The Invicta of Chronic Pain
I'm Fi. I joined the Royal Air Force after university. The requirement to be fit and the fact that physical activity was a huge part of the lifestyle was what appealed and the opportunity to continue my love of swimming, sailing and horse polo was a massive bonus.
An unfortunate injury while undertaking a training exercise resulted in the need for surgery to my hip to repair a labral tear. Even more unfortunate was the choice of operation performed which wasn’t the most up to date or least invasive available. Six hip operations later and it was clear that both hips were not going to recover to the required standard to continue in the RAF.
In another twist of unfortunate luck, I suffered from an unusual and incredibly dangerous spinal condition called Cauda Equina. On arrival at A & E I had no feeling, strength or control in my right leg. I suffered loss of bladder control and excruciating pain in my right buttock. Emergency surgery was performed to remove the disc that had ruptured at L5/S1 (the levels right at the bottom of my spine). Although the surgery was deemed successful, the long term damage was life changing.
The pain in my right calf feels like when you run a really hot bath and don’t check the temperature before you put your leg in. It’s a fierce, fiery, itchy and hot sensation with the strongest pins and needles you can imagine. The only difference is you can’t take your leg out of the bath! The strength in my right calf is significantly less then that of my left.
I was told that after 18 months post-spinal surgery, whatever nerve damage I was still experiencing was as good as it was going to get as any new nerve regeneration was unlikely. It was at this time that I hit my lowest mentally. The fear that THIS.WAS. IT was overwhelming. The way this fear manifested itself was severe with irrational anxieties. Every car journey became a difficult experience where all I could imagine was having a tyre blow out, the engine setting on fire or causing a crash. Leaving home became riddled with fears about the tumble dryer catching on fire and killing my two dogs. Night times lasted forever as I battled with thoughts about how anyone would ever want to be with me, how I could physically have children etc
My now husband recognised these changes in me and with the support of Help for Heroes I undertook a one on one course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to address the anxiety. At the same time I undertook a swimming course run by Help for Heroes as part of their Sport for Recovery program. This opened up a whole new world of using sport to recover physically and mentally.
It was always the easy to option to use my injuries as a reason why I couldn’t do things. Getting back in the pool became about what I could do. As a result of the damage to my right leg, I had no control of my right leg whilst swimming. It was just a dead weight. This made breastroke impossible in the normal way but learning to swim the stroke without using my legs was an enjoyable challenge. Swimming backstroke was hard to hold a straight line but learning and adapting techniques quickly showed huge improvements in my times. This was the catalyst that took her to the Invictus Games in Orlando where she represented Team GB and won a gold medal and 3 silver medals.
I have tried to limit the impact living with pain has on me and those around me. I notice that when someone puts their back out for a few days for example, they can moan and groan and after a few days it’s gone. I recognise that you can’t live like that long term as it would become quite draining for me, my family and it actually doesn’t achieve anything. The downside of this is that it normalises my pain and often even those closest can forget some of my daily struggles. It has taken a lot of learning and communication between me and my partner to recognise when I need to ask for help and when I need to be supported.
Pain medication has played it’s part in my pain management but whilst pregnant and breastfeeding I was unable to take any of the drugs that made a difference. This forced me to consider other ways to manage my pain. This included attending pain management courses, learning sleep and relaxation techniques, taking up Pilates, understanding my pain on a completely new, more profound level. Although it was initially one of the hardest things to do (get of the drugs and sleeping tablets) it has changed my quality of life for the better as I learned that I could actually cope without them which was liberating. Fast forward to today and I am expecting my second baby any day now. This would have been unimaginable two years ago. Living my life the way I choose hasn’t come without it’s challenges. Two pregnancies have taken its' toll physically on my injuries and some things have had to give. One thing that has remained a constant is my belief that strength & conditioning is what keeps me going and allows me to continue with a positive mind set and enjoyable life. My attitude is my greatest strength and I recognise that it is not always as simple as that for everyone. I think that being surrounded by fellow Invictus team mates gave me a useful perspective not only of her own injuries but seeing how these incredible men and women were thriving living with unimaginable injuries. It made me want to be better at being inured and living with long term chronic pain.