Pain and Punishment

It’s January and a new decade is upon us! This month can be difficult, feeling tired and lethargic from the holiday excess or for some, feeling increased anxiety from the emotional tension the holiday may bring. For myself, I love the time with my family over the holidays and the first few days of the new year give me time to reflect on what I want to achieve for the year ahead. I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions, I think they are a set up for failure, but rather I like to visualise how I would like the year look.

This year I want to keep trying to reduce the physical pain I still experience on a daily basis.  Being active helps keep my body in check, so I need to continue to challenge myself in the gym and get stronger. Sometimes it’s a vicious cycle; if the pain prevents me from exercising or being active it becomes worse, but then the longer I leave it the worse the pain becomes.  It can be draining and exhausting. But I have come to terms with the fact that this will be a constant in my life.  So, as I was contemplating these goals for 2020, I started to think more deeply about pain and it’s impact. 

Pain comes in many different forms and affects people differently. For some when pain hits it’s impossible to do or think about anything else, whilst others find solace in “getting on with it” to take their mind off what may be bothering them. The word pain comes the from the Latin word ‘poena’ meaning a fine, or penalty. And often that was exactly how I felt. That my pain was some form of punishment.

We can spend our whole lives trying to avoid pain. As children you hope the most pain you ever have to experience are the bruises and scrapes that come with being a child trying to find your balance.  Through the teenage years a bit of heartache and so called “growing pains” are manageable, part and parcel of preparing to become independent from our parents.  As we enter into adult life, pain can come in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, we can never be immune to the kind of pain that leaves a legacy and can assert influence over our entire lives. The kind of pain that comes out of the blue and is out of our control. That’s when it is the hardest to process.

Whether it is the daily aches and pains I still experience or moments when pain sears through my body like a lightning bolt, I have learnt to live with and deal with the emotional toll.  But this wasn’t always the case.  I can recall many moments where I felt despair and hopelessness because of the persistent pain. During the critical early days in hospital, I was attached to a morphine pump.  This allowed me to self-administer my pain medication (there was a timer so I couldn’t pump less that 5 minutes apart). Sometimes it was enough and other times I would press it and press it and the pain just never seemed to go.  But given my general lack of consciousness and the inability to grasp the reality of my situation I think my mind didn’t have a chance to react fully to what was going on.

A few years after I had left hospital I was trying to get my life back on track. One of the biggest obstacles hampering my mental recovery was the large skin graft they had put over the right side of my body. I can only describe it like snakeskin. They had taken skin from my left thigh and grafted it over the large open wound on my right side. As a young woman I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror as all I could see was this deformed body staring back at me. My sister has memories of me sleep walking to the mirror and screaming at my reflection. So, when I was given the opportunity to have ground-breaking surgery to get rid of the skin graft I was willing to do whatever it took. I didn’t realise that would mean pain like I have never experienced, darkness that I almost didn’t shake and possibly the worst 6 months me and my family had to endure.

The idea was that below the skin graft, at the top of my right leg they would insert a silicone balloon. Over a period of 5 months they would inject saline into the balloon and slowly expand the skin. When there was enough stretched skin to cover the area taken up by the skin graft, they would remove the balloon, remove the skin graft and use the new skin (my own skin) to cover the area. It sounded amazing and would give me the opportunity to cover the alien looking area on the right side of my body.

As the months went by the pain became worse and worse. Each time they injected the saline and the balloon grew, stretching my own skin, I was carrying more and more weight on my leg. Towards the end the balloon weighed around 5kg and was the size of a rugby ball. I couldn’t sit down and getting up and moving around was a challenge. But most of all the pain was unbearable.  It was so bad that slowly the darkness in my mind started to creep in. I couldn’t “get on with it” because physically I couldn’t do anything. My days were spent trying to get comfortable even just to watch TV. I couldn’t sit, stand, walk, I had lost my appetite and was falling into a place I didn’t know if I could survive. I got to the point where I contemplated making it all go away – the burden on my family, the pain, the incapacity.  My mind was closing in and everyone around me was deeply worried about my mental health.

And as I look back now and think about the Latin meaning – was I being penalised for my vanity?  At the end of the day this was not a medically necessary procedure (arguably for my mental health and to improve my range of movement) so was the pain and torture to remind me that vanity comes at a price?  But it sounds unfair to think of it in these terms.  Isn’t it our responsibility to do everything in our power no matter how hard or painful to try to get better? And it was ultimately this thought that pulled me out from my lowest ebb.  That what I was going through would ultimately change the perception of myself when I looked in the mirror.  And it did, to a certain degree. It helped start the process of not looking at myself as deformed but as a survivor.  These were my battle scars, the stamps of being a warrior through this war that had been waged on me.

And I think I can pinpoint the moment I knew my husband was the one.  My biggest fear was that anyone who saw my scars would run away horrified.  But this man, took one look at them, understood their significance and made me feel like they were as beautiful as any other part of me.  I think that was the moment I truly accepted that I wasn’t the only one who recognised what my scars mean to me.  And they mean that I survived, and they will always remind me that I did.