Last fall, I underwent an intensive procedure to address some serious back issues. I’d been in pain for at least three-quarters of a year by that point, and that was just the most recent bout of it. There had been times in years past I could barely sit, walk, or even lie down. When I’d bothered going to doctors in the past, I was often dismissed with painkillers and instructions to rest and come back if I was still hurting in a few weeks. Even this last time around, I mostly managed by continuing as much activity as I could, doing some stretches I’d found in the past, and getting regular massages and chiropractic care. COVID put a bit of a damper in that, but I felt I had no other real choices even though the pain was only getting worse. It finally got bad enough that I made an appointment with the sports medicine doctor I had last seen over a decade before but who I had remembered as being engaged with me and my care and outcomes, and today, well. Here’s the video.
I share this with you not to tell you how bad I had it or how awesome I am today, but because I realize how familiar parts of my story may be to many of you. You may be at a different point in your journey, but you likely know or know somebody who has had some pain or other symptom that has waxed and waned over time and that you’ve never been able to do more than manage, mostly on your own. You may have known no more than the fact that how you felt just didn’t seem right, at the very least according to your secret Google searches. Maybe you’ve seen a doctor or three or five and none of them ever diagnosed you with something wrong, or they tried to play off your pain, your fatigue, your heavy periods as simply the manifestation of some female anxiety, depression, or hysteria. You may have been labeled hypochondriac while you knew in your heart of hearts that something really wasn’t right with your body. While some would try to argue those sorts of vague diagnoses and obvious dismissals are things of the past, they simply aren’t. If you’ve been through that frustration, you are not alone. And there’s hope.
Here are some things I’ve learned in my journey that I think can help you as you work towards a full and healthy life:
You need to walk that line between wallowing in discomfort and powering through. Much like I talk about how preparing for self-defense shouldn’t take over so that you can’t enjoy life, whatever isn’t right with your body must not be allowed to limit you more than necessary. It can be easy to give up and hide at home, but as much as you might be feeling not your best, the world continues to move on and you must move with it. At the same time, you don’t want to risk your health by waiting too long to find out what’s wrong, just in case it’s something that can get worse over time. Maybe it turns out to be something minor, but either way, you deserve to feel and function like a healthy human being. You might have to pretend part of the time. You might have to use workarounds if you can’t find a cure. But somewhere in the middle there, you can and should live life as normally as possible, and use that struggle to motivate your search for a solution.
You are the only person who lives in your body and knows what you feel. Don’t allow someone, anyone, to tell you otherwise – including you. It’s tempting to downplay what you’re feeling; you don’t want to bring everyone down, after all. Plus it’s embarrassing, infuriating, frustrating to try to convince your loved ones and doctors otherwise. In your quest to continue getting through your days and to stop what feels like enormous wastes of time with appointments and treatments, it’s easy to fall into the trap of admitting that you don’t feel so bad or weird after all. Those false confessions help nobody, least of all you. It’s not just the potential miss of a potentially serious diagnosis, but the harm to your mental health caused by doubting that you actually felt what you did. It’s an insidious harm, but one that can be just as harmful to you as any “normal” physical illness or injury. Find a way to keep believing in yourself; write things down if you need to, so you can go back and remember clearly. Then search for someone who will listen to you openly and honestly.
It’s going to be hard. Even the very best doctors can’t always identify what’s wrong, or what’s causing some abnormality. Even when they can, there’s not always going to be a complete fix. And all that is assuming that they find anything at all. Whether you have a medical team backing your plays or not, you’ll need to take responsibility for managing your own health. They can help you, but it’s ultimately up to you to help them connect the clues, to coordinate your care, to stay up to date on the latest research. You are the one who will have to fight to get the bills paid, to make it to every test and treatment and follow up, to demand answers. Just like when it comes to your personal safety from violent criminals, nobody is coming to save you. It’s not because nobody cares, but because nobody cares more about you than you. I know it can be hard to believe that, especially when you’ve lost all hope of a normal life like those you see around you, but that’s part of what you have to work on fixing.
It’s gonna take time and it’s gonna take work. For long-term issues particularly, they won’t reverse themselves overnight even if you get the right diagnosis and the right treatment. Often, they will have caused a cascade of other problems that will also need to be addressed, both physical and possibly mental or emotional. Unwinding all of that damage won’t be easy. You might have to go to physical therapy for months, endure painful procedures, wait for medications to become effective, change your diet drastically, all as you work your way to becoming fully functional. The cures might seem worse than the original problems sometimes. I know I felt that way when I was vomiting from the pain of my procedure, which was worse than I’d ever suffered from my back before. The mountain you will have to climb might seem impossible but each individual step is within your grasp. And the sooner you start, the sooner you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come. Every day you wait is one more day until you can feel and do what you barely dared dream about before.
It’s easy to get discouraged with your body not doing what you want it to do, no matter how hard you work to become and stay healthy. I get that, I really do. I’ve often considered just letting go of my dreams of being pain-free and fully active. Today? I’m really glad I didn’t because I’ve never been as strong and capable in my life as I am today. You can get there too.