March 17th 2010, my life changed dramatically. I was meant to be out on yard duty at the school I worked at, however as my back was sore I wanted to get some Panadol before heading out. I never made it out for my duty as my pain levels kept growing, until I was laying on the ground and could barely move. I had to be wheeled out of school to my husband as the pain was too intense for me to walk on my own.
I remember thinking that with rest I’d be returning to work the following Monday, little did I know that 10 years later I’d still be in pain.
Those first couple years were a very dark period for me. Work Cover kept pushing me to work. Tests were coming back showing no problems with my lower back, yet my pain levels were so intense I could barely take care of myself. I thought I was losing my mind.
Thankfully the GP I went to see was very compassionate and understanding to what I was going through. He’s still my GP 10 years later.
It took 2 years for me to get a diagnosis. I was referred to see Dr. Clayton Thomas, a Pain Specialist, who has helped me tremendously. It was he who diagnosed me with focal hyperalgesia in my lower back, which is an abnormally increased sensitivity to pain.
He referred me to participate in a pain program which was excellent. It was there I was educated about chronic pain and met with a psychologist who dealt solely in chronic pain. I had physio and occupational therapy sessions, and learnt various tools to help quiet my mind. The best part of the program was being surrounded with people like myself, in pain, who truly understood what I was going through.
Advice I have for anyone living with chronic pain is to find practitioners who are open minded, and willing to learn. I am very fortunate to have an excellent team treating me. Without them I don’t know where I’d be.
Through the years I’ve tried various procedures; radio frequency, ketamine infusion, none of which worked. This had left me mentally defeated. Dr Thomas had mentioned the spinal stimulator to me however at that point I couldn’t take another failed procedure, the thought of having to fight Work Cover, not to mention the fact that I didn’t know too much about the spinal stimulator. I needed a break from everything and at some point began researching what the stimulator was. I also wanted to speak with people who had it to learn both the good and bad.
Unfortunately with chronic pain people can often have prejudiced attitudes that they may not even be aware of. And yes this includes health professionals too. Unfortunately even some GPs and chemists can be biased.
Some people have a perception of what a person with chronic pain looks like, I had a chemist once lecture me how the majority of people with chronic pain abuse their meds and have been known to turn into drug addicts and another chemist who was questioning why I was on one of my meds after looking me up and down.
I recently had an experienced OT visit my house and the first thing she said was “ You don’t look like my normal client, you weren’t what I was expecting.” then was gobsmacked when I could lift my arms over my head. After these comments I tuned out and didn’t hear much of anything she said as she had been sent by Work Cover and I assumed she wasn’t going to write me a fair report. In saying that I was approved for the service requested by my GP.
When my pain is severe I have a hard time walking so I have a disability pass.
I’ve been glared at and verbally abused by people who assume I’m parking there without a chronic illness.
Unfortunately many people have a perception of pain which is very stereotyped.
Six years into my injury, we moved to the Yarra Valley for a slower lifestyle. We felt not having so many distractions would be good for me.
It was in my seventh year that a dance school opened up down the road from me. I took it as a sign - fate was knocking on my door.
What I haven’t shared yet is that prior to my injury dance was my life. From the age of 3 I started dancing. By the age of 10 I was dancing five days a week. After I obtained my honors degree in dance I began teaching at various dance schools and performed throughout the United States, Canada and Japan. Dance was my everything and brought me so much joy, when it left my life on March 17th 2010 I was devastated and fell into such a dark and deep depression.
I wasn’t able to talk, watch or hear about dance without breaking down. I had lost dance which was what made me shine. My pain levels, even with medications, were so intense that even walking was incredibly hard at times.
I had messaged the principal of Yarra Valley Ballet and told her about my background in dance and with chronic pain. I had let her know that I wasn’t even sure if I could face attending our meeting.
I did show up and am glad I found the courage to meet with her. I started teaching two classes a week and although my pain levels were intense I was happy. My first love was back in my life.
I'd come home and could barely move. It was a weird mix of happiness and sadness. Elated from teaching however sad from the pain.
During our first annual concert I sat backstage and cried because watching the dancers was a reminder of what I couldn’t do.
In my third year of teaching at the dance school, I started teaching a few more classes. I would spend most of my day resting and mustering up my energy to teach, but I was happy.
When you live with chronic pain feeling happy and sad at the same time is a norm. You’re sad because you’re in pain however happy due to doing what it is that makes you feel good.
It was in that same year I was given the Assistant Principal role at the school. My boss knew my restrictions very well and was happy for me to step into this role. A lot of the work I did could be done from home. I could lay down rest and get my work done.
Returning to dance was something I never thought was going to happen. Last year I even danced in our concert. It was only for a brief moment however it was something. This was due to having the stimulator implanted that year. I was happy with the positive feedback on the spinal stimulator both online and from people I had spoken to.
Spinal cord stimulation therapy masks pain signals before they reach the brain. It's a small device that delivers electrical pulses to the spinal cord. For me it’s been a game changer and has dramatically changed my life. When I pace myself my pain is reduced by at least 60%.
The best advice I received from my surgeon was to focus on the reduction in pain as opposed to the pain that was still present. This mindset shift really helped me.
Although I’m not able to do what I used to, I'm grateful that dance is back in my life. I’m making it work for me.
I used to hold so much resentment and compare myself to who I used to be but unfortunately that person is gone. It took me a long while to grieve the loss of my former self. Fortunately, the new me has a lot to celebrate.
It's important to be patient and be kind to yourself and remember to always have hope.