April 26, 2009 was the day I hurt my shoulder at a swim practice. I remember this date because it was the date I had to put on numerous forms for doctor's visits, physical therapy appointments, MRI and diagnostic testing.
I had a surgery on my shoulder on May 18, 2018. In other words, nine years passed from the day I hurt my shoulder to the day I had a surgery to correct it.
I spent these years seeing numerous orthopedic specialists, getting uncomfortable tests done, and doing countless hours of home exercises prescribed by my physical therapist. In short, it was exhausting. The worst part was, there was never really an answer about what had happened and why. After all these years and attempts to fix it, I was still in pain.
Living with chronic pain was excruciating, and I don't say that to be dramatic.
I haven't slept comfortably on my left side in years. I've been unable to really lift or carry things. And my ability to swim—the activity I loved the most—was taken away from me. This constant pain was relentlessly reminding me that something was wrong and I couldn't fix it.
I'll spare you the super nerdy medical stuff that the issue turned out to be, but I didn't find a solution until this past fall. I was desperate for answers, hoping that they would show up on an MRI or an X-ray.
I felt that I had to prove to everyone that my pain was real, that it was serious, and that we could somehow do something to alleviate it. Hopeless, I sometimes felt like my pain was made up. If something was truly wrong for all these years, someone would have noticed it, right?
I grew increasingly frustrated and anxious as time went by and felt helpless as daily activities, such as carrying groceries or washing my hair, became nearly impossible. This fall, I decided to Google "chronic pain and depression" as my mood had worsened and my depression raged.
As it turns out, chronic pain has a huge impact on the brain and mood. It can affect mood, sleep, memory, concentration, and relationships. The experience of chronic pain can also make someone much more susceptible to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
I can confidently say that I experienced all of these as the years continued to pass by and my pain was still there.
While I certainly know that my depression and anxiety were not direct products of my injury, I believe that living with chronic pain for 9 years made them worse. The feeling of being helpless and the inability to perform simple daily activities brought my depression to the next level. My pain throughout the night impacted my sleep, which is another vulnerability factor for mental health problems, and the feeling that there was no solution made me feel utterly depressed.
It's interesting how badly I wanted something to be wrong with me--to finally get a diagnosis. I needed to have a validation that my struggles and pain were true and something could be done about them.
To draw a parallel with mental illness, I struggled with something that no one could see for years. The invisible illnesses—both chronic pain and mental illness—are intertwined but not often thought of in this way. Even now, I recognize how much my mental health, happiness, and mood were impacted by the constant nagging pain in my shoulder, and how important it is to talk about it.