These days I’m feeling like I’m just a person, not a person with chronic pain, which is an interesting perch to view the past eight years from. I’m trying to piece together how I got here. Granted, I’ve been trying to do so for some time! But never from this vantage point. I recognize how much acceptance has been a part of it all.

But acceptance is such a nuanced term with many definitions and interpretations that I want to be clear on what I mean by it. For me acceptance is not about giving up. It’s not about resigning yourself to a future of pain or hopelessness. It’s been the opposite for me, though I resisted it for a long time. And it’s an ongoing process, not a destination.

Acceptance for me means accepting who I am and acknowledging my current reality at any given moment. So it meant, when I first started working through this process, accepting that I had changed, too. That I was no longer the firefighting, heavy lifting, half-marathon running badass of my past.

That was a hard thing to accept, but it was also my reality, and fighting reality only led me to suffer. It was in accepting that reality – that I did in fact have pain, that it did lead me to medically retire from my career that had defined me, that it did mean I couldn’t do the things I once did – that allowed me to finally move forward.

My favorite running and cross-country ski trail with views of Winter Park Resort where I snowboard

Acceptance revisited ~ Figuring out where I was

Accepting those facts of my existence did not mean I was accepting them as my future, too. I was not condemning myself to a life of unchanging pain and suffering. By accepting what had happened, what had changed, and that pain was a part of my life in that moment, I could make space for it all so that there was room for everything else.

Pain and grief for my lost former self and lost former life had taken up all my energy and resources for so long, it was time for a change. Time to make space for the things that mattered to me.

That meant, though, that I had to discover what those things were. And it turned out, in that discovery, that I was not so wholly different than I was before. I was still me. I still valued many of the same things. My boys, my family and friends, reading and writing, nature, being of service, learning, physical challenges. The way I engaged with those things might have had to change, but I could certainly still live out my core values.

…and discovering where I could go

My half-marathons became walks around the block. Time in nature went from trail hikes to sitting in the backyard and watching the birds and feeling the sun on my face. My time with my boys meant less adventure, for the time being, and more quiet time at home.

I had a newfound appreciation for those things, things I had taken for granted for so long. Rather than only seeing all I lost, all I could no longer do, I began shifting my focus to what I could do within my new limitations. Limitations that I had accepted for the present, mind you, not as permanent limitations.

That meant getting a bit creative at times, which is a good thing. It meant getting more curious, exploring who I was and what mattered to me as a person more, which was also a good thing, if a difficult one. What did matter to me? And why?

Why was lifting heavy shit so important to me? Was it because it made me feel strong? Or was it because of what other people thought of me because I could lift heavy things? Was it the image of being a badass that I was after, or did I really want to be a badass? If it was the latter, what other ways could that look like?

Perhaps being strong and being a badass could also look like being vulnerable, sharing my story. Maybe I could work on those strengths instead.

I was me all along

I have said it before but it is so relevant to all of this I am going to say it again. It took me a long to realize that it wasn’t being a firefighter that made me who I was. That it was who I was that had made me become a firefighter. And I was still that person. Take out firefighter and put in heavy lifter, runner, or any number of things I identified myself by, that any of us do, and see how it sounds.

Being a firefighter and a paramedic meant being of service. Were there other ways I could be of service? Perhaps trying to understand pain to not only to help myself but to help others make sense of pain, and being human, could be of service.

Perhaps I could give back through volunteering. I volunteer as an adaptive snowboard coach now with the National Sports Center for the Disabled (where I met my friend and co-founder of EPIc, Beth, pictured below), but my first volunteer gig while I was in pain was at the library, putting books away and making sure they were in order according to the Dewey Decimal System. That was heaven for me (books! order!), and it helped out my library and my community.

My happy place, on a mountain with a good friend

I loved being a runner for the physical challenge and for getting out onto trails and out of my head. That’s part of why I missed it so much, I was in my head, which was in my hip and in my pain, too damn much. I didn’t have that time where I could just zone out anymore.

Were there other ways I could zone out? Get out of my head? Meditation was one of those ways. And I had to practice it, just as with any physical skill. And boy, did I need practice. It took me years to get consistent. The Calm app was what helped me get there. Coloring. Cooking. Reading. Photography. There became a bunch of other ways.

Reconceptualization of more than just pain

It was about reconceptualizing not just pain, but also reconceptualizing me. Who was I? Pain can feel like an assault on the self. You can feel like a different person, a person you don’t recognize and perhaps don’t particularly like. It makes pain even more difficult because you lose all sense of cohesion – cohesion of self, cohesion of the world. It’s not an easy task to find yourself amidst the pain. But you’re still there.

Part of that reconceptualization was also that things can and do change. Once we can make sense of the world again, make sense of pain, make sense of the changes that have taken place, we can start to look toward the future with hope. We can then understand that we are bioplastic beings, that our present is not our future, but that what we do in the present certainly lays the groundwork for what’s to come.

And through all of this, through acceptance and reconceptualizing pain and delving deeper into myself and what mattered to me, things did change. I let go of some of my ego (I could probably do to let go a bit more). I become more humble and appreciative of what I did have and the wonderful experiences I had been privileged to be a part of, while also acknowledging the losses.

Moving forward

But I could no longer live in the grief, anger and frustration over those losses. Not if I was to move on. Accepting who I was, accepting that who I had been had changed, and that that was ok, was the only way for me to forward.

Now here I am looking back over the last eight years with a bit of awe. I have come so far.

From not being able to sit on furniture or in a car to fighting for every bit of care, however inadequate, in a broken worker’s compensation system, to losing my career, my identity, my future, my friends, my financial security, my hobbies…to getting back to living a meaningful life once again, filled with things that matter and that I am grateful for. And accepting all of those things that happened was a big part of it. Accepting that pain has shaped who I am is a part of it.

Our experiences shape us

But that’s what being human is all about, isn’t it? We’re always changing. My experience with chronic pain is surely a part of who I am today, it is a part of my story, just as having been a firefighter and an athlete are part of who I am today, part of my story. I am more than just pain, just as I was more than a firefighter, more than an athlete, at those earlier points in time.

Feeling shame, regret, frustration, anger, and sorrow have shaped me, too, they are also a part of my story. So too are joy, love, happiness, laughter, and awe.

Going to grad school in neuroscience straight out of college is a part of who I am, and so too is backpacking for 28 days in the Appalachian mountains after I dropped out. Volunteering as a snowboard coach for people with disabilities is shaping who I am today, just as well as sitting quietly in my backyard watching birds and feeling the sun on my face in a brief moment of joy and reprieve during periods of unrelenting pain once did.

Writing this blog over the years is a part of my story, too, and has surely shaped who I am today. Innumerable combinations of thoughts, feelings, interactions, beliefs, emotions, expectations, dreams, failures, people, places, and experiences have shaped me, have shaped each of us, into the people we are today. And everything we experience henceforth will  continue to do so.

We are always changing and adapting. That’s what’s so freakin’ cool. And we have some control over the shape our story takes.

A favorite life shaping experience – camping, which I’ve been doing since I was a few months old

Accepting where we’re at doesn’t mean we’ll always be there

I hope it’s clear that my accepting anything at any point in time does not mean accepting it forever. Accepting that I could not run a few years ago did not have to mean I would never run again. It’s just realistic to accept that you can’t run when you can barely walk 50 yards without all-consuming, attention stealing pain.

I’m running again. Slow as molasses, but I’m running, dammit! And it’s marvelous  (But see how I still have to mention how slow I am? Some things are still hard to accept ;) I still struggle to not compare with my former self, or any random person out there for that matter. I’ll always be a work in progress.)

It’s hard to accept where we’re at sometimes. Especially when where we’re at includes pain or grief or depression or suffering of any sort. Being in pain is HARD. It is incredibly difficult, disruptive, demoralizing, and distressing. It is exhausting. It feels very unfair. Pain colors the way we see the world, see others, and see ourselves. So it is undeniably understandable to not want to be in it, to not want to accept it, to want to fight pain with everything we’ve got.

But there is a difference between fighting reality, fighting what’s happened, fighting where we’re at, and taking steps forward that can change it. I fought for years, and suffered for it. By giving up the fight I didn’t give in, I just used my energy more productively to work toward change. To work toward re-engaging with the world again. Toward reconnecting with the people, places and experiences that I found meaningful.

Things will change, we can guide how they do

There is such realistic hope for all of us. Life can get better. We are not to blame for our pain, we are not at fault, but becoming aware of some of the things within our control that might be influencing our experience, our pain, can help us to explore different approaches that may help ease our suffering.

I have no step-by-step way forward. If you’ve read through my blog at all you know that I’ve been figuring it out as I go. I have failed and I’ve succeeded but I’ve always flexibly persisted, in the words of Bronnie Lennox Thompson.

It’s been some unplanned combination of pain science education, telling my storyacceptance, movement, meditation, mindfulness, photography, nature, writing, language, overcoming fear and anxiety, understanding stressvolunteering, figuring out what mattered most to me, redefining success, living well with pain, and – perhaps most importantly – loving and being loved.

My loves – John, Buster and nature :)

It’s been quite a journey. I look forward to seeing where it takes me. Will pain be a part of it? I wouldn’t be surprised, why wouldn’t it be? Pain is a part of life, after all. I’m not expecting it, but I am prepared for it, and that makes all the difference.

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18 Responses to "Acceptance revisited ~ what has acceptance meant to me?"

  1. I love this. I had to divert my career from being an ER nurse to Health Informatics because of my chronic illness. It felt like I was losing part of who I was/am. Your blog has been very helpful to me in coming to terms with some of the things I’ve lost along the way. Thank-you!

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read the post and leave this message, it means a lot to me. It’s so valuable to know that we are heard and understood. I’m sorry that your career was also diverted due to chronic illness and I can so relate that loss sense of self and identity. It is important to acknowledge and grieve for those losses and it’s also important to come to terms with them, too, as you said, so that we can move forward, too. We’ll all do so in our own time and our own ways, and it helps to know (at least for me) that we are not alone in doing so. Thank you so much for connecting and for sharing a bit of your story. Besto to you along the way. Please stay in touch if you’re so inclined!

  2. Russ and I were JUST talking about acceptance and I opened up FB ago read this. You give me hope through hearing your journey, so many similar emotions and ways of dealing. Thank you 🙏🏻💕

    • Serendipity! I am so happy you opened FB and saw the post at an opportune time. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement, it means a great deal to me. I’m ever so grateful our paths crossed as I’ve learned so much from you. Thank you, Terri ❤

  3. I kind of hate to put a damper on things. However, when I see stories like this one, I wonder about those in pain who are also in dire straights financially. If they cannot do their work, they cannot support themselves. I always hope to see some mention of those issues in comments, blogs, other such stories. But I don’t remember seeing anyone address those issues. Wish someone would. (Yeah, not me, I’m not much of a writer.)

    • It is not a damper, Shelley, dire financial straits are a reality for many people and it is something that should be discussed.

      Books like Lous Heshusius’ Experiencing Chronic Pain in Society discuss how chronic pain and illness can leave people financially destitute, but perhaps not to the extent that would be helpful to someone living under such financial strain.

      My blog is only based on my personal experience with pain, so I only speak to what I’ve gone through and relate it to what I’ve learned through my studies. We were fortunate to not lose our home. I know not everyone has the same circumstances and so my story won’t resonate with everyone.

      I’m sorry I don’t have a better response, that as a society in general we don’t have a better response. Poverty, income disparity, access to resources, support and care, all require more attention and action. They are things we need to be discussing and finding solutions for.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. If you would like help in finding resources that may be more useful to you, please let me know via the contact form and I’ll do my best.

  4. Thank you for this. I can’t tell you how much I relate and how this mirrors my own journey the past 8 years, and especially the past 4. Of course the details are different but having to adjust to a new life, a new reality, realizing my limitations and finding joy and purpose in new ways has been humbling. Living with chronic pain while not letting it define me is not easy but necessary. Retirement would really help but I have a few years ahead of me yet that require earning so I’m back in school with the goal of moving into a helping profession. What’s the point of suffering and recovering if you can’t help others do the same? :-)

    • Thank you so much for this message and for sharing some of your story, Jennifer. It is so valuable to know we are not alone. I relate to everything you’ve said here, there really are so many similarities! I, too, went back to school and have since co-founded a nonprofit organization with a mission of empowering people living with pain to live well.

      It was not the career path I expected but it’s a meaningful one that I am grateful for. If you’re interested in exploring what the Endless Possibilities Initiative is about at all: http://www.epicolorado.org :)

      This was such a lovely message to receive this morning, thank you for reading the post and for taking the time to share your thoughts. It means a lot to me.

  5. My what a wonderful read, refreshingly honest and speaks about the fears many of us face, yet struggle to put so well together as you have! Your positive perseverance in accepting and moving forward with pain gives hope to those of us still stuck in the merry go round of the fear of ‘giving up’.

    I hope at some point I’ll reach that stage to, for the moment accepting seems too out of reach. Your writing has at least confirmed its very much possible. Thank you, keep on doing your thing, it clearly works! ☺

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts on my post. Acceptance is no easy topic, it means something different to everyone and is deeply personal. It certainly wasn’t something that came naturally to me, either! I resisted with every ounce of my being for a long while, it’s like it had to marinate in my mind for a bit. And it’s still a process, something I have to work on with each new challenge.

      You will find your path forward, too. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a nice message. I will keep doing what I’m doing as I try to figure it all out :)

    • Hi Tom. No, I didn’t. I had arthroscopic surgery to excise a labral tear, femoroplasty (they reshaped the head of my femur), and chondroplasty (removing damaged cartilage from the acetabulum). I do not regret my surgery but do wish I could go back with my new understanding about pain.

      Back when I had my surgery I’d had unexplained worsening pain for over a year, and I naturally thought that pain=damage and that every painful step meant I was doing more damage. Now I know that pain and damage aren’t a 1:1 correlation, that there are a lot of people who have the same femoroacetabular impingement that I had or other types of degeneration like arthritis who have no pain at all, and that pain is more complex than just what is happening in the tissues. I still had pain after my surgery, so I wish I had known more about pain mechanisms than I did. It was only when I came to understand more about pain and stress biology that I began to improve. That my pain had more to do with ramped up and edgy nervous, immune and endocrine systems and that my thoughts and beliefs about pain (i.e. that pain=damage that needs to be repaired) were keeping me stuck in vicious pain cycles that affected my whole life and my whole life being affected fed back into the pain.

      I am grateful to be relatively pain free now, though. But my surgery was back in 2011, so that’s not what did it! It was all these other things that helped me the most.

  6. Thanks so much for this! It can feel like such a loss as injury and chronic pain issues come up and some of our goals change. Acceptance can be difficult but keeping the perspective on what truly brings us joy has helped me. Things are always changing, moving forward. and being present really helps. I really appreciated your article.

    • What a lovely message to receive, Brenda, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and for your kind words. Chronic pain definitely alters our course, but as you said, things are always changing and moving forward. I’m so glad you liked the article and very much appreciate that you took the time to leave a note, it means a lot to me.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I find our culture encourages us to do ‘battle’ with any chronic pain or illness. The number of times people told me ‘you’ll fight this’ or ‘you’ll show pain who’s boss’ etc… I had it in my head that if I wasn’t fighting the pain, I was not doing my job to recover according to society. It’s in realizing that by being in battle with my pain, I was in battle against my self that has started me on the right road to acceptance and moving forward. You mentioned in a comment above “It was only when I came to understand more about pain and stress biology that I began to improve. That my pain had more to do with ramped up and edgy nervous, immune and endocrine systems and that my thoughts and beliefs about pain (i.e. that pain=damage that needs to be repaired) were keeping me stuck in vicious pain cycles that affected my whole life and my whole life being affected fed back into the pain”.
    I always thought people were being condescending when they talked about the relationship between our brains and pain, and I still struggle sometimes with the way it’s mentioned, but recognizing that my stress can create or exacerbate my pain also allows me to know that I can use my mind the other way. It’s a work in progress. Thanks again for such a well-articulated and relatable story.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful message, Carolyn, I very much appreciate it. I’m glad that you were able to relate to my story. I fought for a long time. Like you said, I thought I was supposed to. Once I understood more about pain I was able to make space for it so there was room for the things that mattered.

      I understand what you mean about how condescending hearing people talk about the relationship between our brains and pain can seem. It took me some time to recognize the truth in it. It’s not a conscious role, we are not bringing our pain on ourselves and we are not to blame. The processes that take place in our brain and nervous system are very real, as are the changes seen with chronic pain and distress. But bringing some conscious awareness to those things allows us to make some changes, to take back some control, and I find that empowering. As you said, we can use our mind in another way. And just like with anything, it takes practice, so I’m a work in progress to!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It is so nice to know we are not alone in this. Best to you along this path and if I can be of support in any way, please let me know.

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