This is a guest post (my first ever!) by my friend Heidi Armstrong of the Injured Athlete’s Toolbox. Heidi and I met on the interwebs, for which I am incredibly grateful. She has become a great friend and supporter, she understands what it’s like to be injured, to have pain, to lose yourself and find yourself, and what it takes to overcome the anger, frustration, and despair that can accompany injury and chronic pain.
This post is a deeply personal one on a topic not much talked about, and a topic that needs to be talked about much more: the social isolation we experience when we’re injured or in pain. I’ll let her take it away from here….
Thank goodness for the interwebs, for without them I never would have crossed paths with Jo. A client urged me to check out her website. I was instantly captivated. Jo’s writing can only come from a place of experience. How she has translated her experience of learning to dance with chronic pain into tools others can use leads me to calling her the Yoda of chronic pain. We are all so lucky to have a guru leading us through the landmines of chronic pain.
Note: This blog touches on a little-discussed issue–social isolation. It’s heavy stuff, but if I’m not honest with you, there’d be little purpose for the words that follow. So, I’ve chosen to face this topic head on, with candor, followed by practical guidance. I’ll divide the material between two blogs. In the first we’ll talk about the origin of social isolation, and in the second we’ll talk about ameliorating social isolation.
PART ONE – THE ORIGINS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION
Edgy from hearing the news that [yet again] I was going to be excluded from something that would be a cinch for any quasi-able-bodied person, I lost my composure. I had had enough of years of social isolation.
I suspected I was being intentionally left out of regular hang outs with two close (or so I thought) friends. One of the two friends, as always, was a continuing source of love and support; the other one disappeared.
Along with losing my composure that evening, I also lost my patience. I didn’t care about a soft delivery, so I cut to the chase. I turned to my supportive friend and said, “What’s going on? The three of us used to hang out regularly, but that all changed after my injury.” I realized my question put the supportive friend in an awkward position because she’s still close to the friend who disappeared. She said something to the effect of, “Well. This is hard. It’s because of your injury. She [the friend who disappeared] doesn’t think you’re fun anymore, and when she goes out, she wants to have fun.”
Anger in the form of heat started at the top of my head and swiftly migrated to my toes. A range of emotions raged in my brain. For a moment I settled on anger. I told myself, “I thought she was a friend. Friends don’t just disappear when life serves you a steaming pile of manure. Or do they? Well. Whatever the case, karma will take care of this.”
I actually wished upon her what she had done to me.
I was genuinely pissed that someone saw me as less of a human being because I have a chronic injury. Then, something in my brain switched. I let it go. I realized remaining angry would waste my precious energy. I haven’t seen or talked to the friend who disappeared for many months now, and that’s fine by me. Why the personal vignette? You’ve likely experienced some version of this yourself, and I want you to know you aren’t alone and you did nothing wrong.
Why does social isolation happen to those of us who live with chronic pain and injury? I’m going to break it down into two origins: self-isolation and; others who isolate us (for this blog, “others” will be friends, but, like me, you may experience family isolating you too). Then we’ll talk about how to manage and ameliorate social isolation. My suggestions will help irrespective of the origin of isolation.
Self-isolation – Origin #1
1) Does your head feel like it’s going to explode if you have to explain to one more person how you’re feeling or why you needed another surgery or if you’ve discovered the source of your chronic pain? Do you feel like you’re going to pummel the next person who says, “you look tired”? (Yes, my body is at war every single day, thank you very much. Of course I’m tired!)
The storm of social isolation
Explaining a months or years-long torturous journey–even in part–over and over wastes energy. You grow weary of the endless questions and explanation. It’s just easier to simply not be around people, no matter how close your relationship.
Time out for a funny story:
At the end of 2011, my best friend Christine and I were at Whole Foods for dinner. We were walking (well, I was crutching) around the salad bar. I noticed a guy who had a bicycle water bottle cage screwed onto his crutches. I stopped him and said, “Did you have to drill the holes to attach the water bottle cage?” He said, “No. You’ll never believe this. The hole spacing on crutches and water bottle cages is exactly the same. Even the screws are the same size!” I was so excited!
Fast forward almost exactly one year.
Christine and I are back at Whole Foods, this time in the taco line. This guy ahead of us and I were looking at each other like we’d previously met. We finally figured out we’d met a year ago, and he told me about his crutches and water bottle cages.
Aghast, he said, “Oh my GOODNESS! Why are you still on crutches?” I paused, considering how I wanted to answer his question. Christine quipped, “She fell off The Empire State Building.”
Now that’s a good friend! I learned an important lesson in that moment that’ll help you. Off-the-wall answers to tiresome questions make people laugh!
2) Chronic pain and injury are unpredictable. You never know how you’re going to feel day to day, let alone hour to hour. So, it’s easier to plan nothing.
3) Your energy is perpetually drained, and the thought of carrying on a conversation exhausts you even more.
4) Many friends become friends because of the activities you share. When you’re not able to participate, friendships fade.
Even if you make an effort to see your friends, you’ll be unwillingly subjected to endless prattle about training and racing, or whatever activity you shared. Somehow listening to treatises on negative splits makes you simultaneously bored and jealous. Everything you’re missing out on stings even more.
But wait! There’s more.
After hearing about the play-by-play in person, you go home and get to read about it, in extravagantly embellished form, on Facebook. Sigh.
Maybe, you decide, it’s just less painful to not be around people. Squirrelling away in your laundry basket makes more sense.
Your friends isolating you – Origin #2
1) Most people have acute injuries that heal in short order. Some, like us, will have lasting, chronic injuries and pain. Sadly, our society doesn’t do chronic. In a culture where being busy is a badge of honor, your friends are likely to forget about you in about three weeks.
2) Chronic pain and injury lead you to saying no to more invitations than you say yes. Simple outings like going to dinner or the movies become like your own personal Mt. Everest, so you politely decline.
The result of saying no to invitations over and over is friends stop asking you to join them. Can you blame them? Well…kinda.
3) Athletes fear injury. When your athlete-friends support you, they’re exposing themselves to what they fear most. It can get difficult. Time together is typified by silent awkwardness. Neither of you knows what to ask for or what to talk about. It’s no surprise that your friends may avoid this situation altogether.
4) My family told me, “You’re not the same since you got injured.” I have at least one [ex] friend who felt the same, but I’m sure there are others. How many times have you heard this?
Sometimes, you’re doing the best you can to wake up and put two feet on the ground each morning. This is often not good enough for your friends or family, and you’ll hear it from them. Hang onto your own strength and understand they’re struggling to appreciate your situation and exercise compassion.
PS – I sincerely hope after all you’ve been through that you’re not the same. I hope you’ve grown – mentally and emotionally – from the predicament your injury has forced you into. Most of all, I hope you’ve evolved into a more empathetic and understanding human being.
One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes is:
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I hope now you know more about the origin of social isolation. In part two we’ll talk about doing better. I’ll offer practical advice and guidance to help you navigate yourself out of the isolation hole.
Hey folks, Jo again! Stay tuned for part 2 and some actionable steps we can take when we realize we’ve become a bit isolated from our friends and family.
And before you go, read more below to learn about Heidi and the Injured Athlete’s Toolbox.
As always, thanks for reading the post, folks! I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences: leave a comment, send an email, or hit me (or Heidi!) up on social media.
About Heidi and Injured Athlete’s Toolbox
Heidi Armstrong has spent hundreds of hours researching injury with a diverse group of athletes and healthcare providers, uncovering the most common struggles and recipes for success.
Following her research, Heidi’s passion for helping athletes navigate the maze of injury became Injured Athlete’s Toolbox. As an Injury Recovery Coach she has coached injured athletes from around the world for 14 years.
Heidi works with injured athletes to: empower them to overcome the emotional fallout of injury; recommend how to vet a proper care team of skilled providers who understand athletes; identify activities that are injury-friendly and physical therapist-approved; prepare for doctor’s appointments; navigate our [nightmare of an] insurance system; and provide swimming and cycling instruction.