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How I Reclaimed My Life From Chronic Pain
Terrible Pain and a Sense of Hopelessness
Gradually, I began to recede into a world dominated by my constant struggle with, and focus on, the pain. Everything else began to fall by the wayside, and the things I loved to do — the things that gave my life joy and meaning — no longer seemed possible. I loved to cook, socialize with my friends, and volunteer. Previously, my days were busy attending PTA meetings and running the local children’s theater group. But my world soon shrank dramatically as I spent all of my time at home, usually on the couch watching television, depressed by what my life had become and in agonizing pain. Eventually, I began losing hope.
What made me saddest was that I felt like my two beautiful children had lost their mother, and my husband had lost his wife (that's my family in the picture). I essentially abdicated my responsibilities as a mom and a wife as my chronic pain subsumed everything and left me a shell of my former self.
I was isolated, yet although I didn’t realize it, I was far from alone. Chronic pain has emerged as a major health issue in this country, affecting an estimated 100 million Americans. Some of them experience chronic pain syndrome, the same illness that overwhelmed me.
My sister, a psychologist, knew I needed to try a different approach, so she did some research and found a residential program at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., that focused entirely on chronic pain and recovery. The idea of leaving my family behind for a month was heartbreaking to me, but I had to do something — I wasn’t really there for them anyway. I decided to swallow my pride and give the program a try, because continuing to live a life dominated by pain and misery just wasn’t an option.
'Masking' My Pain
The focus of the Silver Hill program is on teaching people how to live with their pain. You have to accept that it probably isn’t ever going to go away completely. Pain medications are certainly not going to make that happen. In fact, as I learned, they can ultimately make the pain worse.
At the beginning of the program, chronic pain patients like myself are given a blank mask and asked to decorate it to reflect their feelings. I made mine black, with large, glittery tears that represented my suffering, but also the glimmer of hope that things might get better (that's my mask at right).
I was also offered tools and skills — mindfulness, , exercise, and more — that helped me change my relationship with my pain. I learned that many of us tend to catastrophize our pain (“My back is killing me!”). Most importantly, I came to realize that there were moments when I wasn’t really in pain, and how to capture those moments and build on them. It’s so important to direct our thoughts toward the positive things in life and to practice gratitude for them.
Along with this came daily physical therapy sessions and group classes in which we were taught about nutrition and to harnessing the power of our minds to manage our pain. Sometimes we need a reminder to enjoy the simple pleasures in our lives — sharing a laugh with a friend, listening to great music, taking in the beauty of the world around us — and make them central to our daily lives.
Back to My Old Self
Shortly before leaving the one-month program, I was asked to make another mask (shown at left). This time, my mask was bright yellow and covered with words I clipped from magazines: safe … free … health … powerful … found!
I’m using the tools I was given every day to keep my chronic pain in perspective. It has allowed me to resume my life and to really live again. I’m back to being the person I used to be and am meant to be — happy, busy, active, social, adventurous, a mom, a wife; a person who loves life and appreciates everything I have, and almost lost. Most importantly, I have my smile back.
There are many programs like the one at Silver Hill Hospital for treating chronic pain. For more information on pain management and treatment for chronic pain disorders, contact the American Chronic Pain Association.
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