The Pain I Hide

Before my accident, the worst physical pain I’d ever endured was a broken ankle and that passed. As a matter of fact, any physical pain I had ever experienced passed, so I was of the belief that all physical pain was fleeting. That was the difference, I thought, between the two: emotional pain latched on and hung around, physical pain subsided over time.

One thing about both types is that they each have lessons to teach. For instance, I have learned that my reaction to both emotional and physical pain is the same: keep it hidden. So, just how I kept my suicidal ideations from all of my friends and family, I also hid most of my physical pain from them, as well. My husband knew somewhat, but even though I tell him everything, I still hid most of it from him. For almost a year I was in daily pain without really knowing why, but since I didn’t want to be seen as a whiner, I kept it to myself.

When my therapist told me in a somber voice that I would be in pain for the foreseeable future, I didn’t believe her. “Bullshit!” I thought. “I’m still young, it’ll get better.” Oh, how naive I was.

Five years, three surgeries and multiple physical therapy appointments after the accident, I am still in pain. Sometimes it is subtle, hovering ever so slightly over me like a dark, ominous cloud. Most of the time it isn’t. It rages and screams at me until I can no longer take it. No matter what, it’s always there. A constant reminder that I am broken.

What started with my shoulder has now become my head, neck and entire right upper extremity. As I write this my hand (the one on which I’ve already undergone surgery) is cramping and my fingers are getting cold and numb. I’ve been told by a surgeon that I trust that I should never let another surgeon touch me because of all the procedures I’ve had done.

Throughout the whole ordeal, I have only admitted my struggles to a few. Some are wonderful and understanding and want to know how they can help. Others offer platitudes or condescension or doubt.

I am so used to being doubted that at times I doubt myself. It is only the imaging and the surgeries and the blood studies that prove to me that I have a chronic illness. Without those I might succumb to the doubt and hate myself. Instead, I try to overcome it.

When I’m in more pain than usual, I “guard” my shoulder subconsciously by holding my hand right below my chest, as if I’m carrying a bag. Since we’ve been told that this can do more harm, my husband looks out for it. When he sees me doing it, he’ll say, “Babe, you’re holding your purse” or “Is that purse heavy?” He’s pretty good about pointing things out with humor.

Up until the accident I was a go-getter who never asked for help from anyone. This has been such a learning curve for me, not being able to do things I once could. I can’t lift things or push or pull things anymore, but that doesn’t stop me. It’s like my mind, which is still relatively healthy, hasn’t caught up to the fact that my body is crumbling.

I don’t want to be that person. The one who complains all the time or who is seen as weak. So instead I force myself to be someone I’m not and I end up hurting myself more in the process.

There are many things I am grateful for in this journey. My husband, who has stood by my side and never made me feel lesser because of my chronic injury. My mother, who is always there for me if I need her and who took care of me when my husband was at work after my surgeries. Neither of them have ever doubted me, and I cannot put into words how much that means to me. I’m also grateful for the little bit of self-reliance I still have.

I am a 28 year old woman in chronic pain from disorders that are invisible. Oh, how often I’ve been told, “Well, I have shoulder pain, too, but I just take an Advil,” or, “You’re too young to be in pain,” or “You can move/work, so it can’t be that bad.” I’ve figuratively (and sometimes literally) bitten my tongue so many times it should be in tatters.

My illness and injuries make it almost impossible for me to sleep at night, and when I do fall asleep, God forbid I roll over onto my right side in the middle of the night, or else I’ll wake up in tears. When I was a teen I was told that I would grow out of sleeping in on my days off. A decade later, I still do it. However, now whenever I get the chance to sleep in, I will always, always wake up with excruciating pain in my neck and a severe headache which won’t subside until after I’ve taken my medications and sit with a heating pad for an hour.

Society says that if you’re hurt, you’re useless. This is why most of us with chronic pain suffer in silence. We’re tired of the rudeness, the disbelief and condescension. We’re tired of trying to explain why we can’t do certain things or why we have to do other things. But most of all, we’re just tired. Day in and day out we are fighting a battle that no one else can see, and most people don’t care to see. It’s exhausting.

I love my life, even with my chronic pain, and the only thing I would change about it is to be “normal” again. But, to be honest, I don’t even know what normal is anymore.