A Painful Tale

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Pain. What it used to mean to me, and what it means to me now.

Of all the awful bodily conditions in the world, I have to admit, chronic pain is the one that probably frightened me the most. It began when I was 13 and going through my Nirvana phase. I read somewhere that Kurt Cobain suffered from chronic stomach pain and that was one of the reasons why he did drugs and ultimately killed himself.

I’ve always been a healthy person physically. Even when I was overweight and inactive, my body still felt fine. The idea of having to wake up every single day to pain sounded horrifying. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of people who dealt with something like back pain every day. I was a wimp and hated the odd occurrence when I did experience pain. Even DOMS bothered me, and I knew it would eventually go away. How did they deal with it 24/7?

Then, the accident happened. A little over five weeks ago, I fell skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. I shattered my left elbow and everything since has been a new lesson in pain.

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A lot of people ask me if I felt my arm break. The answer to that is yes and no. I had me feet sweep out from underneath me, falling backwards directly on to my elbow. I do remember a *crunch* in my arm. But I couldn’t have predicted just how bad that *crunch* really was. I remember screaming when it happened. But I think it was more out of shock from suddenly being in so much pain, than the fact that I was in so much pain itself. Does that make sense?

I have fallen lots in my life. I’ve banged up every limb, fractured, sprained, and even had stitches in my head. I’m definitely not the kind of person to overreact in these instances. But as I crawled off the ice that day there was only one thought in my head: “I need to get to a hospital, and I need to get there now.”

At that point I was in a residential area. I had skated 7km from the downtown. I had no idea where to go to get to a hospital. I was all by myself in a city I didn’t know well. I tell you this because it was during this time that I experienced a new kind of pain, different from the one that happened when I first hit the ice. For the first time in my life, I was in so much pain and shock that I felt like I was going to throw up. Or pass out. Or both. And I was walking in a strange city with no clue where I needed to go. It was at that point I called a cab. I crouched on the ground until it came praying I wouldn’t black out.

By the time I got set up in the emergency room, things started to calm down. I set up my arm so the pain was at least bearable. My sister arrived and we talked about getting poutine that night once I was done at the hospital. We thought a sling, maybe a cast, then we’d be out of there. However, there were two events that made it very clear I was not getting out of there any time soon.

First, I couldn’t move my elbow whatsoever, but still insisted on not cutting off the two long sleeve technical shirts I was wearing. The ER doctor helped me take them off and I freaked out. Like, totally and utterly freaked out. Crying, screaming, causing a huge scene. I had no control over it, I just knew that no one was coming near my damn arm. The ER doc then returned with a cup full of pills and I happily obliged.

The second instance was getting my first round of x-rays. Not knowing what was wrong with my arm, they asked me to bend it in all directions to get pictures from all angles. There was more hysteria. My sister and everyone in the waiting room outside thought I was being tortured. It was then that we knew there would be no poutine that night. I’ve read about a lot of active people getting injured and about how upset they were not being able to run, etc. But at that point, I didn’t care about what I would no longer be able to do. I just didn’t want to be in pain anymore. A wish that has stuck with me every day since.

After that, I was given a steady stream of pain meds. Every four hours I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I hate this scale. I hate being asked to rate my pain. I hate thinking about my current pain, comparing it to my past pain, and then trying to determine if it’s better or worse.

Anyways, the initial pain of the fall was not the worst pain to come. Turns out I completely shattered my elbow, obliterating the cartilage in the left radial head. I was immediately admitted and operated on the next day. A two hour surgery turned into a five hour one. I learned afterward they had to remove my elbow and reassemble the small shattered pieces on another table using screws and glue.

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The post-op pain was a whole new kind of pain. I was heavily medicated for a week after. But in the times when the meds began to wear off I could begin to feel the 14cm open incision that ran along my arm, or the three metal screws holding my elbow in place. The pain would come in waves. So just as I thought it was getting better, it would come back in full force seconds later. My sister would sit with me as I writhed and moaned in pain, unable to do anything but just live through it.

Over the last 5 1/2 weeks, it seems my worst fear has come true. I’ve learned to live with chronic pain. Generally, it has gotten a little better each and every day. But a whole new kind of pain has begun with physiotherapy. Unlike the pain of the initial fall, or the pain right after surgery, the pain of physio is self inflicted. My joint is actually able to move, it’s the pain that’s keeping me from moving it. The muscles along the upper left side of my body have completely seized up in efforts to protect my arm. That stiffness has only contributed to the pain.

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Now when I get asked where my pain is on a 1 to 10 scale, my perception of it is totally different. I have experienced a lot of 10s. So while my elbow still hurts with every waking and sleeping moment, it’s bearable knowing that it’s nowhere close to the pain I once felt.

Learning to manage chronic pain has turned into a huge life lesson for me. It’s humbled me. It’s made me more sympathetic. Of everything that’s happened over the course of these last several weeks, dealing with the pain has by far been the trickiest part. I can live with the use of one arm, but it’s hard to live when you feel crippled by pain.

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The other thing I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t be stubborn and make myself suffer. My instinct is to be tough and try to get through this without pain medication. But my physiotherapist has instructed me to take painkillers to get through our exercises. I can’t very well do much when I’m breaking down into tears on the the physio table. Meanwhile, Tylenol has just become a part of my daily routine.

Overall, I’d say yes, living with pain everyday really does suck. It doesn’t get any easier or feel any less painful because it’s constant. But I’ve learned to manage it. I’ve learned to continue on despite the knives constantly twisting into my arm. Being in pain is actually quite exhausting. But the only thing I can do is just deal with it and take it as it comes. Because, what other choice do I have?

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Posted on March 22, 2011, in Injury and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. Hi Susan. I’m not sure what to say but felt the need to say something. My heart is breaking for you and the struggles you are going through. I have no idea what kind of pain you have had to go through and I know that there will probably be more. All I can think to say is that you are strong and you will get through this. You are not alone!

  2. Oh amiga . . . it breaks my heart to read this post! :(

    And I can identify on way too many levels. Not because of my foot (or even tearing my ankle ligaments in the past) but because of what I experienced after I broke my arm, got mega stressed out, suffered in pain, and eventually ended up with chronic anxiety.

    The anxiety was accompanied by panic attacks but also my muscles seizing up. In a horrible way. Excruciating. Scream. Can’t breathe. Someone needs to massage it to get better. Kind of way.

    I too had to get used to popping Tylenols like they were candy. Which is why now, I avoid drugs at all costs; I know what it’s like to depend on them to get through the day.

    I no longer have chronic anxiety (thank God!!!!!) but because of my experiences I feel ever so sad for what you’re going through.

    The only thing I can say is you’re not alone! <3

  3. Gosh, I’m so sorry Susan. You know, I guess I figured you would be in a lot of pain and that it would be persistent, but I never really considered the extent of it. This post really elucidated the whole ordeal you’ve been faced with. As before this post, you are in my prayers at all times. Plus, if it was even possible, I’m even more moved and inspired by you. You’re without a doubt my strongest friend. (Yea, I said friend – I may have never met you or had a real conversation with you but I’ve been creepily following your life for so long now and learning so much from you that I consider you a friend – deal with it okay?!)

    Nicole G

  4. Oh, Suze. (Can I call you Suze? I feel like I know you.)
    This post makes my heart hurt for you so much. I have no frame of reference for this, but it sounds truly awful and just know that I’m thinking of you.
    <3

  5. And how do you feel about that “pain is just weakness leaving the body” quote now? I’ve always read that and thought “that is complete and utter bullshit” and when I read this post, that’s what I though of again. Pain is hard! I hope you continue to manage it as best you can.

    • That’s why I try not to tough it out and skip my pain medication when I need it. Pain can actually be detrimental to the healing process (it’s why my muscles have seized up, thus causing more trouble than helping). And like I said, being in pain is absolutely exhausting. I get tired so much easier than I did before. With that said, there’s nothing I can do to make it go away. Even when on painkillers, I can still experience 10 out of 10 pain.

  6. Susan I had no idea your elbow injury has led to chronic pain. I am so sorry. I assumed it was an injury that would eventually heal. Having lived with chronic pain for the past two and a half years, I have an idea of what you must be going through. The adjustment to this new lifestyle is difficult, and if you ever need someone to talk to I am here.

    I think the best advice a doctor ever gave me was to create a “new normal” for myself. That new normal includes pain, of course, but it can also include the many things I’m still capable of doing. Everyone lives with pain to some degree, and unfortunately (and this is the hardest part!) accepting it is part of what will help us regain our life.

    Keeping you in my thoughts and my heart. Love!

    • Susan, your situation has actually come to mind a few times throughout this! It’s not very common for people our age to experience everyday pain. I’ve definitely had to create a “new normal” for myself. Thankfully, I think I’m very adaptable. So I’ve been able to adjust to my new way of life easier than many other people. Doesn’t prevent the waves of pain when they come though :(

      • I agree, one of the unique challenges of being young with chronic pain is just that…being young! I’m incredibly awed by how quickly you’ve been adjusting (not that it wasn’t a challenge or won’t continue to be, of course) and how honest you’ve been about things on your blog. You’re very brave.

        Sending love!

  7. I don’t even know what to say right now – I am so sorry you are going through this!

    How “chronic” do the doctors feel this is? Is it going to heal completely at some point?

    • Yes and no. It will heal to the best of its abilities eventually (right now I’m looking at a year). But it will always “bug” me. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve had similar injuries and they say some days they feel normal, other days they still get pain and lack mobility. I may also have another surgery in a few months time. I have to wait to heal from my last surgery before they operate again.

  8. Chronic pain sucks. I remember with my back, all I wanted to do was to lay on my stomach without pain. All I wanted was to be able to sleep through the night and not wake up with pain. Sometimes you just sigh because you just want to feel normal again.

    There definitely is a psychological wearing down of the spirit with chronic pain. But, it really is amazing what we can go through and come out okay on the other end.

    I am so sorry you are having to go through all of this. You are a strong woman, though, and I know you will come out on the other side with even more strength.

  9. I am sorry you’re going through this…I’m all too familiar with chronic pain and yeah it sucks big time. Take it one day at a time (I know not very comforting but really just focus on getting through the moment).

  10. So sorry to hear of your pain.Hope the pain lessens day by day!

    Also must be scary to take painkillers like Oxycontin ?So many people seem to develop severe dependence/addiction to it.
    Take care-we want the very best in life for you!!!

    • I actually don’t like the way the painkillers make me feel. With my anxiety disorder, I have a hard time feeling comfortable while under the influence of the drug. It’s definitely not something I enjoy the feeling of being on, but it’s the one that helps my pain the most. The dilaudid and morphine in the hospital didn’t work on me.

  11. I’m sorry you are going through this, and that you have pain in this way… I have chronic pain that is NOT the result of an injury. It definitely changes your perspective.

    sending healing and comfort to you <3

  12. i’m so stubborn, i never take medicine unless i’m seriously unwell. it’s a bad habit.

    if i’m trying to heal, i’ll listen to the doctors though.

  13. Wow you are so strong. I cant even begin to imagine the road you have been down. I’m glad you are taking the mess and doing what you need to do to do your exercises.

  14. All your posts after the accident made me admire you so much. I really consider you an amazing strong woman. I wish I could give you a hug right now, after reading how much pain you are dealing with every day.
    Stay strong dear.
    Sending you a virtual hug all the way from Europe!

  15. Christina (aka Mom)

    This was a hard post for your mommy to read. I wish I good feel the pain for you. xoxox

  16. This is a great post. I can relate to you so much.
    I had chronic pain for most of my life. I have a pretty high threshold–so it had to be pretty bad for me to complain about it.

    I used to sprain my ankles all the time. I was also obese so my whole body hurt ALL THE TIME. The ankle was the worst. It hurt to walk. The weight added to that.

    I eventually had surgery to repair the ligament in my ankle. I had pain for a few years because of the surgery too. What helped was losing weight. My chronic pain has dissipated a lot and I have a much better outlook on life. It’s amazing how something like body pain can contribute to depression!

    • Yes! As a person with a history in anxiety and depression, I have to be very cognizant of how dealing with pain affects me emotionally. It’s all too easy to spiral downward when you have limited mobility and constant pain.

  17. People don’t want to talk much about pain, do they? Managing pain is a huge part of the healing and recovery process. Kudos to you for writing about it (although I seriously ached for you reading this!!).

    • Thank you Emily! You’re right, people don’t write about pain a whole lot. I realized I hadn’t, even though it’s been the biggest and hardest aspect of my injury. That’s why I wrote this post!

  18. Iknow what you mean about pain meds. I weaned myself off the Vicodin and Valium as soon as the surgeon gave the okay. People kept telling me how “brave” I was when I was recovering from my shattered leg, but I think what they really meant was that I didn’t complain about it and just did what the doctor and physical therapist told me to do without much fanfare. Because you’re right — really, what else is there TO do?

    It is difficult at first, but it WILL get better. I swear. My knee still hurts pretty much all the time and it’s been six years since I broke my leg. However, it has to bear weight (unlike an elbow), and the pain is rarely so bad that it interferes with life. It’s never been bad enough to interfere with exercise.

  19. Ugh wrote a long comment and it didn’t post. Guess I spared you my novel! lol!

    Basically my thoughts and prayers are with you! I have some experience of chronic pain, just a lot less severe than what you are dealing with. Also wanted to let you know that my mom shattered her ankle a few years back and had to have screws and a plate to reconstruct it. The good news is her pain today is way less than what was expected so hopefully you’ll have a similar experience! Especially having youth and healthier bones on your side!

  20. You hit the nail on the head. And you are so strong! You know how to deal with this because you realize there is really no other option. Love you.

  21. TAKE YOUR PAIN MEDS.

    • Hahaha. The medical professionals are the only ones who tell me to take them! Everyday folk keep saying I should try to go without. Guess who I’ve been listening to ;)

  22. :( I hate hearing you in pain. I wish I could take care of you!

  23. Oh dear – I found you through Averie asking to keep you in our thoughts right now. I cannot even imagine how much pain you have been in. I’m pretty good with injuries/blood/etc, but I definitely cringed a few times reading this. You’re a rock star!

  24. i have had the same thing happen to me. left elbow and everything. but my doctors weren’t brave enough to do what they did for you. i have had 4 surgeries in the past year and have 2 more scheduled for the upcoming month. i have 50% of my original arm motion left. It is dreadful and i can relate to your pain so much. It is so difficult and painful, i can really sympathize.

    • Ugh! That does not sound good at all! Yes, I always wonder if my arm would have healed properly had I not gotten a blood cancer. I was scheduled for an operation to get the whole radial head removed last summer, but I was diagnosed with cancer a week before it was supposed to happen, and now my orthopedic surgeon can’t touch me until the cancer is gone. I’ve gotten a great deal of motion back in the last six months though. However I noticeably can’t straighten it, and I can’t bear any weight on it. Not being able to bear weight is the worst. I can’t pick up anything heavy, and even pushing myself up when I’m sitting on the floor is painful and hard! Thanks for the sympathy, it means a lot :)

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