Radical Acceptance: My Chronic Pain Journey
All my life I have been called "sensitive". Sensitive with my emotions, medications, food, smells, environments. Am I sensitive? Yes. But, I also think it is my greatest strength. It is what drives my ability to create connection. It's what allows me to be empathetic and truly understand the needs of others. I am an empath. If you aren't sure what that is... it is a person who is highly aware of the emotions around them to the point of feeling their emotions. Empaths view the world differently than others. We are incredibly in tune with the needs, emotion, and pain of others. Bring me to a crowded amusement park, and I will suddenly have a wave of nausea or a strong headache. Believe me or not, I can feel others around me and I can pick up on if they're angry, sad, anxious- whatever emotion they may be feeling.
For me, how I feel emotions the strongest is through my physical body. If there is a particularly stressful day or occurrence, my body will carry that through physical muscular and nerve pain. Growing up, I always had stomach aches and got sick constantly. I always blamed it on bad luck... a poor immune system... or even food sensitivities. What I know now is that it was never those things. It was heightened cortisol in my body and stress manifesting itself. Having fight or flight is what kept the cavemen alive. You see a bear... you run away or you fight it. It is a physical and emotional response in your body. It's what protected them or saved them. But now, in today's society we have that same fight or flight pumping through us but for reasons that are not truly putting us in danger. Like that stressful presentation you have to give at work, having conflict with a friend, nervousness when you fly, or experiencing a breakup. Emotionally we may feel as if we are in danger- but physically we are not.
When I hurt my back and pelvis two years ago, I began experiencing debilitating muscular and nerve pain. I couldn't sit for longer than a few minutes. I couldn't ride in a car for very long. Running was out of the question and I struggled to exercise at all. I was experiencing severe physical pain... but it was also eating me up emotionally. When my brain would begin to fill that pain, it would send a shockwave through my entire system. And I would clench. I would fight it. I would say it wasn't fair. Say that I didn't deserve this. And long for the days when I didn't have the injury. I longed for answers. Went to doctor after doctor and took so many tests/imaging. I even had pockets of swelling on my body from the injury that would increase in size with the more pain I had. But no matter how much imagery they did- they couldn't find a clear answer for it. All the doctors could diagnose me with was hypermobility syndrome. Essentially meaning that my joints were too flexible and wasn't allowing my injury to heal because my muscles were weak.
I eventually went to Mayo Clinic. Determined to have a doctor say, "this is the magical cure! We found an answer!" I saw a specialist who sent me to a physical therapist. And I was mad. I mean... irate. Physical therapy? I couldn't even count the number of times I had been in and out of physical therapy for a year. When I met with the PT, I reluctantly answered her questions and scoffed at her suggestion to do yoga and practice mindfulness/deep breathing. She said that my body wasn't allowing myself to heal because I was depriving my muscles of oxygen from high levels of cortisol. I remember looking at her and saying.. "Are you joking? Deep breathing and yoga is my prescription? That's what I should do to heal?" The entire six hour ride home from the hospital I bawled. I was having severe anxiety and felt like no one had taken my pain seriously. No one believed me. I felt defeated and that pain swirled throughout my body. I felt like I was trapped with no cure.
A week after the Mayo visit, I went and saw my therapist. I explained to her my frustration and the juvenile prescription of mindfulness and yoga. Usually we practiced CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy together, but she explained to me a new type of therapy that she wanted me to try- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. ACT therapy is focused around the concept of accepting the situation at hand and practicing mindfulness. When she initially suggested ACT therapy- I found my body filled with rage. Hell no did I want to ACCEPT this pain! Or ACCEPT that this was how much life was going to look! I was a fighter! I had to fight this. But, she encouraged me to understand that accepting the pain didn't mean that I was "okay with it" or that it was going to last forever. It just simply meant that here. In this present moment. I was accepting my pain and breathing through it.
So... I started to practice radical acceptance. I radically accepted my pain. I radically accepted my injury. I radically accepted that in that present moment I was physically unwell. And I breathed. I practiced yoga. I started to meditate. I started to journal. I started to go to therapy regularly. And you know what happened? That radical acceptance changed my life. I started to feel stronger. I started to be able to sit again, travel, go on trips, exercise, go back to having a normal life. Did I still have moments of pain? Absolutely. But I accepted those moments. I would take a hot bath, ice, breathe, and tell myself- "I accept this pain. I accept this pain. I accept this pain."
The reality is.. I will always have chronic pain because of my hypermobility syndrome and because I feel things so deeply. But I know now that those moments of chronic pain are temporary. They don't control or run my life. They challenge me to stop. Slow down. Breathe. And practice radical acceptance. Those moments challenge me to be more mindful or pause and think about what emotions I need to work through. Taking photos, writing, practicing creativity, creating art, teaching. All of this creates a space for me to express myself. To express my emotions. And owning this company has changed my life for the better in ways I can't even describe or articulate.
There are still moments in my life where I struggle to practice radical acceptance and wanting to control it all. But I am learning to give myself grace and know that hard times will pass. Much like a wave of pain. But they're making me into the person I am today. And folks... I really, really like that person. <3