The conundrum of chronic pain

Alongside the trials of juggling assignments, living away from home and maintaining a social life, one student outlines her experience of living with chronic pain

Photo by Joe McCallion / Trinity News

I am struggling to write this article for many reasons. I am very lucky to have the body I have, I recognise this privilege and am grateful every day. Regardless, I suffer from chronic pain. To be more specific: spinal pain.

Take an “S” shaped spine, a few major operations, a couple of footlong titanium rods and just a sprinkle of screws (don’t forget the trusty monthly migraine), and you get a certain kind of bodily disorder that has led to a life of constant pain, immune to almost any remedy. I have felt this “S” shaped ache, often accompanied by sporadic hotspots of pain, for as long as I can remember.

In its most fierce existence I feel my breathing start to demand more of me – it is shallow and radiates from my back through to my chest, a pummeling which feels as consistent and natural to me as respiring. I often wonder what saint I killed in a past life to deserve this penance.

In my experience, Trinity’s Disability Service is wonderful – consistently helpful, eager to understand my needs or worries, and never patronising. Despite their help, it’s hard to make College life completely normal for someone who is abnormal. A delightful side effect of my back pain is the insomnia it triggers.

As I write it is 11:36am on a Tuesday, I haven’t slept in over 26 hours. Sadly this is natural to me and my sleep deprivation can become even more severe. As a result I often find it difficult to focus and frequently feel absent in lectures and tutorials, as well as social environments; wanting to speak up but using any energy I have left to quash whatever entity it feels is pressing on both my body and mind.

Like most of us, I am no stranger to mental health issues. This quasi-ghostly state has always been something I’ve struggled with and I am used to people constantly asking, “are you okay? You’re so quiet, in your own world.” Every time I hear some version of those questions, I wish I had a definitive answer.

We have all experienced pain, but it’s usually temporary, a warning that something is wrong. Chronic pain has a whole different dynamic. It does not give any message or useful warning. It is not a phase you can get over. It won’t be over soon. It demands acceptance of an unpleasant reality.

Lecture chairs are a particular challenge – I dread anything after the five minute mark, when my body compels me to either cry, or attempt to cushion myself with a strategically-folded scarf.

The only remedy, and I mean the only remedy, is to lie down flat facing upwards onmy orthopaedic mattress; not the most attainable kind of pain relief for a student. I am extremely lucky to have friends in college with inherently caring natures, all of whom distract me from this physical reality so effectively, in a way that is magical.

For someone with chronic back pain, staying in one position for long periods of time is a challenge- – muscle aches are exacerbated, trying to stretch in your desk chair is frustratingly inadequate, and walking around for ten minutes must wait until the end of the lecture.

By that stage, there is a good chance I am in a largely dissociative state – an unhealthy coping mechanism I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I do have plenty of Good Days – when pain is minimal and distractions are in abundance; I have found most days are Good Days in College, as by now I have trained myself to block out pain as much as I can.

However, in turn, I do have the occasional Very Bad Day, where missing College is barely even a decision and I struggle to sit up normally in bed; a harsh reminder that I cannot pretend my pain isn’t there or wish it away.

A distinctly tricky aspect of chronic pain is gauging how to, or even if I should, vocalise how I feel to those around me. My parents and friends tell me they’d prefer to know when it’s very bad, but I’ve found it either alienates me further, making me feel undeniably separate from the rest of the room; or makes me paranoid – do they think I’m exaggerating? Being dramatic? Attention-seeking?

Or it just makes me sad, seeing my parents sigh helplessly and give me a hug, saying they wish they could help, or transfer the pain to themselves. On the other hand, telling others how I feel can prevent such thoughts manifesting in my mind, worsening and making me feel even more alienated and hopeless. Sharing it with friends or family can be a way to feel less alone and more understood, but that’s not always the case.

I’ve found chronic pain to have peculiar effects on my mind – I can’t remember the last time I felt as though I wasn’t recovering from something, and this dislocates my sense of self in a way I struggle to articulate. It leads to one feeling inherently broken, as though all hope is lost because this is reality, and all modern medicine can offer you is some Ibuprofen which barely remedies a headache.

As I’ve grown alongside chronic pain, I have found solace in the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect person – we are all flawed in countless extraordinary ways, these flaws make us who we are and without that, human consciousness would lose at least some of its awesomeness. It’s like kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken things to make them even more beautiful than before; the scars are badges of honour, to be worn with pride.

I don’t want this article to seem like some kind of cry for sympathy or dramatisation of a bit of back pain. My friends and family will probably be shocked – the pain is personal and private, but there is value in understanding how the people around us experience the same daily activities so differently, an exercise in compassion and appreciation of the complexities of human life.

I have always felt the inward benefits of my condition, how I force myself to always consider how other people may be feeling and what they are dealing with internally; I appreciate good days or even good moments in a way that may be more visceral than people with less distressed bodies.

My experience is projected through a perspective many of my friends have never had, and whilst I hope they never have to see life through this monogrammatic odyssey of oddly definitive good and bad narratives, it is something I am grateful for.

In College, we need better accommodations for those struggling with mental or physical health issues. Many students need more than an extra fifteen minutes in exams – possibly more readily available essay extensions, flexible tutorial arrangements, online recordings of lectures to help catch-up on absences.

Above all, we need to prioritise compassion and inclusivity. Living alone in a city can be difficult enough without health problems making everything slightly harder.

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.