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How chronic pain taught me resilience

What happens when a fitness coach, whose life hinges on physical activity, discovers that she has sciatica 

A world of pain
A world of pain (Pexels)

I was staring down the barrel, not of a gun, per se, but down the drum of an MRI machine. The same thing, I guess. I was about to enter it headfirst.

"Do you need anything?" The technician tentatively asks, worried I will have a panic attack as I disappear into the belly of this machine which sounds like an active construction site.

Just a blanket, I say. I'm going to take a nap.

For those of you who have been in an MRI machine, you know how impossible this is. However, years of chronic pain, minimal sleep, and skirting along the sidelines of depression, 20 minutes in a tube that's making jackhammer sounds under blinking fluorescent lights didn't make me anxious, just supremely tired. I knew what my doctor was going to recommend--surgery.

Welcome to my world of injury and chronic sciatic pain.

If anyone has had a brush with sciatic pain, you have my deepest sympathies and condolences. You know the primal fear that comes with having the longest nerve in your body light up like Times Square on New Year's Eve, immobilising your every movement. It's the kind of pain that, at its worst, can erase your thoughts, make you forget how to breathe, and replace your rational thoughts with sheer panic. When sciatic pain is at its most manageable, it feels like an annoying laundry clip on your skin, but you know its evil twin is lurking behind every step you take.

According to  Spine-Health, sciatic pain is thankfully a limited experience for most people, which diminishes after 4-6 weeks. Hooray for them. I am one of the people for which the pain doesn't go away. My pain didn't subside over time; it altered the structure of my body to adapt to its presence. I developed a spinal curve in response to this pain like I was leaning away from a lousy dinner companion who had terrible breath. The pain pushed my upper body to the left, and my right hip rotated forward. My body parts were literally bailing ship and escaping from the source of pain.

No matter how baggy my clothes got to disguise my disfigurement, people commented on my unique body shape. Of course, it hurt, but I don't blame them. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror without crying, and I couldn't take a single step without fantasizing about ripping my nerve out of my leg with my bare hands.

Also read: How to walk your way to better health

People started to comment on how hard it must be on me, being so into fitness. I'm a personal trainer and love running my fitness classes. So my Instagram was filled with battle ropes, pull-ups, and every type of push-up under the sun. And now, I couldn’t walk 15 steps without searing pain.

My body was my job. And suddenly, I couldn't reckon with my own body.

There is no hiding that this injury has caused me some of the darkest lows of my life. The mental and emotional trauma of healing has, at some points, been worse than the pain itself. "You're about to enter mental and physical torture," my physio once told me, "because healing doesn't happen on a linear graph. Some days you'll be better, some days you will be worse. You have to stay positive."

Most textbooks talk about the body's natural healing processes and the nutrition and supplementation that will help support your recovery. But, most sources don't talk about fear and the uncomfortable questions that are starting to pop up.

What if this never goes away? What if living with this pain is my life now? What if I can never do the things I love again?

Asking these questions may start to wear down your confidence, but dwelling on these questions and slipping into negativity may be slowing down your healing process.

Also read: Three excellent exercises for a bad back

The trouble is, what we think we can do becomes the basis of who we imagine ourselves to be, and it will dictate how we perceive the world and how we act. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) reported a range of emotions athletes could feel from the onset of injury and the loss of identity that can come with it. Those emotions range from disengagement to sadness, anger to frustration. Injured athletes can also display more problematic behaviours, including but not limited to disorderly eating and depression.

I recently read an interesting study on the psychology of (3) ACL repair from La Trobe University, in Australia (because I'm nerdy like that), which showed that despite having no physical variances in recovery, only 51% of ACL patients returned to their sport after 12 months post-rehab. The researchers uncovered that this was mainly due to the athletes' psychological state and whether they felt ready to participate or confident in their bodies again. The study urged clinicians to work holistically with their patients at the 6-month mark, when there were moderate gains in physical rehabilitation, to rebuild the athletes' confidence.

Researchers are starting to identify what we could have told them all along; mental resilience matters in recovery.

I’m in the middle of my healing journey. But the technique that has worked for me to boost my resilience has been to focus on my ultimate reason "why" I want to heal. I have discovered over time that I don't care about the push-ups I'm missing. Instead,I care about the life I am missing. Discovering my ultimate reason "why" I wanted to recover was the key to unlocking my resilience, and it gave me the strength to finish walking through my darkest night.

I am what I believe I can do, and I'm not just a fit person. I am a resilient person, and I'm proving that to myself every day.


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