My Ten Year Pain Anniversary

Jennie Shulkin, CEO of Override

During my first few years of pain and unsuccessful treatment, doctors tried to give me hope by telling me about people who had 10 or more years of pain before finding relief. In my early twenties, 10 years of pain was impossible to imagine.

Living even a few more months in the type of pain that I was experiencing seemed unfathomable, let alone 10 years.

Yet, 10 years later, I am still in pain. And I am still here.

The 10th anniversary of my second head injury – after which pain invaded my life – is filled with grief for what I have gone through and a sense of loss of what my life might have been like had I not been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

This is not a happy anniversary, yet I’m certainly proud of my perseverance and strength. I hope that my story might inspire others who are suffering to keep going as well.

What happened?

10 years ago, I went to Israel to compete as a member of Team USA’s women’s tennis team at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games. Held once every four years, this international event draws world-class Jewish athletes from over 60 nations to compete in over 40 sports.

It had been my dream to compete in this event since I was a little girl. You see, my late grandfather – who I adored – dreamed of competing in the Maccabiah nearly 75 years earlier. The rise of the Nazi regime derailed those plans and his entire life as a Jewish teenager living in Hamburg, Germany. He fled to New York by boat in 1939. His day-to-day life became learning English, struggling financially, and assimilating to an entirely new way of life. His own Maccabiah dream was never realized.

At 90 years old, he bought a ticket to Israel and watched his 20-year-old granddaughter compete at one of the most beautiful tennis facilities in the world, built on the hills of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, I had a tough draw, and after first round wins in the women’s singles event, women’s doubles event, and mixed doubles event, I (and my doubles partners) faced the #1 seed in all three draws. We lost. I was knocked out of the competition.

Without competition on the schedule, I spent the next day at the hotel pool, making friends with athletes from all over the world. Engrossed in a conversation with an Australian soccer player, I (along with likely 50 others at the pool) ignored the volleyball being kicked from one end of the large pool to the other. If I had any conscious thought about the volleyball, it was probably something like: These are world-class athletes with good ball control. What are the chances that anyone, let alone me, gets hurt?

Despite the improbability, I was the one who got hurt. 

The kicked volleyball crashed into the left side of my head causing a whiplash effect, damage to the left side of my neck, and a major concussion that was compounded by another head injury that I had sustained only 13 months prior.   

The aftermath

I flew home to Philadelphia. The concussion symptoms were severe, much more so than with the first incident. I quit my summer job and spent hours lying in a dark room, willing a friend to call me since having conversations was one of the only things I could do. My vision and disorientation were to the point that I couldn’t take walks safely since I could not judge the speed of cars accurately. Television, texting, and reading were discouraged. I was sensitive to light and sound. I slept unnaturally deep sleeps for 14 hours a night. My mother took care of me.

When the symptoms didn’t resolve but rather morphed into insomnia, mood swings, and anxiety, I saw a doctor who diagnosed me with Post-Concussive Syndrome. I was put on a specific exercise protocol and did see improvement over the coming months.

But after the concussion symptoms seemed to resolve, pain arrived as a very unwelcome visitor. First in my neck, then quickly thereafter to my lower back. Shoulder pain followed, as well as eventually pain in multiple other parts of my body. Writing today, I easily have ten different symptoms bothering me at a given moment.

Some days, it is worse than others, but regardless of the day, I try not to let it win.

How I manage

As co-founder and CEO of Override, a comprehensive, virtual treatment program for chronic pain, I am very transparent about still being in pain. Yet, people seem to believe what they want to believe. When I give presentations (to investors, customers, patients), my audience sees a confident, ambitious, and put-together woman. They often conclude that I have overcome my pain and say, “I’m sorry for what you went through,” despite  my pain experience being described in the present tense.

Others do hear me say that I’m still in pain, and instead ask, “How do you manage your pain?” What they really mean is: “You seem to have your pain figured out, so tell us how you do it.”

I always swallow hard and struggle with this question. I’m not sure that anyone ever gets used to being in pain, especially when it’s unpredictable and ever-changing. There have been periods of my life where pain has beaten me. I’m not cavalier enough to say it won’t ever beat me again.

Today, not letting pain consume me on a day-to-day basis takes hard work and commitment. For me, it means:

●       Finding purpose and meaning – in my work, my relationships, and the future I hope to build;

●       Regular exercise, stretching, and physical therapy exercises – movement is the best medicine

●       Breathing – it’s easy to forget to breathe with chronic pain, and deep breathing calms the nervous system, which impacts pain experience 

●       Maintaining a social life – and other aspects of a “normal” life

●       Getting outside – nature and fresh air are grounding 

●       Distraction – what we focus on enlarges and expands, so when it becomes difficult to focus on anything but pain, it’s important to find a distraction

●       Creating safety – when you exist in a sustained period of chronic pain, the nervous system lives in “fight or flight,” believing that the body is in danger; creating safety (internally and externally) is important for calming the nervous system

These are just a few of the internal tools and strategies that we also help patients develop at Override. And you’ll notice that none of them rely on dangerous or expensive medications and procedures.

Finding strength

I wish I had been anywhere else 10 years ago. I wish I had been seeded differently, had a different draw, and was still competing in the tournament instead of at the hotel pool. I wish the volleyball didn’t hit me (or anyone else) that day. I wish my concussions hadn’t turned into chronic pain.

Never did I wish to be tested like this, but of course, it’s only when we are tested that we find out the strength within us.

Many pain conditions can be resolved with specialty care and appropriate, evidence-based treatment. Of course, there are pain conditions that are more stubborn and complicated that won’t be totally resolved, but they can always be managed better or worse. 

If this resonates with you, please keep going and pushing to live as best a life as you can. 

Finding help specific to chronic pain can be difficult, which is why we built Override. If you think we can help, please reach out

Posted on 
July 27, 2023

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