woke up to feeling as if I was cut open with gas poured inside my body, sewed back up again as the fire was ablaze inside me. I ended up staying in the hospital for a month despite being told I would be there two days.  I really cannot convey the physical pain I was in, I feel as if I have somehow blocked out those days.  I could not walk, talk, and did not sleep for an entire week following the surgery.  The strongest IV medications would not even knock me out: I felt like I was dying.

I had never experienced time moving so slowly.   Minutes felt like hours, days like weeks.  The month stay felt like a year. I could not even put on my own shoes or clothes: it was humiliating.  I always promised myself I would die before I ever went back to that state of helplessness.   I cannot explain how hard that was and how much it took from me because it just isn’t possible and no one can imagine how close I came to dying unless they had seen it themselves.   Every blackout from pain and from my inpatient stay where they were trying to teach me how to walk again was worse that I could have imagined.  But, that was just the physical pain and I was still holding onto hope.

So, to answer when I knew the pain was not going away, I would like to say it was after the hospital and multiple rehab centers I went to.   But, that would not be true.  I remember my positivity and hope as a mask.  I was doing it more for my family that I was for me.  I could feel it.  I knew what was going on.

2.What changed in your life due to your invisible illness? 

I honestly do not know how to answer that because it changed my whole life.  It is not as if it limited some limitations and I had to adapt, it gave every limitation.  Pain changed everything.  No aspect of my former life was the same.  I am not the same.

3. Do you have a good support system and/or people or loved ones who understand what you are going through?

I have people who think they understand and want to understand.  However, the only person who I think understands is my mom because she sat there and watched everything I have gone through.  I do not know how she did it.  I know what I was going through was hell, but she had to sit there and watch it feeling helpless.  Many people say: “Oh trust me, I get it” because they have felt pain and/or some type of sadness but they do not really get it.  People have no idea what chronic pain is like and when a person tries to compare it to the pain of an end to a month long relationship or an argument with a friend, I want to scream.

4.  Have you had to stop any of your passions due to chronic pain?

One of my most loved things was skateboarding. Skateboarding was a mental and physical release for me and a hobby my best friend and I shared.  I am unable to skateboard anymore and that loss hurts deeply.  I also loved mountain biking and that passion is now gone as well.  However, my biggest dream that is lost is my dream of joining special operations, a dream I have had since the young age of three.  That dream was crushed in front of my eyes and I never even got a chance to try.  Chronic pain has taken every passion from me except for music and software engineering.

5.  What emotional aspects come along with chronic pain?

I would love to say that it causes you to feel down at times but you are able to get right back up but that is not the case.  I never wanted to die so strongly in my life.  I do not think I have gone more than two days in the past two years without wanting to die.  It’s not a figure of speech as some may use this gut wrenching phrase: I want to die.  I am not unstable suicidal as I could never do that to my family or loved ones.  I feel people with chronic pain are the only people who would understand this feeling.   It is more that I want to opt out of this life with chronic pain, not actually die.  I just do not want to be here most days because it is a constant fight: me against pain and it is exhausting.  Chronic pain causes a heavy depression.  I feel as if I have been kidnapped and I am being tortured however it is my own body torturing me.  For me, a lack of sleep is a huge affect chronic pain has taken on my life which only intensifies the pain and depression.  Sometimes, I feel like I died in surgery and this is hell.  I’m not crazy, I am clearly not dead or in hell but that is what this life now feels like.   When people hear what happened to me, I get one of two things.  Either people are skeptic and do not believe me or they look at me as if I am a toy that is now broken forever.  Neither one are encouraging or helpful.

6.What keeps you going?  How do you stay strong?

Sometimes I do not even know how to answer that.  I know it is partially my family, especially my mom.  I want to succeed for her.  I know she needs that.  The other is that I have always felt different from the majority of people.  I have gone through other hardships in life and forced myself out.  I do not want to see chronic pain win.  This is MY life and chronic pain does not deserve to take over MY life.  I just want the pain to die.  I want to kill the pain.  I still have goals and dreams although they are hard to see through this filter chronic pain has placed over my life.  I know I still deserve to be happy and have my dreams fulfilled.  I just need to find a way to get there.  I wouldn’t be strong if I gave up the feeling that I deserve to be happy.  We all deserve happiness.

7. Have you lost any friends due to chronic pain?

I had a girlfriend at the time of the fusion whom I had been dating for seven years.  I found out she was cheating on me as I was in the hospital.  I broke up with her and so I definitely lost her.  I lost friends as well.  I now realize some friends were only there to get out of me what they could get.  I do not regret losing these people and I do not miss any of these people.  If anything that is the only good chronic pain has done for me in my life.  Every single person I lost because of chronic pain does not deserve to be in my life.  You can look at it as if chronic pain purged all the toxic people from my life.  I am actually grateful for that.

8.  Do you see any good coming from your invisible illness?

I do in some ways, not everyone could handle this.  Not everyone has the view and perspective on life that chronic pain forces you to see. I do not think you can see your self worth or your true strength until you have been completely torn apart.  I know what I am capable of and can survive because of this invisible illness.  Not everyone could survive this and I am surviving it every day.

9.  Where do you want to be in five years? 

I want to be making a difference in the world.   I want to be working for Google or another technology company with the power and will to change the world.  I have always been passionate about technology and am currently in a program for  Self-Driving Cars.  Self-driving cars will bring a new lease to the blind and disabled.  More than anything though I want to be happy.  I want chronic pain to be behind me.  I am tired of being in this hole with no way out. I just want to look back and say that I made it through.  I feel like every time I get close to getting out of this hole, the hole only gets deeper.  I just hope by that point I have found a way to escape.

10.If you could tell people who have never had chronic pain something what would it be?

People without chronic pain are so lucky and they do not even know it.  I feel as if so many people are ungrateful for the healthy lives they have and how much worse things could be.  People seem to complain about this miniscule things.  Why don’t you try appreciating your health and life for once instead of trying to make the world revolve around you?  That may sound harsh and I apologize.  I do not believe everyone is like this, I have just found this to be in my certain situation.   People focus on what other people think too much when most of the time the other person’s opinion means nothing!  I just want people to realize that things could always be worse, including my situation.  That gives us all a reason to appreciate the things we overlook in life, and instead of focusing on the bad we should focus on the good and try to make it that much better.

All I want to say regarding this person is that he is only twenty years of age!  Is that crazy or what?  He has wisdom and strength some people never acquire during their entire lifetime.  I may have changed very tiny things in his response but this is his story and it reminds me so much of mine that it breaks my heart.  I know his pain and I know so many of you know his pain.  However, he has hope and determination.  At the age of twenty I did not have that hope and determination.  He has no idea how strong he is and I know this post will help far more people than he even knows.

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