I am in pain a lot. My back hurts after very little provocation, since I broke it at T6 in November 2015. It has hurt in exactly the same spot since then: just to the right of T6, near the tip of my shoulder blade in my upper midback. It’s only the right side. Long days make the pain worse. Carrying my backpack for school isn’t ideal, but it is necessary. I don’t take pain meds any more except for Advil and I wear my Lidocaine patches when the pain is really bad. It radiates into the whole upper right quadrant of my back. And it affects everything.
Sometimes it’s so bad that I cannot sit in a particular chair for any length of time, as just now when I was trying to study in the library but couldn’t find a comfortable position that reduced the pain even a little. I muscled through, reading the article and doing the quiz I needed to fill out for psychology class, but I was only half present. I would zone in and out as the pain fluctuated. I think it took me twice as long to read as it would have had I not been hurting.
Then I gave up.
I wanted to do more work, to re-read my psychology book so that I could be more prepared for my exam on Wednesday, but I simply couldn’t sit in that wooden chair, at that table, and still focus without tearing up from the pain. So I had to go home. There I’ll be able to sit in my comfy spots and hopefully do my work, though with the distractions that being at home brings.
I struggle with this pain because it is like a phantom of a dark experience. I willingly share that I broke my neck and my back in 2015 but the follow-up question is always, “How?” I’ve had different answers for different people at different times. My most common answer is simply, “I fell off a height onto my head.” I know this isn’t a terribly satisfying answer. I can always feel the other person analyzing my response and wanting more. They want someone to blame, an event, a clearcut, “Why?”
There is a very clear “why” but I can’t just say to the average person, “Oh, I tried to kill myself by jumping off of a dresser on to my head while I was in a psych ward.” I have to suss out whether or not this answer will scare them or repel them or offend them in some way. Sometimes I simply don’t want the judgment because even though I truly see no shame in suffering from mental illness, I know that people make assumptions automatically. That’s just the nature of the beast. The stigma is very real. And sometimes I just want to be a regular person who gets regular sympathy rather than, oh, well, it’s because she’s sick in the head.
For me the problem is actually less about what I tell people and more about what I tell myself. I somehow don’t feel like my residual back pain is legitimate because I inflicted it upon myself. Sure, I didn’t mean to fail at committing suicide so I never intended to deal with lingering pain issues, and of course I understand that my illness made me psychotic so that I wasn’t making rational decisions. Regardless, there’s still something about it that makes it feel like a “less than” injury. If someone breaks their neck skiing, it’s pretty easy to just feel badly for them and their pain. I don’t typically think, well it’s their own damn fault so I am not going to feel bad for them.
I know that people have delegitimized my pain, simply by talking to pain Drs. and nurses while I was recovering. I don’t think anyone would be shocked to hear that even people who consistently treat psych patients don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. I was told, while arguing for proper pain medication coverage, that I needed to stop focusing on my pain and start focusing on my psychological recovery. Why these two could not happen simultaneously was beyond me and I made it clear that I couldn’t focus on my mental health if I was in too much physical pain to concentrate. How on Earth is one supposed to consider all of the psychological imbalances one has if the pain is frustratingly distracting? I had to fight for my pain meds. I don’t think I would have had to fight my Drs. if I hadn’t been in the psych ward.
So, most of the time I don’t talk about how much I hurt, except to my closest family and friends at the relevant times. “I can’t go out later because my back already hurts too much,” etc. They understand and are very sympathetic. I think I am less understanding with myself than they are with me. Every time my back starts to hurt a lot, my mind immediately goes back to the dark places. I think about what happened, what I did, and what followed. I think about who I hurt. I think about a lot of things. It’s like an emotional phantom limb: the actual pain isn’t really there any more, but the physical pain reminds me of the emotions, amplifies their echoes. The pain is a talisman leftover from that dark time, a constant reminder of what I’ve been through and put myself through. I don’t want to say it’s my fault, but I know there are choices I could have made along the way that might have resulted in a different outcome.
What’s done is done. My back hurts a lot. Surprisingly my neck doesn’t, though I think the surgery actually corrected a problem that I had before, actually relieving what used to be chronic, crushing neck pain. I wonder about how to discuss my back pain. Mostly, I just live with it. The good ones always understand.