Editor’s Note—Darisse Smith is a US Army veteran and a chronic pain sufferer, a wife and mother who find the time to write for the National Pain Report. Glad she’s back.
I injured my lower back when I was 25 years old. Before I experienced the worst, disheartening pain of my life, I gave no thought to the question, “Can I?” Can I go for a run? Can I hike 10 miles up a mountain? Can I parasail? Can I jump out of an airplane?
The answer to the question of “Can I?” was always an undeniable, “Yes!” My answer to the question, “Will I?” might have a different response, especially if one was encouraging me to jump out of an airplane.
I competed in triathlons, joyfully rappelled down cliffs, ran 10 miles in the rain and went snowboarding every chance I got. With less glee, I marched 11 miles with a 50 lb. pack, aced Army Physical Fitness Tests (APFT), and sat hours a day in an ergonomically insufficient helicopter seat.
After my injury, I still attempted any physical feat I wanted though usually I suffered miserable pain for days after. Over the years, I have learned which activities are best and worst for my chronic injury. Running is ill-advised; swimming is best. If I want to hike up a mountain, I will do it in stages rather than all at once. If we want to enjoy camping, I will bring a large air mattress or book a cabin rather than rough it on the hard ground.
The process of figuring out what I can should and want to do has been exhaustive. I have suffered from the extreme of doing too much and doing too little. I have overdone activities on multiple occasions and suffered the painful consequences. After breaking my SCS paddle lead with too much activity, I feared trying any activity and stayed miserable on my couch for a couple of years.
I can say without hesitation that I am much happier trying different activities even with the risk of increased pain than sitting around doing nothing. Some activities are worth the pain the next day.
When my 3 year old son wants me to carry him on my shoulders, I hoist him up without hesitation. It is worth the pain because I get to hear his giggles from just above my ears. I get to hold his hands and feel the glee in his happily restless legs.
Our town hosts weekly outdoor concerts during the summer. Usually everyone brings a blanket to sit on the ground while a cover band plays. Sitting on the ground is not comfortable for me. Neither is getting up off the ground when the concert is over. What is worth the discomfort, though, is listening to music while the sun sets a beautiful orange and pink over the surrounding mountains. I smell freshly cut grass and hear children laughing around me on a cool summer night.
Often family members and friends ask me, “Can you do this with your back?” Usually the question is out of concern and love, which I appreciate. Sometimes that question is more a demand: “You shouldn’t do that with your back.”
I have never responded well to being told what I can and cannot do. Just ask any pain management doctor I have ever had. For me, my injury has taught me to weigh the risks versus the benefits. I have learned ways to accommodate my injury and subsequent pain so I can still live a life with the kinds of joys I crave.
The truth is that I have been held back enough by my injury and I will use my remaining freedom to decide for myself what risks I would rather take. The most liberating way of voicing concern is to ask me, “Will you?”
I can do whatever I want but it is my choice whether or not the joy of completion outweighs the pain I will later experience.
I will hoist my toddler up on my shoulders. I will trot alongside him as he dares me with his sparkling eyes to chase him. I will celebrate a wedding by dancing with my husband. The ice packs are staged in the freezer and the couch is stocked with positioning pillows. Pain often leaves us feeling helpless and without choice. Find ways in your life to adapt and find a choice again.