I Beat Chronic Pain, And It Was Anti-Climactic

It's hard to celebrate when one twinge of pain is enough to make me question everything.
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Publish date:
October 20, 2014
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chronic pain, 5k, running, chronic illness

Running through suburban New Jersey was my idea of fun in high school. I was a good student, but I didn't care for classwork the same way I cared for cross country and track.

It was hard to realize how good I had it, doing what I loved six days a week. I'll blame that on nine-mile workouts in the heat and snow-flurried winter practices. But then during my sophomore year I hurt my foot and I didn't even understand how.

There was no trip or twist to pinpoint for doctors, just constant pain. I first tore and then ruptured the strongest tendon in my right ankle. Altogether, it took several years to diagnose and two surgeries to correct.

"You know, we only really see this problem in middle-aged obese women," my doctor said before my second time under the knife. At 16, my weight barely hit triple digits.

I spent Thanksgiving 2007 high on Percocet and munching paper-plated turkey in bed. It was worth it, I thought, because I'd be healthy soon.

In January, when I tried ditching my crutches, I found that during surgery something had literally struck a nerve, leaving me with chronic pain. It's like walking around with that pins-and-needles feeling, but more painful than ticklish. My foot was also sensitive to temperature and touch.

I stopped exercising and let stress build up. I minimized my walking since pain kicked in after 15 minutes or so.

I didn't mention my foot 24/7, probably because living with it was frustrating enough. Aside from a few stints on crutches, there hasn't been much visible evidence of my injury. Only a handful of friends were perceptive enough to catch my limp. People didn't know or didn't believe I was hurting.

In high school I was called out for using a handicap parking sticker and the school's elevator. I can't count how many times I've declined to participate in something athletic to be met with eye-rolls, shrugs and "Suck it up."

Physical therapy didn't work. Neither did patches or creams. Eventually, doctors told me there was no fix. I'd get by with non-addictive pills for the rest of my life.

My pain became routine. When I moved to Florida, a new doctor prescribed my meds, but he also pointed me toward physical therapy. Again.

I think I only agreed so I could bust out a "Told ya so!" when it didn't cure me.

Starting this March I met Sean each Tuesday and Thursday before work, essentially so he could beat me up. After every session he got more excited about my progress. I didn't, not really.

"What sort of comedies do you like?" he asked one day while aggressively massaging (read: torturing) my foot.

I take any excuse to gush over "30 Rock" or "Scrubs," but I wanted to know why he asked.

"I wasn't sure things made you laugh."

That was one of many times Sean seemed puzzled by how little I emote. It became painfully clear to both of us that he had more enthusiasm for my recovery than I did.

Soon I walked long distances without pain. Running followed. A mile at a time, then a little more, until I had cheated my way into three half-hour runs per week.

Any half-decent psychologist would tell me to not use the word "should," but I can't help it: I feel like I should be ecstatic about this.

It's not that I'm not grateful for the progress I've made. The fact that I skated by with only seven years of chronic pain is amazing.

But it's hard to celebrate when one twinge of pain is enough to make me question everything. I might be in bed trying to sleep or sprinting across a street to beat a traffic light when I feel a shot of pain, sometimes just for a second. I can't ever shake the doubt that brings.

There's another, sillier-sounding reason recovery hasn't lived up to my wildest dreams: My injury never felt totally real to begin with.

It's tough to share good news when most couldn't grasp the bad news to begin with. I don't expect an outpouring of sympathy or happiness. That's not me. Being human, though, means my own thoughts and feelings are still affected by how other people react to me.

I ran a 5K this weekend, more than half a year after Sean cured me. My race time was slow enough that a slew of pre-teens beat me, but that didn't matter. I thought then, crossing a finish line, I'd be able to let go and feel pride or happiness.

In grade school I sometimes tripped myself up naming parts of a story plot. Where did the falling action stop and the resolution begin? Everything blended together once the conflict passed its peak because, as a reader, that's when I knew everything was going to be OK.

I think I get it now. An injury, like any problem, takes time and patience to resolve. Defeating my pain is the falling action, but physical closure doesn't beget mental closure, at least not right away. I think it will, but don't ask me when.

For now, I'm going to keep running.