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What It's Really Like To Live With Chronic Pain

The defender crashed into me from behind as I went up for the header. I fell, hard, on my back. The soccer match was heated, and I was more pissed to be taken out of the game than I was at the potential damage to my spine. After all, I was only 20. I figured the residual back pain would go away.It didn’t. It took me about six months to finally get an MRI. It revealed I’d not only herniated three discs, but two were bulging. Initial physical therapy and epidurals proved useless. Months of treatment turned into two years. I numbed myself with alcohol and painkillers; otherwise, every waking moment was pain.An option on the table was spinal fusion, which I was convinced still wouldn’t help. I didn’t want to admit I needed one before I could legally drink. I was supposed to be young and spry, but I was crying into a bowl of Cheerios, unable to handle the prospect of a lifetime of searing, inescapable, life-altering pain. To me, that life wasn’t worth living.On a whim, I went to a local Illinois chiropractor who was offering a newish non-surgical procedure for herniated discs called “spinal decompression.” Basically, it pulls you apart and allows the discs to “slip” back into place. It worked for me. After about a year of spinal decompression sessions three times a week, I was about 90 percent pain free — and still am, a decade later.But, of course, my back still sucks. Every four months or so, I throw it out. But it’s nowhere near the levels of pain it gave me before. It was pain I still cannot imagine living with. It affected every single thing in my life, every waking thought and movement.Chronic pain isn’t just physically debilitating — it’ll weigh on your mental health, too. According to Dr. Kathleen Smith on Psychom.net, it’s an “emotional [condition] as well that has tremendous influence over a person’s thoughts and moods.” According to research, she notes, 30 to 50 percent of people who suffer from chronic pain struggle with depression or anxiety.So I reached out to men with similar stories to hear how they get through it. While I got lucky and recovered, they’re struggling to find a solution, soldiering through pain on a daily basis at the expense of their family and career, unsure what life has in store for them. Josh, 43, Australia I have had migraines since I was a young child. They became chronic in adulthood. I average around 15 migraine days per month. For most of this time, I have been able to rely on taking prescription medications when a migraine occurs, which often helped. This allowed me to work full-time for most of my life. In the last couple of years, my reaction to these drugs has inexplicably changed; I can no longer tolerate taking them. This means that when I have a migraine attack, there is nothing I can do about it, so I am no longer working. I am currently on extended sick leave. I have been a high school teacher for the last 14 years, but I can’t see any prospect of a return to work. I have tried every preventative medication there is, with no effect. The immediate cause of the migraines is not known, but they are hereditary.I feel like it defines me as a person. The first thing I think about when I wake up is whether I can feel any head pain. Throughout the day, I am constantly monitoring how my head feels to see if the beginnings of a migraine may be creeping in. I get paranoid about every slight sensation in my head: a little pop of pain, the slightest pressure. Things that most people wouldn’t even notice make me stop and think, Am I getting a migraine? Is the rest of my day about to be ruined? Should I cancel whatever plans I’ve made?  I have these thoughts and questions all of the time.When other people see me, they inevitably ask me how I’ve been feeling. I am the Migraine Person. It’s how others see me and how I see myself. I feel like I have lost my actual identity. My personality is nearly gone.I get so envious of other people. When I was still working, I would see work colleagues turn up in the morning, their only concerns being their work tasks for the day. They completely take their health for granted. Most of the time when I arrived at work I would be gauging how sick I already felt and thinking about how I could best get through the day. My actual job became secondary to my head pain, my sickness and my worry about these things.I cannot describe how exhausting it is to try to be at work while your head is screaming, you have terrible nausea and your whole body just feels like falling down. Not just for one day. But for maybe three or four days of every week, for years. I have to put on a mask. I try to smile. When people ask how I am, I lie and pretend everything is ok, but in reality I am just doing an impression of myself. I often would go into the work bathrooms, lock the door and just sit on the ground with my head in my hands. Sometimes I would cry. Sometimes I would splash cool water on my forehead until I had to take a deep breath, get up and go to my next class. Meanwhile, there are people all around me living normal lives, without knowing what a privilege it is to just feel normal, to be able to go through the day without once having to think about how your body feels.I try not to let this make me bitter. I know it’s no one else’s fault. I know that there is no reason for me to expect life to be fair. So every day I would steel myself and go to work again.Toward the end of last year, something broke inside of me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. My willpower was used up. I could not continue to just endure and endure and endure. I broke down in tears in the staff room. I had panic attacks. I took immediate leave for the rest of the school term, and I did not return this year.Now I spend a lot of my time alone and in pain. When you have a migraine, you cannot stand any sensory input. I cannot read a book, watch TV, browse the web, listen to music. Anything and everything makes it worse.So I spend hours and hours, sometimes days and days, just lying in bed with ice on my head. One thing that no one understands about chronic pain is that it’s not just pain you are dealing with. For hours on end, I am trapped inside my head, with just my own thoughts and my pain. No distractions. I feel like the whole world shrinks down to just my head. Just my thoughts. Just my pain. It’s hard to describe the effects this has on you. Can you imagine being alone inside your head for days on end, with almost no sensory input? It drives you mad. You literally run out of things to think. It’s lonely. Your only company is pain, pain, pain, nausea, nausea, nausea. Just being stuck inside your head with nothing else and no way out.Overall, my life feels worthless. I am depressed most of the time. I feel like I have no future, and I have no escape.I have wanted to die for a long time now. But I have a wife and three kids who need me. I lie in bed in the dark and think about suicide. I imagine the glorious relief it would bring. I get a moment of hope, thinking that I could kill myself to end it all. But I can’t. I can’t leave my three kids without a father. I cannot ruin their lives to save mine.So even the last, most desperate option is not available to me. But I can’t help thinking about it. When I hear news of people dying in car accidents, I feel a moment of jealousy. Most people see death as a tragedy. I can’t relate to that anymore.I am on antidepressants, but what is that going to do? You can’t change the balance of chemicals in my brain to somehow make me feel okay with the life I am stuck in.I do have plenty of pain-free days, but I know a good day is just temporary. I can never think, Things are looking up! or Life is getting better! Even if I go for a whole week without migraine, I know it is just around the corner, waiting. If I start to feel happy, it feels fake. I know it’s not going to last. It’s exhausting allowing yourself to feel good for a while, just to come falling down again a day or two later. It’s easier to just stay down, rather than lift myself up only to inevitably fall again.Then I start to think of others, and I feel guilty… all of the time. This is not the life my wife signed up for. She wants a normal marriage. She wants us to be able to make plans and go places. But what’s the point? We make plans, and I often just have to cancel them or go out and try to endure. Either way, it’s not much fun for anybody. And who wants to come home every day just to find your husband sick in bed yet again? Who wants to be in a marriage where almost every conversation ends up in the same place — my sickness? We can’t look forward to fun things like holidays away or overseas trips. We can’t afford it, because I can’t work, and even if we could, my health would probably ruin it. And this is all because of me.So sometimes I withdraw into myself. I don’t want to tell her that I have a migraine yet again. I don’t want to be such a drag on our lives. I hate always pulling us down. I feel like she would have been much better off marrying someone else, being able to lead a normal life. Sometimes I can’t even make eye contact. Our life sucks and it’s all my fault. How can you have a healthy relationship when you feel like that?My wife is supportive and loving, but I feel like sometimes it gets too much for her. When I’m sick for days, she has to put up with it too. It makes her feel alone. Then when I’m okay again, she struggles to feel close to me again. She struggles to be happy around me because she knows it’s only temporary. I’ll be out sick again soon. So it’s hard on her, but then she feels guilty about feeling bad. After all, she’s not the one with the chronic illness. People feel sorry for me, but who is there to support her? I try my best, but I know that I am the cause of the problem.What do my kids think of me? I have three boys. What do they tell people when they ask what their dad does? That he stays at home because he’s sick all of the time? How can they feel proud of me? How can they look up to me?It impacts me socially as well. I don’t want to see people. I don’t want them to ask how I am. I hate that awkward conversation. How are they supposed to reply when I tell them that I am no better and there is no prospect of getting better? And it’s the same conversation every time. Like I said, I am the Migraine Guy. And because I don’t ever do anything, I don’t have anything to talk about. I’m just depressing to be around. I don’t even want to go to get a haircut, because the barber will ask how I’m going, and why I’m not at ...Read more

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