The title of this post may seen contradictory. In fact, sometimes I don’t believe it myself. Our vision of people with chronic pain is severely distorted by worst case scenarios, media misrepresentation, misinterpretations of what chronic pain is, why people “get” this diagnosis, and to whom it applies. We often think that chronic pain is another psychosomatic illness and/or that it is a symptom of depression. More simply some think that it is a cry for attention. As someone who has lived with chronic pain for more than ten years, I am consistently competing with these stigmas when I choose to share about this aspect of my life. I have endured questions such as “so is it all in your head?” or comments like “well, it sounds like you’ve really been through the wringer” in response to my justification that I actually have real pain. We don’t ask people to justify their broken leg but, we all think we deserve a say when it comes to things we can’t see – invisible illness. While in itself this paradox is frustrating, beyond identifying as a person with chronic pain, I also identify as an/a athlete, academic, woman, Jewish person, musician, sibling, daughter, and more! No one identity captures ALL of who I am. How could it?!?!
Many people have a hard time believing that I suffer from chronic pain AND that I’m an athlete. They see tweets about how many miles I ran in the past week and, know I played in the UConn Marching Band and I’ve done gymnastics since I could practically walk. When someone hears I have chronic pain AND I live an active life they instantly minimize my experience. They say things like, “well it must not be that bad”. Alternatively, some people respond by lauding my “accomplishments”. Then I hear, “Wow, considering that, what you’re doing is really so impressive”. First, I don’t need anyone to approve of or find my lifestyle “impressive”. Second, I’m impressive ANYWAY – something I have to keep reminding myself, rather than my preferred mindset of “I’m just mediocre”.
Anyway, this post isn’t about me trying to convince anyone about the value my intersecting identities. Instead, I want to write about how being an athlete AND living with chronic pain are complementary parts of who I am. The best way I can think to do this is to share some things I’ve learned. Here I go:
- Planning ahead is necessary: Excessive planning is one of the things I do but, when it comes to chronic pain this becomes even more necessary. For example, I always have to plan for the impending weather. If it’s going to rain for three days straight I need to be prepared. For many people with chronic pain, changes in the weather can cause their pain to fluctuate. So, I need to know when we’re in for a bunch of wet days. Similarly, if it’s going to rain for many days, I need to adjust my workouts. So, I’ll likely plan more gym days and less outdoor runs. Which as I’ll explain later relates back to my pain management. You see, this is all cyclical but, if you plan accordingly it’s easier.
- It’s okay to have bad days: I often hear this phrase in regards to mental health. People who are healing from mental illness find comfort in this mentality. The same goes for chronic pain. Not every day is going to be easy. What’s important is what you do about it. So no, chronic pain isn’t “all in my head” but for me the choice to get up each day and live my life absolutely is. When kids play sports and their team doesn’t win we say, “you’ll get em’ next time” and this same mentality goes for a bad pain day or a really bad workout. I have to remind myself CONSTANTLY that a bad workout is better than no workout and that there was a time in my life where I had to relearn how to walk, jump, and run so I could do the sport I love most, gymnastics.
- “Mind over matter” is an essential mantra: Living with chronic pain means that sometimes our natural inclination or human nature has to be overhauled. The phrase “if it hurts don’t do it” isn’t in my vocabulary. Instead, I’ve replaced it with “mind over matter” or “get up and go”. Here’s the thing, for most people with chronic pain physical activity is essential. In fact, one of the leading treatments for adolescents with chronic pain is intensive (think 8 hours a day) physical therapy to retrain the mind and body. Staying “functional” is so important to leading a healthy life and living in pain. So, when I am having a bad pain day, I need to push myself harder. Maybe that means running for 10 extra minutes. Maybe that means just running at all. It’s quite twisted actually and goes against everything we would think makes sense in terms of pain and physical activity. So, you have to do some mental gymnastics and learn how to overcome the demon saying that it’s okay to give into the pain. Inevitably, some days exercising just won’t be possible but it’s important to bounce back when the flare is over and stay positive. I learned this type of discipline, persistence, and determination first in gymnastics. For that, I am thankful.
- There’s power in positive thinking: Recently a mentor of mine sent me this “two words: self-fulfilling prophecies. Selective perception leads us to notice things that confirm our original impressions and disregard/discount things that contradict them. So not that I think positive thinking cures all ills (sometimes things really do suck, after all), it’s worth taking a step back to see how objective or subjective you’re being about it.” She was so right! When I have a bad pain day, I can’t let it turn into a bad week. I can’t let it become a reflection of my self worth, progress, or ability. Positive thinking is a skill I’m practicing daily. It means that I spend a lot of time putting things in perspective. I reframe and revisit my initial assumptions if they’re negative. I don’t do this always but I really try. When my workout sucks, I don’t blame it on my pain. I don’t make excuses. And she was right! Sometimes, things do suck. So, when things don’t go my way I acknowledge that and feel those “feels” too. But, I don’t dwell there. That’s the difference. I can’t let myself get stuck. Getting stuck in a negative place isn’t going to be productive. I said this is all cyclical and I meant it. If I get stuck, then my pain gets worse, if my pain gets worse I have to work harder to get in a great workout, if I don’t get a good workout in my physical and mental suffers (so that’s one way chronic pain and mental health are connected), and then if my mental health suffers, I stay stuck. Solution: think positively!
- Appreciate the small victories: One easy substitution on the path to more positive thinking is to appreciate the small victories. When I’m hard on myself because I didn’t have a great workout I recall a time when I couldn’t run for even five minutes and then my slow three miles doesn’t seem that bad. Similarly, when I don’t let a bad pain day get the best of me, I acknowledge that. When I used one of the many strategies in my toolkit to distract myself rather than focusing on the pain, I make a note of that. Slowly but surely these small victories add up and they make a BIG difference.
- Knowing yourself isn’t optional: This is important. When you live in chronic pain and run 10+ miles a week, you need to know your body really well. I typically ask myself “are you hurt or does it just hurt?” This type of intimate self awareness is crucial to my daily functioning. There have been times where I couldn’t differentiate and I walked on a fractured foot for days before seeing a doctor or, when I was afraid nobody would believe me if I said I was hurt so I said nothing. There have also been times where I was sure I was hurt and then there was nothing “wrong”. So, it takes checking in with my body and being sensitive to how I’m feeling. This means, knowing that if, for example, I get a bruise from falling on my third set of 8, 24 inch box jumps that I can get back up and keep going. It will hurt. It won’t be pretty the next day. It might even hurt worse the next day. Regardless, I keep going because giving into pain isn’t an option. I need to know my body well and treat my body well.
- Finding “your person” will make all the difference: Quick shout out to all the Grey’s fans! But seriously, sometimes the best distraction for me is reaching out someone else who “gets it”. Someone who won’t pity me or ask me questions about my pain that I find offensive. Someone I can call and know I can count on in a moment when I’m really struggling or just because. In gymnastics, this was my teammate. In band, this was my section. Your person is your cheerleader. They’re the one who “gets it” without you having to explain, offers the tough love when you’re being ridiculous, acknowledges your accomplishments when you can’t see them for yourself, pushes you to your limits, and knows when you just need someone to listen and say nothing at all. When you live with silent demons, speaking your struggle to someone and having that unconditional support can validate the experience.
- Other people don’t have to “get it”: I used to think that the more I tried to convince people that chronic pain is real the easier it would get to convince myself. I saw countless doctors who told fables to my parents that looking back I can’t even believe we entertained. What I’ve learned from all of this is that they don’t have to “get it”. Just like they don’t have to get the appeal of a crisp morning run or sprinting down the vault runway and hitting the springboard just right. I need to own my story. Own my struggle. Own my strength.
So, there you have it. I’m an athlete AND I have chronic pain. They both come with unique challenges and successes. They’re both huge, REAL aspects of my life.