Welcome to guest blogger, Deborah Marcus, long-time friend (sister), fellow advocate and writer, and professional photographer. It is always great to have guest bloggers on Hearing Elmo because although I have lived with disability for 27+ years, I do not and cannot understand chronic pain conditions as it is not something symptomatic of my own challenges. I have always been thankful for that — for one thing I am a wuss. I have loved and admired Deb for a long time, in part because I consider her a warrior woman who DOES live with chronic pain. This is part ONE of a multi-part posting. Follow up posts in the future will link to this one so that her story chapters will remain connected.
What persuades me to step back from the ledge? What worked yesterday, today, what will work tomorrow? Those who live with chronic, severe pain or illness are familiar with these questions.
I have lived with disability for much of my life. Hard of hearing from a relatively young age, severely so through my 20s and 30s until I began to hear again at age 42 with cochlear implants, I am no stranger to the need to make adjustments. I have lived with other disabling conditions, too, which unlike hearing loss and deafness are largely a product of the external forces of trauma and abuse. At 54, I have lost count of the moments when I’ve told myself “keep on, keep on”. As a result of physical abuse which once took the form of being sent down a long flight of stairs, backwards and head first, I have experienced increasing challenges with my vestibular (balance) system. Once a series of intermittent episodes of vertigo, my imbalance is now chronic. For over two years now, I have not had a minute where my equilibrium is not in a struggle with the space around me. Along with this is a condition that I have managed to cope with for 38 years, for which I had no name until recently. Three years ago I wrote a short piece describing life with trigeminal neuralgia. Things have changed regarding my TN status since then, but it’s instructive to see where I was at that time: https://visionsofsong.com/2015/07/10/into-the-sunshine-living-with-trigeminal-neuralgia/
It is not the only pain condition I live with, but it is the most distinctly life-altering. About six months ago, I realized that the medication treatment that was giving some relief wasn’t doing much anymore. Trying different medications and doses brought no help. I spoke with my doctor, who referred me to a hospital that does high volume work in the areas of gamma knife radiosurgery and microvascular decompression, the only two procedures currently advised for my condition.Both procedures have a relatively high success rate for trigeminal neuralgia, 70 to 80 percent depending on various factors. After consultation, in early March of this year I underwent the gamma knife procedure. After a week’s time, I felt some improvement, which was incredibly uplifting for my mood, which had reached new lows. Knowing that it can take a couple of months to see the full effect, I hung in on the bad days, rejoicing in the better days in between, and anticipating further improvements. In the past couple of weeks, I have not been doing well. This past week has been terrible, and I have found myself bursting into tears as much due to despair as to the pain levels. My world, which was shrinking due to severe, chronic facial pain, was beginning to open up a bit, only to feel shrunken once again. I can’t decide which is worse, not thinking there would be anything that could really help bring my pain levels to manageable levels, or trying something that may in the end prove to be a failure for me.
The depression I have been managing somewhat successfully stepped to the front of the line. I became obsessed with the idea of planning my death. Not yet planning my death, but finding the idea of planning it out, by suicide, an intriguing possibility. Why? Why now, when I’ve lived with physical and psychic pain for so long, does it seem like now might be a good time to end my life? What makes one moment better than another, or none of them the right time? As much as I have dealt with depression to varying degrees throughout the years, I don’t recall a moment exactly like the one I had this week, thinking that maybe I’m done, really and truly. I felt that if I expressly stated that to anyone close to me, they would call in the big guys on me, which I do not want. Besides, I’ve been feeling like I’m wearing out the handful of good, caring people in my life with my challenges. I did not want to burden them with such thoughts. I knew that I could call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (found here https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) and opted to use the chat box to communicate rather than the phone. It took a little while to get to the front of the line, but I wanted to see what would happen. As a Mental Health First Aid instructor, I know what it’s for and recommend it often. I wasn’t sure if it made sense to call since I wasn’t sitting by the computer with a gun or a bottle of pills in my hand. I recognized my need to reach out, and am glad that I called. The person on the line didn’t tell me much I didn’t know, but I could tell they cared that I was struggling, and that meant a lot. At the end of the call, they ask for some feedback. One of the questions has to do with feeling hopeful/hopeless. I was able to say that I felt a little less alone after this brief conversation. It got me thinking about how much, and yet how little I need. I suspect this dichotomy is true for many of us. I can only share from my perspective, and from what I’ve teased from things shared by others over the years.
There has been a fair amount of discussion lately regarding the intersection of childhood trauma and health outcomes. If you would like to look at this in some depth, you may consider starting here, though there are many other resources: https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2016/10/404446/undoing-harm-childhood-trauma-and-adversity
As a survivor of (and sometimes thrive-r in spite of) sexual and physical abuse, having undergone several rounds of therapy to figure out how to cope, I did not immediately make the connection between my physical challenges and what I had experienced while growing up. The mind-body connection was happening in spite of my limited insight. Oh, I understood that my mood could be connected to my experiences, but pain? Not only acute pain, or pain that is persistent due to an event, but pain in parts of the body that were not injured, or if they had been, were still in pain long past when the bodily injury had healed. I have been handed and thrown off a diagnosis of fibromyalgia twice in 12 years. No fibro for me, thank you! It’s that diagnosis they give you when they don’t know what’s wrong, is what I would tell folks. If sounds so…hopeless. I know some who live with this diagnosis, and they find ways to make a good life for themselves. It felt like being saddled with one more thing that I didn’t want to carry.
But trigeminal neuralgia, that’s something they can tie to an event. In some cases it develops post-shingles. In others, trauma can be the culprit, and again, we suspect that is the case for me. I have been more comfortable talking about this severe and persistent pain condition than any of the others, yet there is no denying that all of what I experience is intertwined within me, and so perhaps the only way through all of this is through all of it. Still, I haven’t figured out what to say to myself to want to keep on during the worst moments. I think I put every penny I had on this horse winning the race, with the radiosurgery giving me significant relief for a while. If it doesn’t, I’ll need to see if I can find another message that is meaningful, to keep on, keep on.
I welcome feedback, and aim to follow up with another piece on the topic of chronic pain, disability, and the reconstructing of a meaningful life.