I’ve Been In Pain For 10 Years
While overseas, I’ve been contemplating and confronting my history with chronic pain. There are probably a lot of you who know very little, or nothing at all, about my story, so I want to share my experience with you, in the spirit of connection and awareness.
I don’t think I’ve ever shared this story in full, but it has some important takeaways, so strap in, and let’s wind back the clock.
The Good Old Days
Many years back, in my teenage and early adult years, I would frequent a weekly social basketball game. Two hours of physical fun, with both friends and new faces. Carpool banter and freestyle raps on the way in; exhausted, sweaty contentment on the way back.
We played at different venues, on and off, for years, pulling ad-hoc teams together each week from whomever turned up. I have a lot of fond memories of those Thursday nights.
Around ten years ago, I played my last game.
It’s funny how things play out sometimes. Here I was, a short (but nimble) kid, darting around the court, trying my best to outmaneuver the much taller and more athletic players; falling, getting knocked down, sliding up and down the court. Just another day at the office.
But one fateful game, on that day ten years ago, I would suffer a simple fall. The smallest of trips. One second standing, the next falling down to a seated position, sending a shock up my tailbone.
From the outside, a common and insignificant slip. But within, a suffocating pain erupting in my spine, making it hard to speak or move.
I limped off the court and sat on the bench, dismissing the severity of the fall, partly due to that toxic macho thing where you don’t want to appear hurt, and partly due to embarrassment at being injured from such a seemingly minor fall.
I had suffered injuries before; I figured this might just be a more painful one, but that it would go away with a bit of rest and time. So I sat out the rest of the game, hunched and in pain, but trying to remain calm and composed.
The night ended, and I somehow made it to the car, and eventually home. I don’t remember the rest of that night, but any hopes I had of “sleeping it off” quickly dissipated when I woke up the next morning.
Authors note: It's okay to not be okay. It's okay to ask for help.
The pain was worse. I remember I couldn’t even sit up in my bed without a tremendous effort. This was definitely a more extreme injury, but again I thought I just needed more rest. I called in sick to work, explaining the situation. I assured my boss it was okay, and that I just needed a few days to rest and then I’d be back in the office (Friday + the weekend).
From what I can remember, this was technically true. By Monday, I’m pretty sure I was back in the office. Still in pain, limping, and sitting carefully, but managing to get on with my life. Since I was improving every day, I thought it meant I was okay. That it was just an extreme version of a sore back, and that it would keep improving over time until I was back (get it?) to normal.
But there came a point, some weeks (or maybe months) later, where I realised that I had stopped improving. It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t improving. My back would hurt, and so would my left leg. The severity of the pain would vary based on how I was positioned, so I learned to sit in certain ways to alleviate it as much as possible.
Fast forward a few months, when I finally went to a doctor to check it out (more embarrassment and shame when he asked why I didn’t come in sooner, another reason why I put it off), and I would find out that my fall had caused the lower disc in my spine (jelly-like shock absorbers) to herniate and break out of its usual casing, and was now protruding and pressing on the sciatic nerve down my left leg (hence the leg pain and sporadic numbness).
Essentially, the impact of the fall had compressed my spine enough to overwhelm my body’s feeble construction and resulted in a weak back and a pinched nerve. Unlucky.
Authors note: It’s never too late. Don’t allow a sunken cost fallacy of time. Go do that thing you’ve put off.
After that first doctor appointment, a long list of other appointments followed. MRIs, physiotherapists, specialists; all with the aim of improving my somewhat painful, but manageable, state.
I had a few different physios over the years, but none of them seemed to help all that much. My pain at that point, was something I was getting used to, and could manage with how I positioned and how active I was.
And I was bleeding money. Physio ain’t cheap.
For several years, the pain would reduce, lie mostly dormant, and then reemerge; on and off. Not quite bad enough to do anything urgent about, but painful enough to always be there, lingering inconveniently, limiting my mobility and effectively ending my basketball career (no, I didn’t play professionally, but I was so good I might as well have; trust me bro, I could jump).
On a particularly bad peak, I met with a specialist about other options. He mentioned two things we could do.
The first was a steroid injection in my spine to numb the pain and provide some temporary relief (for 6-12 months), and hope that things could improve in that time.
The second was a surgery (laminectomy + microdiscectomy), where they would shave away a bit of the bone to make more room for the nerve, and remove the bit of disc that is sticking out and pressing on the nerve. This would obviously be a last resort option, as it was invasive, a little risky, and lord would it be expensive. So naturally, I had the injection.
My butt was numb for a while, but the pain never really went away. By this point though, the peak had dipped again, so life moved on.
Authors note: Get private health insurance lol.
Another few years passed, another bad peak of leg numbness and pain, another physio, but this time, I threw in a chiropractor, just to spice things up.
It was around this time that I started feeling a pinching pain in my right leg, almost like a cramp that wouldn’t go away. Over the next few days it got worse, and I got worried.
Another trip to the physio, who suspected it was a pinched nerve (though in the past I’d only ever had issues on my left side).
It got bad. I was struggling to walk, and was fortunate I lived up the road from a GP and physio (and grocery store for that matter).
I was booked in for another MRI which confirmed it. The disc had herniated on the right side as well, and was causing the all too familiar pain/numbness on that side now.
At this point I was pretty fed up with all this, and started the ball rolling on the surgical option. It wasn’t a great time financially for me to do so, but I couldn’t leave the apartment, and was in constant and oftentimes severe pain.
This final stretch lasted around six months before I was able to get my surgical appointment (for a number of reasons I won’t go into detail on).
Six months of being mostly homebound, getting food and groceries delivered, rarely seeing the outdoors, unable to work, or focus on much at all. Surviving by lying on my back, on the couch or bed for most of the day (the least painful position for me) and consuming media to pass the time, and help distract from the pain.
Finally, in January of 2023, I had surgery to resolve this issue once and for all… sort of.
I knew going in that this would only address my sciatica and leg pain/numbness, and wouldn’t strengthen my back at all, so it would still get sore and potentially have issues, which physiotherapy might help in the long run, but no guarantees. Still, it would hopefully resolve the debilitating pain and help me return to my regularly scheduled life.
I also had a work contract lined up, to begin a few weeks after my surgery date, and it wasn’t something I could afford to miss out on, given the cost of the surgery. So I crossed my fingers, hoped for a successful and speedy recovery, and had it done.
Authors note: GET PRIVATE HEALTH INSURANCE. Also, try to be more proactive instead of reactive to health problems. On painful days, do what you need to to get through. One day at a time. Use distractions, coping mechanisms, indulgences, medicine; whatever self-care and protective behaviour you require to make it to tomorrow.
Waking in that hospital bed, still drowsy and medicated, I felt good (and not just because of the painkillers). For the first time in forever, my legs were pain free.
My body was tired and weak, but even after several hours, and when fully over the anesthesia, my legs were completely free of pain. I could move them around without issue, and eventually they got me up and walking again. My left foot was half-numb, which wasn’t entirely unexpected (they said there might be residual numbness), but there was no pain.
I had the surgical wound, plus a tube in my back for a few days while I was in hospital, but the painkillers kept away of the pain of all that. I just remember lying awake most of that first night (as the nurses check on you pretty often and wake you up), and feeling quite content. A surprising lack of boredom too. Just me and my thoughts with nothing else to distract or worry.
Maybe it was the drugs, but it was such a relief to have that time away from the pain and away from the world. A few days later, I left the hospital to continue my recovery at home.
Authors note: Nurses are wonderful.
I really wish I could say that it went perfectly, and I lived happily ever after, but the unfortunate reality is that after a few days resting at home, pain started to creep back into my leg.
I had another MRI to see what was going on, and as I suspected, the remaining disc had protruded to replace the removed part, and was pinching on my nerve again.
I despaired, briefly, as it felt like the months (though more like years) of work, and tens of thousands of dollars spent in medical bills, was all for nothing.
The future looked bleak, and I was frustrated and disappointed. Not entirely surprised, as my entire journey had been a series of disappointments, but this one hurt the most. It felt like I had wasted so much time and money.
But I had been here before. I knew how to play this game. I knew this wasn’t something I could control, so I learned to deal with it, and to wait it out. Maybe things would change over time, as they had before. As Gandalf would say, “That is not for you to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
Authors note: These moments are tough. It’s okay to be sad. Take care of yourself. Keep optimistic about the future. The only constant is change. Things can always improve.
A Mind At Work
I ended up pushing back my contract start date by a week or two, as my recovery wasn’t going as I’d hoped. But soon enough, I was home (after a week of being at my parent’s place) and recovered enough to sit at my computer (on painkillers) and do some remote work.
The pain was still there, but I had some fairly strong painkillers available if it got too severe, though I tried to stick with ibuprofen whenever possible. The strong stuff would make me drowsy.
Work began, and the first couple of days were rough. I couldn’t sit comfortably in my chair, it was hard to focus, and I needed to take regular breaks to lie down and reset. Thankfully, work was very accommodating and understanding, and I wasn’t tossed into the deep-end during that first week.
The following week was much better, and with a busy schedule of work to focus on, I found myself noticing the pain less and less. I took less painkillers, was able to sit in my chair for longer, and could complete a lot more work.
During this time, I was also seeing a physiotherapist, even though the doctors weren’t hopeful it would help at this point. She gave me some exercises to do at home, and saw me for follow-ups every four weeks or so.
I’m not sure I can say for certain why, but over the next month or two, the sciatica (leg pain) had begun to subside again. Likely a combination of my back still healing from the surgery (swelling going down, making more room for things), and the physio exercises.
Whatever the reason, I found myself lying in bed one night with no pain in my legs.
And though things still fluctuate a little, I haven’t experienced that same debilitating pain since.
Authors note: Keeping busy is a very powerful coping mechanism. Having a full schedule can help get you through tough times and keep your mind distracted until you make it out the other side.
That finally leads us to the present day. Would I consider myself cured? No. And I’m not sure I ever will be. But I’ve come a long way, and am definitely in a much better place than I was this time last year.
My back will still get sore from activity or strain. My foot is still half-numb, and probably always will be. My legs and feet can have pains sporadically, or when overused, but, I can live my life again. I can walk, get groceries, drive, socialise, sit and stand, bend and stretch. Simple joys we might take for granted.
As a testament to my improvement, I’m finishing up a month long European holiday. I’ve walked over 300,000 steps in that time (most of that with my chunky camera bag), taking photos on the way; something I missed a lot during the past year of inactivity and recovery.
I’m proud of how far I’ve come, but I know better than to assume it will remain this way. It always comes and goes, there are always peaks and valleys. Even as I write this, I feel a throb in my left leg.
Too much activity, a certain awkward position; a number of things might trigger it. This is just my reality now, and I’ve come to accept that. Maybe one day I’ll be free of it entirely, but maybe not. Today might not be great, but you do what you can with what you’re given. There’s always the hope of tomorrow.
Authors note: Sometimes it helps to look over your shoulder and see how far you’ve come. You’re on the right track, keep going. Even if your life isn’t quite what you imagined, there is beauty in the present. Enjoy where you are, and work towards where you want to be, but don’t be discouraged if you end up somewhere unexpected.
A Little Treat
Thank you to everyone who has helped me with this journey so far, whether you know it or not. And thank you for reading this far, I know it was a lot. I hope this helps you understand a little of what chronic illness, pain or disability can look like for someone.
As promised, a little treat for you: a selection of photos from my travels over the past month. These shots, and this trip, were only made possible by years of medical work, patience, perseverance, and the support of family and friends.
I hope you enjoy seeing Europe through my lens, and I’ll see you back in Australia soon!
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Thanks for sticking around.