Diary of… a student living in chronic pain

Renee Glick is a third-year doctoral student at the Center for Psychological Studies. She enjoys reading, spending time with friends and learning about nature and animals. Her interests include pain advocacy, research, health psychology and suicide prevention. Her favorite quote is “I think therefore I am,” by Rene Descartes, and her philosophy on life stems from a quote by the Dalai Lama: “Happiness is not something readymade — it comes from our own actions.”

On April 23, 2003, I was driving Northbound on I-95 from Palm Beach College after a successful day of finals.  At that time, construction often brought the bustling highway to a standstill without warning, so when a dually truck aggressively tailgated me, I frantically sought to get into the right lane. Unfortunately, I could not switch lanes, so I motioned with my hand for the truck to draw back. However, my attempts were all made in vain.  In the blink of an eye, zooming traffic seized to a halt, and as soon my car came to a standstill, I watched in horror through my rear view mirror the accident that would unrecognizably alter my life.

As I sat numb amongst the wreckage, I realized my arm was ripped out of its socket like the radio and a/c vents that were relocated into my lap. As if I had not been shaken up enough, rubberneckers of the crash collided with each other while I was wheeled into the ambulance.

In 2011, looking back at my former life, I realize that I took the pleasures of being active and pain free for granted, and the freedom of hitting the pavement for a run is now lost to me.  In the place of physical freedom, mental strength has been fostered from surviving interminable pain and endless surgeries that have altered the way I approach every hour of each day.  Worst yet, I supposedly “don’t look like I am sick,” and I often receive remarks when I get out of a handicap parking spot such as: “You should be ashamed of yourself for taking your grandparents’ placard.”

Pain is invisible, and logic tells us that pain should desist after the tissue damage has healed. This common notion can cause people experiencing chronic pain to feel crazy, like the pain is all in their head.  Further yet, as if suffering with an invisible illness is not hard enough, there is an implicit expectation for people in pain, pain that at times is inhumane to endure, to go without care that only increases functionality and alleviates pain and symptoms without eliminating the cause.

Receiving this care, which is called palliative care, is often associated with drug addiction, internal weakness and feigning an illness, especially with all the sensationalism the media portrays about pill mills.

Paradoxically, without palliative care, many people in severe chronic pain cannot function at work and, thus, are forced into utilizing social security disability benefits. However, this choice is also criticized, especially in a society that values autonomy and youth.

As a 28 year-old woman who enjoys fashion, I am often told that “I look too pretty to be in pain” or “You’re too young to be in pain,” and regularly my grimaces of pain are disguised by the façade of my youth.

Prior to developing an amazing support group, having my pain disregarded felt isolating.  In 2010, I required a spinal fusion after two failed back surgeries and recurrent episodes of sacral iliac dislocation.  Interestingly, the back brace I had to wear for six months was frequently mistaken for a corset, a weight training belt or a cry for sympathy.

From this journey, I have realized that, much like death and dying, pain is avoided by most people, as if recognizing the existence of pain makes it contagious.  In a society that values “picking yourself up by the bootstraps,” being in chronic pain is not only a disadvantage, it can also be seen as burdensome.  Despite these challenges, I have chosen to live my life as a pain warrior and encourage other people in the pain community to live a life that is not demoralized.

I have learned to respect my limitations and not apologize for requiring help, to approach challenges with ingenuity and, most importantly, to take back my voice.

As a third-year doctoral student specializing in health psychology, I am often overwhelmed with demands that are difficult to meet. Most nights, like this one, I am laid up on the couch, with my legs propped up on a supportive wedge, with a heated blanket and my laptop.     Pain is not only distracting but can physically and emotionally erode my ability to be productive.

However, there is a balance that must be maintained between acknowledging when my body needs a break and distracting myself from the pain by helping others and fulfilling my academic and occupational aspirations.

As the director of research studies for U.S. Pain Foundation, I now have the opportunity to educate medical and mental health professionals and the community about the biopsychosocial aspects of chronic pain.

I teach an educational workshop I developed about a rare neurological disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). I ill-fatedly have firsthand experience with CRPS symptoms of burning pain that can surpass digit amputation, muscle and bone wasting, pain elicited by the gentlest breeze or a delicate touch, and motor disability.

Although, I would give anything to have been unscathed by the accident, I am grateful for finding my life’s purpose amidst the ruins.

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