On Chronic Pain, Spinal Injuries, And Grieving The Me That Is Gone

woman wearing striped long-sleeved shirt facing mountains
Joseph Young / Unsplash

Running to give someone a hug at the airport; I miss that too.

A few months ago, I woke up in my bed to discover I couldn’t walk. It was a strange sensation, having both legs locked in a symbiosis of pain. When I say strange, I mean the traumatic kind. The kind that wakes you up in the night and you sleep the rest of it with the light on. I have since regained the ability to walk, but this is not without suffering. In fact, nothing really is anymore.

After an MRI and a lengthy series of second and third opinions, I have finally arrived at accepting that I have a spinal cord injury and I will need an operation. This pain has moved in, and it has signed a long-term lease with the landlord of my body.

It feels selfish to grieve for the person that I have lost to this injury. I google spinal injury on the internet and a picture of a few older men in wheelchairs pops up next to an article about grief, and I can’t bring myself to read it.

I look at them and feel dejected about my abilities. They have suffered and now have lost the use of their legs and here I am complaining when I can still walk around, albeit with pain.

I can’t compare myself to these people who have lost so much when I will eventually be able to move more freely in the world than they.

But this daily agony, this tightrope of behavioral limitations, the remembering of what not to do. It feels so natural to bend down, to rifle through the cupboards, to lift my drawer from the chest when the wheel catches. To put a tray in the oven, to lean over to pick up a dropped lighter. To sit on my front porch and smoke while I read. To sit and lean against a wall, to lean forward to get something from the other side of the table. All these things have come so naturally to me, all these things that are now “wrong”.

And they’re not just wrong because my physio or my doctor says they are, they’re wrong because as I do them, I inflict a sharp pain through my body that is akin to a knife in butter. They’re wrong because I am suddenly one of Pavlov’s dogs, a poodle with a ridiculous haircut, being restrained by my own pain, and everything I thought in my life was correct is now significantly different.

How I move is affected in every capacity, and on days where I feel more pain when I wake up and take my first timid steps along the ground, I experience abject terror. I scan through my actions of the day before and find myself failing a test I never expected to take. On days where I am in too much pain not to lie back down, I find that I am lacking in all of the areas that have now become important.

There is a sharp intake of breath when I discover that there were so many incidences in my foggy brain in which pain struck, a bend on the toilet, a lean over a coffee table, a crouch in the kitchen, a lift of a full water bottle. Too many agonizing examples of where I have habitually caused myself pain, where I may have made it worse. May have strapped myself further into the stretcher of impending surgery, where I have sentenced myself to more discomfort.

I live in both ignorance and fear- my habits making a mockery of my intentions. My natural instinct damning me to further agony.

When I think about grieving the person I was, I don’t just think about the things I used to do with my body in a larger context. I don’t think about the carrying of a tray of drinks, or running down the street to catch a bus. I don’t think about expressing my emotions in the gym, on a treadmill, or in a class, sweating and heart racing: that queasiness that comes from lactic acid pumping from your body. I don’t think about fucking, about having someone’s body pressed against mine, about wrapping my legs around them and being thrown across a bed. I miss these things. I miss them in a deep, subversive undercurrent that sometimes viciously sweeps over me as I’m lying in bed, alone. It shakes me until it is done with me, the missing of these things.

When I think about grief though, I think about leaning across a table with friends, talking about life. I think about taking a tray of cookies out of the oven, or finding something on the side of the road and picking it up. I think about sitting and researching an article, writing it over six or seven hours, glued to my seat in a flow state. I think about putting my shoes on.

I think about these things and I grieve that when I am most myself, it never used to have a consequence. I never used to wake up in pain afterward, I never used to be struck internally by knives running down the inside of my thigh.

I grieve going to a concert to see my favorite band without pain, I grieve watching a movie at the cinema without pain, I grieve sitting on the toilet and pissing after holding it in because I got distracted, without pain. I miss the little things that make me who I am, that hold my attention, that give me joy, that complete the seemingly insignificant moments that have compiled the fabric of my personality.

I miss the little things. I grieve for the person that I was, who could be myself in every little thing that I did without experiencing contrast or consequence almost instantly.

Every tiny thing we do gives us away. We are in everything we do. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the way we hold our spoon. The art we like, the books we read, the way we walk, the things we carry around with us.

It’s easier for me to read articles on losing someone. I find more comfort in the words of people who have lost loved ones than I do reading scholarly articles on injury rehabilitation. I listen to talks about losing your best friend, about never being able to hear their laugh again, never being able to smell their skin or watch them wave at you across a street. I feel loathsome of myself in these moments because I still have so much. It is incomparable, and I am guilty of it.

But I have lost someone. And I will never get them back. Sure, eventually, I may be able to walk down the street without a wound in my thigh. I may be able to run to catch a bus without falling to the ground in spasm.

But something happened when I woke up that day and realized I couldn’t walk. And though the pain may come away in increments, leaving only the terror that it will come back, or a carefulness I never had in my life before that moment;

I lost myself.

I lost myself and I didn’t choose it, it happened upon me like most of life’s barely-chartered country of mysteries. It happened upon me as grief does. It happened upon me like Elizabeth Gilbert says most things that are bigger than us do. Things like love. Things like heartbreak. Things like uncontrollable rage. I lost myself. And I mourn her. Because she is never coming back. TC mark

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I’m thirty and I can’t drive a car. Follow Sarah on Instagram or read more articles from Sarah on Thought Catalog.