“My illness isn’t really invisible. If you look closely enough you can see how much it has changed my life.”
My bike accident occurred when I was in my young teen years. I feel as if I have led three different lives during my thirty five years in this amazing world. The first thirteen are somewhat difficult to remember. My earliest memories are with my dad taking bike rides to the park and playing kickball with my friends in our front yard. Some great memories stick out and some terrible memories are there that I will never forget. I was a kid with an enormous zest for life. Despite not having the “perfect” childhood, I have more great memories than bad memories and my family did the best they could to provide me with a joyous childhood. No one would have imagined the events that occurred during the ten years that followed my bike accident. I remember the day I fell as if it was yesterday, down to the taste of the pink mint that I was chewing when the front tire of my bicycle got twisted with the bag I was carrying and my body went directly into a stone wall. The damages that occurred on that day would affect the next two thirds of my life.
For the following ten years I would be a totally different person than I was during my first thirteen years here in this world. As many of my readers know, my accident resulted in brain surgery to remove a blood clot and many other injuries that had me in critical condition for a few weeks and then bed bound for a few months. I do not remember the pain from my surgery nor being extremely upset about losing three months of summer. I remember fear but not pain. I was doted on for months as everyone was beyond happy I was alive and healthy. I received flowers, presents, cards, balloons, and because I was unable to walk up the stairs my dad gave me a bell to use whenever I needed something. Once my scars healed and my hair grew back, I believed that my life would go back to the way it was pre-bike accident: not perfect, but happy. I could not have been more wrong. Brain surgery was nothing compared to the pain I would endure for the second portion of my life. I looked pretty much like the Jessica I had been before my fall except for all the fun things that come with puberty like pimples and oily skin but I was in more physical pain than I had ever endured; the difference was that the pain was no longer visible. I can remember the exact moment I began noticing the pain. I was sitting in my Seventh Grade Social Studies class and a classmate asked me why I was rubbing my face and neck. I had gotten so used to massaging the pain I felt that I started doing it constantly. For the next ten plus years I would search for a cure to chronic pain. The term chronic pain was not used during this time and every doctor and specialist I saw was mystified by my condition. I was miserable, confused, in pain, and filled with a desperation for relief that no words can describe. I tried everything to the point that if someone started a question with the words: “Have you tried……” I would stop them before they could finish because I truly had tried EVERYTHING. Fast forward a few years and despite my huge passion to get my college degree, I dropped out after two and half years and drove to Boulder, CO to drown my pain in partying with friends. I was the fun girl who was always up for having drinks or taking random road trips to Vegas. I surrounded myself with people who loved to drink and party so that I could finally “fit in” with people as I had during the first third of my life. I was the life of the party on the outside but inside I had never been more unhappy. I came to a point that I not only hated my physical pain but I hated myself. I hit a rock bottom that was harder than the wall I fell into that started this whole mess.
My friends in Colorado began to notice that I was not as okay as I appeared to be. I was no longer the life of the party. I was at the party but with each drink I cried more about the physical pain no one understood, not even me. A good friend saw that I was heading somewhere bad fast and believed me when I said I was in severe pain despite the fact that the pain was not visible. He believed me and that belief saved my life. I ended up driving to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where the third portion of my life would begin. After two months of seeing every specialist possible and undergoing every test possible, I was told that I had chronic pain and there was no magic cure to my invisible illness. I am not sure I have ever cried as hard as I cried when the words: chronic pain and no cure came out of this brave doctor’s mouth. Under his guidance and advice, he got me into the Pain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic where I learned how to manage and live with chronic pain naturally. I went unwillingly at first but deep down I knew I was headed for death if I did not try one last thing. The first week was brutal and I did not say a word to anyone. Then something clicked. I started listening to the people around me whom also had chronic pain. Their pain, like mine was mostly invisible as well. I was no longer alone. Chronic pain does not discriminate and I became close to people I never would have talked to because despite races and age, I had more in common with the people in my chronic pain group than I had with anyone in the world. My entire life changed during the next three months. I learned how to live with chronic pain and manage it without medications or treatments. I began to live again as opposed to merely surviving. I was alive. I stopped hating myself and began to embrace life and follow my dreams.
I was petrified to go back to Colorado and wanted nothing to do with the lifestyle I had been living there. I was healthy. I had learned that I could be a healthy, happy person despite chronic pain. However, I had to change my entire lifestyle. I was exercising, eating healthy, reading again, writing, and wanted nothing to do with drinking or anything that could affect my chronic pain management routine. I lost a lot of friends. I was not the same Jessica I had been prior to going to the Mayo Clinic. I went from being the life of the party to the girl who was in bed reading by eight o’clock and awake by five am exercising. I was one of the most “boring” twenty-two year olds in college. No one understood me and I was asked constantly to go to this party or that party but I had to say no even though I knew I was losing the group of friends I had once counted on to get me through the night. I had to be selfish. I had to focus on my health. I spent a year in Denver, Colorado practicing the techniques I learned at the Mayo Clinic every day of the week: no exceptions. I needed that year to totally focus on my health and my new way of living. I then went back to school in Denver, CO and did get my college degree in Social Work. I loved learning how to help people so much that I ended up graduating at the top of my class and once I stopped resisting pain, everything began to fall into place. I am now thirty-five years old and there have been bumps in the road in my journey with chronic pain but nothing like the life I led for the second half of my life.
If you have chronic pain I want you to know that you are not crazy and you are not alone. I spent a third of my life living in hell, wanting to scream and cry every second of every day. I wanted to tear my entire face and head off just to get rid of the pain. I did not have hope because I knew no one who understood what I was going through. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. I understand that you may be in the worst possible place mentally and physically but I need you to have hope. There may not always be a way out but there is a way through. I promise you. If I can live a happy life despite pain, anyone can. Don’t worry, I probably would not have believed myself either if I read this fifteen years ago but at least know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the light is very bright.