For about a year, I’ve struggled with sciatica, a type of nerve pain that starts in your lower back and extends down one leg. It occurs when your sciatic nerve has been pinched, usually by a herniated disc or bone spur.
In its mildest form, sciatica is a dull and persistent kind of pain that presents itself when you walk or move your body in ways that irritate the nerve. At its worst, sciatica is sharp and immobilizing. It makes activities like walking, dancing, and running virtually impossible, and taking upwards of 100mg of pain relievers a day non-negotiable.
And while some cases of sciatica are acute and resolve themselves within weeks, others are chronic. Unfortunately for me, my case seems to be the latter.
Sciatica is my first foray into chronic pain. Prior to having sciatica I had little to no understanding or sympathy for people who suffered from chronic pain. I thought it was mostly mental or attention-seeking. And it wasn’t until I had chronic pain myself that I understood just how hard dealing with it is.
Chronic pain can make you feel a wide range of emotions. Sometimes, I feel frustrated and angry because my body won’t recover and let me do all the things I used to do. Sometimes, I feel betrayed when my conditions appear to get better, only to inexplicably flare-up. Often, I feel upset with myself—upset that I put myself and my body in this position.
Worst of all, I sometimes feel hopeless and depressed. I fear things won’t ever get better, despite my valiant efforts, and that I’ll have to live the rest of my life with limitations.
I can’t speak for everyone with chronic pain, but what I can say is that it’s hard not to feel ashamed or embarrassed by it. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve used all of the sympathy for my pain, and that I’m no longer allowed to acknowledge it or complain about it. Or, that I should feel embarrassed for having a body that doesn’t work as well as my peers.
And so, I’ll do activities I shouldn’t be doing just to give others some sense of normalcy, and then deal with the consequences after. I’m often catching myself saying “in a few weeks I should be able to do that thing with you!” But the truth is, I don’t know when I’ll be able to do that thing. I don’t know when I’ll be able to dance or rough house or run. And I wish more than anything that I did.
Oftentimes, I think we want to be better for more than just ourselves—we want to be better for our friends, family, and caregivers. That’s why I often catch myself lying to my personal trainer and physical therapist about how my condition has improved. I want people to be proud of me for getting better. I want there to feel like progress even when there isn’t. I don’t want to let people down like my body’s let me down.
As an addendum: when I complain about my pain, it’s because it’s BAD. And it’s not because I’ve fucked up and did something foolish or failed to take care of myself. There are ways I can address my pain, but ultimately, I’m only responsible for my recovery, not my condition. Trying to make people feel guilty for their chronic pain isn’t cool and it isn’t fair!!! (exhales)
But on a more positive note, my chronic pain has taught me some valuable lessons. Here are just a few:
Listen to Your Body
If it’s hurting, take care of it. Avoid doing the things that will hurt it more. Be gentle with your body and treat it with the love and respect you extend to others. Being able-bodied is a privilege, not a right. Don’t forget that.
Don’t Apologize for Your Limitations
We’re all doing the best we can, and there’s no reason to beat yourself up for the things you can’t do. Instead, focus on what you can do, and remember, your condition is an inconvenience to you, not others.
Perspective is Everything
Chronic pain can swallow you whole. It can convince you to hate pretty much everything. That’s why it’s important to recognize where you’re at, and what you can do to make yourself feel better.
For me, not being able to run has been devastating. It’s negatively impacted my mood more than any other facet of my sciatica. But instead of dwelling on that, I’ve decided to replace that activity with something else: walking. Almost every day, I take a 2-3 mile walk around the Charles River. During that hour or so, I listen to music, unwind, and take a break from the world. And while it may not be as fun or intense as running, it still greatly improves my outlook on the day.
Find ways to make your day better. Instead of thinking about all the things you can’t do, think about the things you can start doing more of. At some point, you’ll be too focused on what you’re actually doing to think about what you’re missing out on.
If you don’t deal with chronic pain, be there for those that do. Ask them how they’re feeling, and don’t make assumptions about what they can or cannot do. Listen and offer empathy when needed, and y’know, try not being an asshole.
And for those struggling with chronic pain, know you’re not alone. The pain you feel is real and valid, even if it’s not always understood by the people around you. You’re allowed to complain about the bad times. But keep in mind, you’re more than just your pain. You’re more than able to live a fun and fulfilling life.