From the moment I heard about my law school best friend’s bachelorette party in Asheville, North Carolina, I worried about the activities she was planning and whether I would be able to participate. The scariest: she planned a couple hikes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly in shape. I eat well and exercise multiple times a week. Sometimes people look at me and say that they can tell I was a tennis player. My complex chronic pain syndrome, however, can make it difficult for me at times to walk limitlessly or participate in physical activities.
Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle a few months before the trip when I tripped down a flight of steps. A few months is plenty of time for an ankle sprain to heal, but my injuries often don’t heal the way they do for other (“normal”) people. See, when I get hurt, my body (or more accurately, my brain and central nervous system) doesn’t necessarily let go of the pain when the injury heals. So three months after my sprain, my ankle was still in severe pain.
I understood that the sprain was realistically healed at the time of the hike – that even though the pain lingered, it was no longer acute pain and had crossed the line into chronic pain that was perpetuated more by my brain and central nervous system than by any lingering tissue damage. At this point when the pain enters into the chronic pain phase, I know from years of experience and learning about pain that it’s time to go back to normal use and build back the affected area’s strength. Sending messages of safety to the body through normal movement and use is one of the best ways to convince the brain that the body is no longer hurt and eventually calm the pain down.
It’s a tricky balance, though, because the brain’s first instinct to resumed activity will be to increase the pain. It does this as a misguided form of protecting the body. Too much pain will only make pain levels worse by increasing the fear and messages of danger sent to the brain. Pounding the affected area relentlessly, just like continuing to rest and not use it, are both counterproductive. It’s a fine line that isn’t easy to locate.
Several weeks before the bachelorette weekend, I started taking small walks – 10-15 minutes at a time – by myself. I hadn’t broke through the pain yet, but I set the goal of going on one hike during bachelorette weekend. I discussed it at length with the bride and her sister so that I would know in advance the total distance of the hike (2 miles). I decided together with my pain coach that I was ready for it. I wanted to do it. I envisioned the satisfaction I would feel after completing it.
About 15 minutes into the hike, though, I asked the other women how far they thought we had gone. One of them looked at her Apple watch and said we had only gone.35 miles, which meant we had another .65 miles to the top and then another full mile to the bottom. My ankle was already flaring and I didn’t think I could push it another 1.65 miles. I told the group that I was going to stop there and see them at the bottom.
Making that decision and saying it aloud to the others was really hard for me.
For better or worse, nobody tried to stop me. Nobody encouraged me to keep going. Nobody asked if they should walk me back down. Nobody asked if I was going to be okay.
They kept climbing, while I stopped.
So there I was in the middle of the mountain. Alone. Disappointed. Defeated.
Defeat is something I don’t take lightly. I was a nationally ranked tennis and squash player and I took great pride in my scrappiness and fighting spirit. I still do.
Knowing I had time to kill before the rest of the group would finish the hike, I took a seat on a nearby rock. I tried to appreciate the view. (“Tried” is the keyword.) I tried not to cry. (I succeeded.) I took a picture of myself smiling. (That didn’t feel right.) I took another photo – this time without smiling so much.
And then I did what I always do when I am upset: I called my mom. She was upset for me. She told me she wished I hadn’t gone on the hike and tried at all. She wasn’t sure why I did.
But I disagree. Even though I didn’t like the outcome and was sad I didn’t make it to the top of the mountain, I was glad I tried. I still got to participate for some of the hike instead of waiting in the cramped van. I still got to see the view from the hiking trail. I still got fresh air. I still got a picture.
And while I was embarrassed and concerned about the group judging me for not completing the hike, I reminded myself that nobody else was really focused on it except me.
I’ll make it to the top another time.
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