Here is Kathy’s story of overcoming pain in her own words.
My Pain Story: The Pain is Not in Charge of My Life
I’ve always loved horses. I have a photograph of myself as a small child holding my favorite toy – “horsey”. More than half a century later, I still have horsey and he still looks pretty much the same as he did in that photograph. You could say I was a horse-crazy young girl, and never outgrew it.
My story starts when I noticed that I kept dropping dishes — that and the strange buzzing in my fingers. I didn’t think too much about it… just thought it was odd. One day when I got on a friend’s horse, my arm simply gave out. This was alarming. It was no longer safe to ride. Then I began having such unrelenting stiff necks that I would wake up and not know how to move. The pain was so intense, I needed to move, but just couldn’t figure out how to move. I began to loose work days due to these neck problems.
Finally one night I woke up with such horrible pain radiating through my back like a knife, I thought I might be having heart problems. As I worked for a hospital, the next day between seeing patients, I asked a colleague to check out my cardiac function. This started my long and frequently frustrating journey toward diagnosis, unsuccessful surgery, and ultimately rehabilitation.
Maybe the best place to restart the story would be at the lowest point months after surgery… on my back, in bed, unable to do the simplest things for myself. How could this have happened to me, at a relatively young age of 42? I once told my therapist that I could have understood the loss of function if I had been 72 – he wisely told me that as a highly motivated type A personality, I would not have taken function loss well at 72 or at 82 either. I had pain that I could not find words to describe adequately. I was completely helpless. I later learned that I had RSD, in addition to the neural, vascular and muscular pain that would eventually be diagnosed as chronic.
After almost 2 years of surrendering to the pain, I had the opportunity to go to a “pain rehab program”. In my case, the physical therapist in charge told me to “buddy-up” with my pain. I thought she was absolutely crazy. I wanted to escape the pain, run as fast as possible in the other direction, not become friends with it. But their meditation techniques and warm water therapy was helpful.
So slowly, ever so slowly, I began to start my life again with my pain. Every therapist, every therapy, every suggestion was taken with an open mind. One compassionate physical therapist told me that he wouldn’t stop helping me until I could ride a horse again. I remember crying. My nervous system was so damaged, he could hardly touch me, how could I possibly ride, but I held onto those words. All the therapies may not have worked immediately for me. But everything I learned or researched was filed away for future use.
I usually feel better in the morning, so first I started to try to do something I loved in the morning. An elderly family friend asked me to trail ride a horse with him. In the beginning the physical activity would cause increased pain problems later in the day. But to me, it was worth it, as my pain always seemed better when I was around the horses. Even just seeing the horses made my day. In small steps, I was able to increase the number of days I could be around the horses. After several years, I was able to purchase my own horse.
Now 16 years later, I still need help taking care of the horses. I still have chronic pain. But when I’m around the horses, the pain is not in charge of my life. More importantly, by forcing myself to take part in something I love as much as possible, I have maintained function and become stronger. Can I ride like I did before my life with pain? No. But I ride. And I celebrate every day that I have a chance to ride at all.
The professional photography (top 2 photos) is by spencerhansen.net. The other photos were taken by me (Erin).