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.
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.
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.
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.
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 story, acceptance, movement, meditation, mindfulness, photography, nature, writing, language, overcoming fear and anxiety, understanding stress, volunteering, 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.