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.
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.
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.
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.
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?