I’ve been struggling with how to write about pain for several weeks now. Every time I sit down to write about pain, I end up venting and complaining. That’s not what I want this to be about. I asked a friend of mine, Emily, how she copes with her chronic migraines and to share what she’s learned from living with pain. She shares the feeling I’ve been struggling with a lot lately; that living in chronic pain challenges your self-image. Who are you if your pain prevents you from doing things that define you?
Though I don’t want this post to be a venting session, I will at least explain that my chronic pain stems from two injuries acquired through a combination of over training one difficult (for me) move in capoeira on mostly one side and sitting at my desk. You can check out the move, macaco, below.
Both my left knee and my left shoulder haven’t been the same since I worked on this move almost every day for several weeks – 3 years ago. According to the orthopedic specialist I saw for my knee a couple years ago at best, with either lots of lifting and/or surgery, my knee might be at 80% performance some day. After a year or more of headaches up to 3-4 days a week, massages and chiropractic treatment, I finally went to see an orthopedic specialist just a few months ago. I have thoracic outlet syndrome; my clavicle and first rib are pinching a nerve causing issues throughout my left shoulder, neck and arm. This probably started with macaco but has been exacerbated by sitting at a desk all day. I’m doing physical therapy for both but I’m impatient to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Who isn’t in these situations though? I should be thankful that there is a light at the end of the tunnel because that’s not necessarily the case for everyone who lives with chronic pain.
I’ve always viewed myself as a fiercely independent woman. I don’t like asking for help especially for physical activities. I want to be strong enough to dig holes and saw fallen branches (yes, I like to saw fallen branches) and do handstands (incidentally I sucked at handstands when my shoulder wasn’t messed up but I was working on them). In my mind I am strong enough for all of this and anything else too. It’s taken me 3 years to acknowledge that these injuries have altered my physical capabilities. I’m just started to accept that I have some real physical limitations and I’m not accepting it with good grace. It pisses me off… a lot. It bothers me that I can’t do everything I want to do and it bothers me that it’s become a part of how other people see me.
Emily, has experienced some similar frustrations exacerbated by how ineffective everything she’s tried has been at lessening the frequency, duration and severity of her migraines. She wrote the following in response to my questions:
“Without the support of Phil [husband], my dad, my kids, and a few friends, over the past year, chronic pain would have completely robbed me of any hope. At my lowest point, I felt that the pain had permanately converted me from an intelligent, useful member of society with great potential to nothing but a helpless burden on my family. At this point, I’m learning to set reasonable goals, keeping in mind that chronic pain will slow the pace of my meeting those goals. Chronic pain has taught me to be more flexible and has taught me to be kinder to myself.”
Pain is exhausting and demoralizing. It changes the way one lives day to day. It alters relationships with spouse, children, friends, family. It demands attention and pulls at awareness through almost every step of the day. It turns the simplest things (sitting, standing, breathing, sneezing, sleeping) into an equation of pain management or avoidance or masking. Emily is learning to be kinder to herself and hopefully now knows that her migraines don’t make her less intelligent or useful to society (I can attest to both). But this isn’t the kind of thing that you realize and then it’s never an issue again. Chronic pain doesn’t just go away and neither does the struggle to accept it as part of who you are. By its very nature, this is an uphill battle and the little psychological and physical victories should be celebrated.
I wouldn’t want you to think that I just sit around feeling sorry for myself (though that happens occasionally). I’d like to share what I do to cope with the pain. I cope by doing some very gentle yoga, no downward dogs or planks these days, but there are some sequences specifically for shoulder and neck pain that I’ve found to be very helpful. This video from YogaByCandace is great to do at night after a day of normal desk worker life.
And this sequence from Yoga Journal has been a great way to start my day.
These two things almost immediately decreased the number of days I spent in the clutches of really bad headaches.
In addition to very gently yoga, I do physical therapy for my shoulder every night. I try to go to the gym a few times a week to bike and do leg strengthening things. I sleep on a heating pad, I take ibuprofen on a fairly regular basis and am really trying to get better about asking for help. Fortunately my husband and daughter both want me to get better and, therefore, typically appreciate when I ask for help rather than being my stubbornly independent self. My husband suggests that I wrap myself in bubble wrap and repeatedly reminds me to “make good decisions” (such as not sawing branches).