It follows me everywhere I go. Pain. I feel it all the time, never getting a break from its chains. Starting at 15 years old, doubts of ever having a happy life flooded my thoughts. Why did this have to happen to me? I never asked for it. At first, I fought like a lion trying to get the pain off of me, but nothing seemed to work. Then, I got to the point of desperation. Was there anything I could do to battle with the pain I feel? There wasn’t really anything else I could do except endure—quiet endurance. Finally, hope started to seep in. Pain is something that can bring darkness, but it can also bring light and understanding. At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with the chronic condition of Isthmic Spondylolisthesis.
I vividly remember the initial moment of pain. On a quiet Thursday night in May 2013, I decided to hit the gym. I always loved the gym. The sight and smell of it gave me the focus I needed as I worked through the burning of my muscles and the sweat in my eyes. Before I finished my workout, I decided to do a few more reps of squatting, a decision that would change the course of my life. As I finished the reps, I felt pain in my lower back—a dull ache, as if I strained a muscle. I decided to go home early.
PAIN IS SOMETHING THAT CAN BRING DARKNESS, BUT IT CAN ALSO BRING LIGHT AND UNDERSTANDING.
One month later, the ache was still there, so I went to the doctor. I received X-rays and did a variety of stretches. Shortly after, the doctor left the room to review my X-ray, and then returned. With a solemn look he stated, “Son, your back is fractured.” How could this be? I had done nothing of the sort to cause such trauma! The doctor said that the pain in my back was the result of fractures in my spine, also known as Isthmic Spondylolisthesis and that the spine is too mobile to heal itself; thus, my back wouldn’t ever heal. He said I would have this condition for the rest of my life and would have to manage the pain through the years. The reality of my situation felt like an anvil upon my chest. For the rest of my life, I would be in pain. Questions swirled around me: Could I ever be happy again? What will I be limited to? Am I to be depressed and in pain for the rest of my life? It felt like I was in a cloud of darkness, not knowing what my “new life” would have in store for me.
I was immediately thrown into the medial world. I went to physical therapy first. During my weeks there, I truly learned how to become physically strong, yet my mental strength hadn’t arrived. A few months into physical therapy, and nothing felt like it was working as it should, so I decided to see a chiropractor. For the first time, my back pain was decreasing! However, the joy was short lived as I found out my family had to move from Utah to Michigan. That transition threw my world upside down. We, again, tried to find the correct treatment for my back, and again, nothing seemed to be working. We tried physical therapy, chiropractic care, steroid injections, and all else medical. Hope was being torn away from me.
After many attempts at healing, I just couldn’t seem to take it anymore. My back pain had seemingly overpowered me. High school was painful. It hurt to sit in those chairs for long hours at a time, trying to find a painless, comfortable position. Athletic activities that I loved to do before now caused me pain. I couldn’t stand for longer than ten minutes before my back would start pulsing with pain again. The physical pain was bad, but the emotional pain hurt just as much. In high school, peers who didn’t understand what it felt like to have chronic back pain, surrounded me, and I felt hopelessly alone. On the outside, I put on a smiling face, but on the inside, I was tearing myself apart. The tasks that were, for most other students, simple, were very difficult for me. I couldn’t focus on my schoolwork or socialize like I used to. My friends in school would console me, but no one knew what it was really like. My life felt dull, dark, and hopeless.
I WAS GOING TO CHANGE WHAT PAIN MEANT TO ME. [IT] WOULD NO LONGER MEAN HOPELESSNESS AND DARKNESS. I DECIDED TO MAKE PAIN A REMINDER OF ALL THE GLORIOUS THINGS I HAD IN MY LIFE.
Pain is a weird thing. It tells our bodies to avoid what we are currently doing wrong. It is a reminder never to do wrong again. But with chronic pain, that’s not the case. Chronic pain is something that is always there, despite the body’s warnings to “stay away” from the source of pain: your own body. My first few years of back pain, hope was little and doubts were at large. I couldn’t do the things I loved before, and change was upon me. Many people fear change. Many others embrace it. For myself, I was afraid of change. I would always make sure things happen the same way, that way I wouldn’t have to be afraid of experiencing new pains that might arise from change. As the years went on, I came the realization that I had undergone a physical change. And though it was painful, I had to admit that this change was going to have to happen in my life. So, I decided to embrace this change that had come upon me. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but to this day, I am sure glad I did.
Pain is a reminder. I decided to change pain as a negative reminder and transform it into a positive one. My back pain has often felt like a bad reminder, and it was time to embrace the change that had happened to my back. I began to think of all the things I had in my life: my family, friends, education, home, money, faith, love, and joy. I indeed was very privileged to have all of these things. In order to embrace the change that had inflicted every aspect of my life, I was going to change what pain meant to me. Pain in my back would no longer mean hopelessness and darkness. I decided to make pain a reminder of all the glorious things I had in my life. The experience of physical pain itself suddenly changed for me. Since I associated pain with positive aspects of my life, I was able to change my attitude from pity to positivity.
CHRONIC PAIN IS SOMETHING THAT IS ALWAYS THERE, DESPITE THE BODY’S WARNINGS TO “STAY AWAY” FROM THE SOURCE OF PAIN: YOUR OWN BODY.
At first, it wasn’t easy. Often, the pain I felt in my back reminded me of what my life could be if I hadn’t worked out that night. Though I thought of what my life could’ve been like, I look at what my life is like now. I had taken for granted the ability to simply sit. It sounds so simple yet, it is now something that I cannot do for long periods of time. I then wondered what else in my life I had taken for granted. My family loved and cared for me during the diagnosis of my condition. What would my life have been like if I didn’t have them? My injury woke me up to an attitude of gratitude. Previous to my accident, I would never sit back and think of all the small things I had in my life. Once I was diagnosed, I was awoken to the tender mercies life has given me. Over time, I was able to think of all the things I was grateful for every time that I felt pain. The pain was beginning to mean something different to me. It was no longer a reminder of what my life could’ve been; it was a reminder of all that I had. I have a family at home, waiting for me. I have an education and a job that makes money. I have a home with clean drinking water. Indeed, my back pain has turned from a weakness to strength. With all the bad things that happen in our lives, we can be assured that there is good for every bad thing. For every moment that I feel pain in my back, I feel gratitude for all the good in my life. Despite the pain that I feel today, I also feel the joys of my positive circumstances.
Pain will always be present. No human will ever skip out on experiencing pain. So the question is, what can we learn from our pain? Through my pain, I’ve learned gratitude. We can be grateful for our circumstances, but we can also be grateful in our circumstances. As I have learned this lesson, I have had many wonderful opportunities to express and remember my gratitude. One of the best ways for me to do so is my gratitude journal. On a nightly basis, I record at least ten things in my life I am grateful for. I will often add five things that I did well that day. Through this practice, I have been able to turn a bad, painful day into a day of joy and gratitude. Pain teaches more than a warning: it is a reminder of gratitude.