Things You Only Know If You Have Chronic Pain In Your 20s
The Debrief: 'Looking back, it seems mental that I didn't realise how serious my back 'thing' was - but life was busy.'
'Strap her up gal, tonight's gonna be a big one.'
Sent by a caring bestie, this pre-big-night-out warning message became pretty standard during uni. This one sticks out in my memory though as it was sent on what would end up being my final night out before I took a year out to undergo major surgery to fix my back, the 'her', my pal refers to in his text.
Realising something was wrong
At 17 I'd been in a car crash - five teenagers rolling a Corsa on the way to the first 18th party - we were the classic cautionary tale. Miraculously we were all fine but a week later on holiday I felt a weird niggling in my lower back. Oh no nothing serious - like any invincible teenager I just assumed it was caused by a few nights in an unfamiliar bed...
Oh how wrong I was. This was in fact the first in a series of acute pain 'episodes' that would punctuate my gradual decline from a normal active seventeen year old to a twenty one year old with, to quote my oh-so-sensitive spinal surgeon, 'the back of a ninety year old paratrooper'.
Managing the pain is difficult
Looking back, it seems mental that I didn't realise how serious my back 'thing' was but life was busy. School, uni, mates, first loves, travel. Add to this that I'm someone who likes to be positive, who loves to give most things a go, and who definitely HATES to moan, I wasn't going to let some boring ache get in the way... If you're positive then everything, however shit, can be the inspiration for something good. Like ‘The Ibuprof-Gin’! If my back hadn’t broke then I’d never have invented this late night elixir that would lessen the chance of waking up feeling like Mickey Rouke in 'The Wrestler' after a night of dancing.
But the pain was always there... Shifting beneath the surface like tectonic plates. Most of the time it was manageable - I’d always wear flats and developed a GPS system for locating the nearest chair. But when the pain plates collided, causing bone grinding earthquakes and nerve burning aftershocks - my world crashed to a halt.
During one of these early quakes I remember my boyfriend at the time lying on the floor beside me, just holding my hand for fear of not wanting to cause any discomfort. He was kind and sympathetic but so long as there was no end to the campaign of hate my body was running against me, I felt there was a limit to how long he, or any guy, would wait it out. Chronic pain is not conducive to intimacy - there's definitely a limit to the amount of massage you can offer without it building to anything other than to a ‘thanks that feels a bit better but I think it’ll just lie here’ - and so, out of fear, confusion and embarrassment, I began to hide it, belittling it away in the hope of appearing 'normal'.
Ultimately the problem was that chronic pain isn't really something we associate with young people. If I had a pound for every time someone smiled and whispered 'Is it your period?' when I mentioned the mind-numbing feeling between my hips I could probably use them to pay for a lifetime's supply of tampons.
Pain, of whatever type, is a personal thing. However, with chronic pain comes an exhausting internal monologue ('Am I hurting right now? If yes - why? If no - why not?') that is really isolating. Add to that reactions like that of the male quack I saw early on who suggested that all I needed was a valium, slowly I began to lose confidence in my own judgement. Firstly about my back (maybe it is just my period!) but then, as time went on and the pain got worse, everything....
And as soon as you start doubting yourself you’re a goner. As a result of my unrelenting positivity, a not-particularly-helpful pattern had emerged whereby the worse the pain got, the seemingly more upbeat I had to be. Wanna go surfing? Yes why not! I'm fucked anyway! But as soon as I was alone, I was, like my back, breaking. Only my parents knew the full extent to which not being able to get up in the morning was making me not want to get up in the morning. At a time when your future is laid out before you, all I wanted to do was lie down, and I couldn’t help wonder what I’d do if was always going to be like this…
Surgery can be lifechanging
For me, change came in the way of surgery. It was no Disney-like dream of waking up and finding myself cured (even if my brother did describe my post-operative steps as like Bambi’s) It was really weird being back home with my parents, reliant on them like a helpless little baby who couldn’t dress herself. But over the course of the year long recovery, I began to build myself back up again. Physically, through physio and swiss balls and swimming lessons with old people and mentally, once I noticed that I actually felt less lonely back with my parents, away from my mates, than I did when I was with them.
Sat as a spectator on the pool of early adulthood, rather than as a participator, I saw how far we all go to but our best selves forward. Family, friends, bodies, relationships - we’ve all got pain. But so long as we try to hide our scars under ill-fitting swimming costumes we’re just adding unnecessary discomfort.
And so, as I prepared to re-enter to arena of my adult life back at university, I decided to learn from the oldies I swam with after the surgery: take the plunge, kick with all your heart and never ever be afraid of showing your scars as without them we’d never have anything interesting to talk about!
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Picture: Ada Hamza
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