My Story: Learning How to Accept Chronic Pain

My Story: Learning How to Accept Chronic Pain

By Joanna Mechlinski

Joanna Mechlinski

Joanna Mechlinski

The first time I lost control of my legs, I tried to convince people it was an accident. I was a recent college grad, it was snowy outside…who was to say I couldn’t have slipped on the library steps? That’s what the concerned librarians thought, anyways.

But I was indoors and walking up a flight of stairs. Luckily I managed to grab the handrail and hold on with my upper body after a moment, keeping potential disaster at bay. The moment passed and I went about my life, quickly dismissing the incident.

I couldn’t for long, though. Although I was overall seemingly just a typical young woman in her early twenties, sudden incidents of various pains and body malfunctions began creeping into my life with alarming regularity. Before long, they had taken over entirely. I had polymyositis, a rare neuromuscular disease, as well as lupus. Every little thing I did took an embarrassing amount of forethought and effort.

Don’t get me wrong…it wasn’t as though I’d been an athlete or anything. But I did enjoy a number of physical activities, such as rollerblading or skiing. All of sudden they were a thing of the past. Even little everyday things, like climbing stairs or rising from a chair, which I’d never thought about before, were now major obstacles.

To say that I was hit hard emotionally is a huge understatement. Some say that in order to accept a major chronic illness, a person must go through the five stages of grief, just like with the death of a loved one. And in many ways, it is a death…of the person you used to be.

While I can’t speak for everyone, of course, I know that I personally did go through all the stages – denial, anger, bargaining and depression, in no particular order and many times back from one to another – before finally achieving acceptance. I raged against the world, wondered “Why me?” as I watched all my friends land spouses and dream jobs while I could barely get out of bed some days. I held private bargains with God inside my head, offering to do X or stop doing Y if it meant the end of my suffering. (Clearly, I had to be a bad person, or else pain and illness would not have befallen me, right?) I had moments and even entire days when I was so depressed and grief-stricken by the seeming hopelessness of my situation that I could not see past it. Much like the illness itself, all of these things seemed to flare up randomly, ambushing me when I could least protect myself emotionally.

I received all kinds of “advice” from friends and family (all of them people who had never experienced anything like this themselves) telling me I just had to accept my new life. Sure, that makes sense and sounds simple – in theory. Just how exactly do you make yourself stop being angry and depressed about something huge that has taken over your entire life and isn’t likely to change anytime soon, if ever? Even if you truly want it, it’s not exactly as if you can just command yourself to stop feeling certain emotions.

I’m now 35 years old and have been living my “modified” life for over a decade. While I still have my occasional moments, I have to say that at this point, I have accepted the status quo. I can’t really tell you when it happened; I can’t really tell you how it happened. All I know is that one day, I was going about my regular daily activities and the realization dawned on me. I had stopped fighting a battle I could never win.

I wish I could share some key tips with those of you currently struggling with your own pain – physical or emotional. Unfortunately, I just don’t have that ability. And from what I’ve observed, the path to acceptance is different for everyone anyways. But one thing I know is that it’s okay to grieve and shake your fist at whatever unexpected obstacles life’s thrown at you. In fact, I highly recommend it! The way I see it, going through those stages is the only way to eventually heal. For a time, you will go through all the painful emotions, perhaps back and forth many times over as I did. But know that once you‘ve purged it all, you will eventually find your own peace once again. It may seem impossible at whatever point in the journey you’re currently in. But I promise it will happen, some way and some day.

No, your life will never be the same as it used to be. But on the inside, everything that made you who you are is still all there. You are still a valuable person with a great deal to offer to the world – perhaps even more than before, as you gain insight into empathizing with the struggles faced by others.

Joanna Mechlinski is a former newspaper reporter who now works in education. She is a lifelong Connecticut resident, avid reader and animal lover who has battled several chronic illnesses since her early twenties.

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Authored by: Joanna Mechlinski

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Jean Price at 1:48 pm

    You have nailed an important part of any chronic illness or life limiting injury! That’s grief…and I am so glad you are where you are today and realize that grieving was part of the process. I worked with a group of hospital services for the community that included adult day care, hospice, and grief recovery programs. My job was to go out and talk about these programs so people would know where they might fit into their care needs. To learn about our services, I spent time with each and attended the five week seminar on grief. (Their model differed from the five stages concept, but a lot of the same information I’m sure.). Grief was considered as tasks to be accomplished. And whether or not you grieve wasn’t the issue…it was a given. You will grieve. Period. The choice was whether to grieve with healthy tasks or unhealthy ones. The core foundation was….any change equals loss…and loss equals painful feelings. The tasks of grieving healthily were… accept the REALITY of the change/loss, allow the pain of the loss, tell the story, include the loss in your new reality, and eventually reinvest in your new reality or your life after the loss. The unhealthy road started with….. deny the reality of the loss, don’t talk about it, control the pain of the loss (using behavior or substances, food, whatever you can use to block the pain of the loss!) live the lie and use more stuff to keep the loss out of your reality, never reinvesting in a new reality, never recovering from the loss. All the stages and feelings you mentioned and those struggles are truly part of grief. We often can’t pinpoint when the more acute pain of the loss lessens and we start to reinvent our lives to include the loss and then to reinvest…but it does happen, and it will happen for anyone who chooses to allow the feelings and allow the loss. Everyone is differen in the time it takes, and often a ripple loss can send us down a road we thought we’d already traveled. But it’s really just one more layer of grieving the loss that we hadn’t encountered before. I remember when, about four years into my new life with pain, my grandson was born. At that time I was still wearing a tortoise type brace from my last back surgery, and I thought I had run the course of my loss and grief…I had given up work, I had survived the tail end of raising my daughters, I still had my marriage and my friends, golf was replaced with reading, and although it wasn’t the life I had planned, I was optimistic about the future, regardless of the pain. But when I went to hold this wonderful gift, this child of my child…I had all this plastic in the way and I couldn’t bring him up to my chest without the risk of squishing him, since I had no perspective on the pressure I was putting against the plastic! Tears and feeling like…is holding this baby too much to ask, world? Can’t I just do that? I knew this was another loss, a ripple loss…yet I still had all the old feelings flood me. You can’t prevent or even predict when a layer will become visible. And I had the choice of whether I let that stop me cold or I allowed it, processed it and went forward. The same thing came several years latter when my grandson patted the floor and said…”Grandma, come sit here and play with me.” No way could I do that without calling 911 for help getting up! So another layer. But before you think this is awful, I will tell you the secret. One loss gives us opportunities to shed another layer and create a firmer ground for ourselves our whole lives! And that can be a gift when life with physical pain has so many limits. As you can probably tell, I so believe grief work is important…and more so when life stops on a dime and pain enters. I wish there was an emphasis on this for all of us. I live a more joyful, more complete, more spiritual, more peaceful life than I ever did pre-pain. And yes, age and maturity can help. Yet they can’t fill in all those empty places when you’re up against a chronic health condition with pain that is life limiting. I have had many more health issues and more areas of pain since then. But these tools continue to help me cope and live fully within the reality of my losses and limits from pain. I see that in your story also, Joanna, and so many others can identify with these issues even though their pain or illness is different. Bless you for adding your voice and your experiences to help others. You did it so well and it touches on something so important!!

  2. Charles Ross Jr at 5:02 pm

    Beutifully written! I am a 30 year survivor from tbi, and now it’s my back. The good Lord must feel I am up to the challenge.

  3. Katie at 9:10 am

    This is so well written and had me in tears. Thank you. I feel so much of this even though I have a different illness. Thank you

  4. Patricia at 7:57 am

    I feel for others, as I have had Chronic illness since I was a child; I am now 75 yrs. of age! It is what you make it. Indeed there are days you just want to die, but you have to fight this disease every step of the way. I have had 2 lower lumber operations, pain management, every medication you could possibly think of, and yet, there is no cure. You just have to take each day as it comes, and try to think of positive thoughts. Staying alive beats the alternative.

  5. Gracie Bagosy-Young at 7:18 am

    “Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; It means understanding that something is what it is and there’s got to be a way through it.” -Michael J. Fox

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    #warriors