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Living With A Chronic Injury
I am someone who can say, I am not the same person I was 2 years ago. And I know that sounds ridiculous, when I am simply just 18 years old. How much would a privileged girl who grew up in a middle class home with a loving family and everything given to her change?
I grew up the youngest of four, playing soccer since preschool, loved being at the neighbor's house and just anywhere but laying around at home doing nothing. I was always encouraging my older siblings to put the books down and come play a game with me. I was never the type to stress, I remember my mom sincerely thanking me for not having my happiness be determined by my grades and having a social life. Everyone always asked me where I came from, since I was nothing like any of my siblings. I have the sass, the carefree attitude, and the maturity my siblings didn’t. As the youngest, I sat back and watched how they grew up through the years, and promised myself not to devote my school years to stressing over work from seeing their mental health declining because they did just that. At any time I had the chance to not be home, my family knew I would choose to not be.
Along with my siblings, I grew up with my mom and dad. My mom was the middle school nurse for years. So she had the same schedule as all four of the kids. My dad traveled for work, hence why I didn’t see him so much except for some Saturdays. They were always and have always been loving parents. One parent I just saw more because of the work schedule, but it was my normal.
I went through all of elementary to middle school with the same kids, never moving. Once high school hit I expanded my friend groups, joined after school clubs, and was on the school soccer team. Freshman year is all a blur at this point looking back. Nothing too big happened, biggest thing to happen was probably the fact that I made it through my first year of high school.
At the end of my sophomore year I was in a car accident. I remember the rain pouring down onto the car as it was lifted off the ground. The driver slammed on the brakes leading us to spin for what felt like minutes, when it was closer to three seconds. Hitting the guardrail head on, after spinning across multiple lanes on the highway. The smell of the dusty airbags hit my nose as I started yelling at the others to get out of the car. Stepping out into the pouring rain realizing we ended up in the exit lane facing the woods, but not knowing exactly how. My first thought after realizing really what happened was how mad my parents were going to be at me. My friend grabbed me and said not to say that, then went on to tell me I had lost all color in my face. I went on to dial 911, within minutes an ambulance arrived considering the fact that we were blocking the exit to the hospital. I told the emt’s I had hit my head once but within minutes there were two big goose eggs on the top of my head, leading me to realize I was knocked out for a moment. A police officer even thought I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt because it didn’t lock like it was supposed to but within minutes I had the bruises to prove I had it on. But I also don’t remember taking it off.
When my mom arrived on scene, I specifically remember the look on her face. She was in disbelief and didn’t know how to react. My dad called me as we were walking into the emergency room saying, “Why were you on that road” and I was already crying so I hung up. He then later texted me about what chair I was okay with giving away.
After spending hours in the emergency room I was told I had a mild concussion and that tomorrow my body would feel like it was hit by a truck. And I can tell you, that was very much the truth. My neck felt as though it was being locked into one position. My aunt thought I grew a couple inches, because the pain forced me into standing up perfectly straight. My doctor told me it was probably just a strain that could be helped with a heating pad and ibuprofen. With a week having gone by, we decided to try a chiropractor. Later figuring out that could worsen the injury in the long run, I only gave it one go. I got that feeling of knowing that this treatment was not going to work and we would have to see how it plays out.
The summer went by, and nothing about the pain had changed. Constant burns going down the left side of my neck into my upper back. Feeling as though my neck was not strong enough to hold my own head up. Hugs from family cause stress for me knowing it would only increase the pain.
Heading into my junior year of high school, I was starting my first experience with physical therapy. The physical therapists were the sweetest people, I remember there being a bell then once you complete your last session you got to ring it. Everyone would clap for you, and you'd take a picture with everyone. I had been starting to notice tensions and sensitivities shifting to both sides of my neck, and even down into my arms. They had me do an MRI to check for structural damage and everything looked perfect. As I worked on my stretches, they had me try physiatry along with it. Physiatry is a needle point injection injected into trigger points for your pain. It felt like I had a mosquito stuck in my skin because the needle is moved around while it is in your muscle to help blood flow. My muscle keep spasming and the doctor's reaction was "Wow, I never see this happen, take pictures nurse take pictures" With every burning twitch I felt you could hear the click of the camera. In October of 2019, about a month in physical therapy I lost a close neighbor to suicide. He grew up next to my family, was a brother to all of us. He even answered our home phone when he was over. My parents bought snacks that no one in my family even liked, only him. It was my first time losing someone unexpectedly. My physical therapists could see something was going on. My neck wasn't turning as far. I had more knots and tension in my shoulders than I had before. I opened up to one of the assistant's about other reasons for my body not doing it's best, and it was because my mind was filled with a dark cloud. The thing is I know the pain is not all in my head, but I also know that the more negative of a mind I am having, effects my pain levels for that day. And after four months of going three times a week to physical therapy, I was told they were cutting me off with my treatment. Imagine that getting kicked out of physical therapy all because "you have not shown any progress" I never got to ring that bell.
Soon March rolled around, I had more visits set up with specialists who would take me. It took weeks to schedule an appointment because it is motor vehicle insurance for a 16 year old, who was in a motor vehicle accident. Not many doctors accept all three of those. The doctor explained how he wanted me to try physiatry again, he said I should have had multiple injections over time, which I did not. Along with that, I was prescribed steroids that were supposed to help with blood flow, and strengthen for healing the damage. Right after the visit, I remember my mom and I taking the elevator to where the physiatrist doctor was to make an appointment. But no surprise there, the doctor would not take me because it was a motor vehicle accident and I was not 18 yet.
So I did the week trial with the steroids, nothing happened. I think I was a little moody but that was it. And I never tried physiatry again because the insurance company sent a notice saying I had to have an examination done by an insurance doctor who would decide if they would continue to pay for physiatry and certain other forms of treatment. The doctor asked me a couple broad questions, told me to turn my head and that was it. We were cut off from using the insurance money from the accident, hence why I never got to continue that.
I went months without seeing another real doctor. We were stuck wiht limited options due to insurance. I decided to do deep tissue massages that included cupping and use of the hot stones. Since it was the summer, I remember spending hours a day in my pool. Simply just swimming laps. Being in the water, you feel weightless. It is the one way to give my muscles a break, by floating. The thing that people do not realize is that even when I lay down, my muscles are never fully getting a break because of the pressure. So that's why I can swim for hours with no complaints. Along with the swimming and massages, I tried acupuncture. My mom took me to her friend's husband who is a spiritual acupuncturist. The guy took 45 minutes reading my palms and touching my wrists. He went on to tell me that I need to heal my heart and whole body for my injury to heal. I layed on my back and he placed needles in my feet, arms, hips, neck, legs, chest, just anywhere he could fit one he put one. I could feel every needle piercing into my skin. When I took a breath, I felt the nerves clenching sending lightning bolts through my body. During my second session, the acupuncturist decided to try something different. He rubbed oil all over my back and neck, to then take a chinese glass spoon and start whacking it against the problem areas. It was supposed to help with blood flow and loosen up tension. On my back, I had vibrant bruising from the spoon. It hurt in the moment, felt some release after for a minute, but then all I felt was the aftermath. The acupuncture place itself was located about 45 minutes from my house. I avoided car rides that were longer than 20 minutes so for me to sit in the car for that long I had to lay tensed for 30 minutes, to get back into the car. My whole day is gone because of something that is supposed to be helping me. I only went to about five sessions, it was too painful physically and mentally. I couldn't handle the increase of agony for zero progress.
In March of my junior year, the pandemic started. I had one telehealth doctor visit with a specialist. We chatted for a few minutes about the injury. And in the end, she prescribed me a gel to use daily and told me to try patches with medicine in them. I attempted the patches, they were irritating and the pressure from the patches increased pain in my shoulders. Being that sensitive to touch makes it difficult for me to even wear certain clothing, for example heavy jackets get tiring and start aching when I wear them. And for the gel, it did not do a thing. It was kind of just there. I tried it. Nothing happened. What's next?
I was able to do online school once the world kind of shut down. Online school actually made me lose muscle. I was not doing any activities other than school and hanging out with friends. So with being able to go to class in bed, I lost my routine. And to be honest, I lost some progress. I was nervous every two weeks in the beginning when there were slight chances of us going back in person. I knew it would be a big struggle for me. But I was happy at the time that we ended up finishing the school year online.
For the rest of the summer I continued doing the hundred dollar massages and practically living in the pool. I went into my junior year doing no treatments with doctors. My typical school day, I struggle every morning to get myself out of bed. I normally need about an hour or so to lay down and stretch before I get up for the day to regain some muscle. If I don't do that my neck is worse throughout the day and for the next day. Relaxing is a main part of my schedule. Hence why by the end of the school day I am burnt out. Teachers knew that when I asked to go to the nurse multiple times a week, I wasn't just skipping class to skip class, it was because I couldn't hold my head up any longer. So now with summer, I was just able to relax. I noticed myself also snacking less, I wasn't doing any treatments so my neck was hurting and when I ate things, such as chips, the pain increased. Sometimes when we would eat out, it would get to the point where it felt as though my muscles were choking my airways and throat because it was struggling so badly. My mom knows when I am at that point, I don't talk. Any extra muscle use does not help the situation so I stay still and silent.
I realized that anything I did for the pain was temporary. While the pain is still always there, my focus has shifted to finding activities to distract my body and mind from the pain. I have worked at a pizzeria since November of 2019, multiple times a week. I got the job by choice because even though you have limited activity due to the chronic injury, you can not completely stop doing everything. Yes, I have to ask for help sometimes grabbing pizzas that are too heavy but it gives me five hours where my mind is distracted. Distracted from being stuck with the circulating thoughts of negativity towards never healing. While my family and friends tell me not to overextend myself, I know I just can’t put my life on hold.
Now I have started my senior year of high school. The year every high schooler waits for, except mine was half virtual. I attempted going in person to see how it would be. I made it through the first five hour day, slightly increased pain the next day. Leading me to leave half way through my second day. In physics we were just sitting there, I was focusing on the stinging sprays occuring in my lower neck. After that day I switched to virtual, and continued that for the entirety of my senior year.
Once October of 2020 hit, I found out I should be in physical therapy for knee problems and an issue I have with my ankle from a prior injury. The doctor who was looking at my knees sent me to a physical therapy place instead for my neck, she understood that it was my top priority. So in November I started my second round of physical therapy just at a different place this time. During my first visit, it was always an evaluation. The same questions each time, rate your pain right now 1-10, or are you able to lift heavy items, things like that. When the physical therapist, Ryan, was going through asking personal questions about the accident and injury I was holding back tears. All I kept thinking was that this would work better this time.
As I continued going to physical therapy every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday once again nothing changed. You could see my progress being different everyday. One day my right side isn't turning as far because I slept weird, the next visit my left side is worse because of muscle spasms. Ryan worked with me to hopefully regain some muscle I had lost but also not overwork the little that is there. A couple of the stretches and exercises were familiar to my previous time, although as time went on I realized that last year I was given stretches that people with lower back pains were doing. I felt as though I was doing the correct exercises to improve upon the pain, just there were no results. I would see people start their time in physical therapy and finish it while I was still there.
Some days I would come in and explain how I would get sharp numbing pains through my fingers when I would do activities such as writing. Or I would get minute long stings shooting down my neck. The more I said it, the more alarmed Ryan got. After coming for five months, he ended up agreeing with me that I can continue my stretches on my own at home (once again getting kicked out of physical therapy). He referred me to see a chronic pain specialist, who could test for nerve damage, at my last visit.
Her name was Dr. Salaam. We got a visit with her in March, 2021. After telling her my story, she could tell I was honestly feeling pain. She asked me to get an updated MRI since my only one was from a year ago and things can shift. Also when she heard that I feel numbness in my arms and hands sometimes, she did a muscle test. She told me to put my elbows to my side, and push away with my forearms while she was pushing my wrists towards my stomach. My right arm had a decisive fight, holding its own while my left went straight to my stomach. She repeated the process to double check, and it happened again, left arm was a no go. So she referred me for an EMG as well, which is a nerve damage test.
To schedule those tests, they were both booked until July. But my doctor wrote "ASAP" on my document so I only had to wait one week for the MRI and about a month for the EMG. Along with those, she prescribed me an antidepressant. She specifically said," I am not giving you these because I think you are depressed. You are smiling right now. These are known for helping with chronic pain." So I gave the medication a shot while I waited for results from the tests. I was told it would take about four weeks for the medicine to kick in and by that time I would have the results of my EMG for my next visit with Dr. Salaam.
During the four weeks, I visited California. I have family out there and wanted to be able to choose my college after visiting the campuses. My top two were Chapman and San Diego State. I chose SDSU in the end. The plane ride is always one of the most dreadful things with a chronic injury. I normally switch positions every fight minutes at home, you can't do that on a plane. Because of that pain took time out of my vacation, along with changing moods depending on pain levels. It's hard to explain my pain to other family members, such as my grandparents. My grandma rubbed her CBD lotion on me that she uses for her arthritis, and it helps her so she was amazed when it did absolutely nothing for me. Throughout my trip the EMG was on my mind. If the results showed nerve damage, that could mean a surgery. And with me planning on attending a California school in August, my stress levels were through the roof.
After getting home from my trip and having another two weeks , and testing negative after traveling, I noticed how I did not feel like doing things. I would cancel on friends, even though I made the plans. My appetite was not there along with my low social battery. One morning I got up and had some breakfast, others were eating so I joined. Then I was really antsy to do something. And in my head I was thinking why do I so badly need to do something right now? By that time it was past lunch into the afternoon, I realized I didn't take my antidepressants this morning. A day before my EMG test and three days before my visit with Dr. Salaam I decided to stop taking the medication to see if I start feeling more active again. My EMG test consisted of having patches with wires attached to a monitor placed on certain areas of my hands, arms, and neck. He then started out with more of a shock to trigger a reaction in my nerves. He then used a needle to look for that same movement from the shock. The doctor told me right then and there that "everything looked good from what I saw"
At my visit with Dr. Salaam I told her I stopped the medication and why, she explained how I was smart to stop the medication when I noticed it. She also went on to tell me my MRI was clear. Same as how it looked a year ago, no structural damage. And confirmed that I showed no nerve damage after doing the test. Now the question is, what could it be? The conclusion the doctor came to was that my cells simply need time to heal. And that there is nothing else to do, time will tell pretty much. But in the meantime, she figured out the one of the few treatments I have not tried was occupational therapy. So I went on to schedule an appointment with an occupational therapist with the goal to strengthen my arms.
My first visit was on May 18th. Going into it, I had no experience or prior knowledge with this treatment. I knew that it was focused on strengthening and some say more intense. I noticed how quiet of an environment it was. Each occupational therapist was assigned one patient at a time. They sat there thoroughly watching you complete the given exercise. The lady didn't take 30 minutes to go through my whole story like they normally do. She was told by my doctor I was there to strengthen my arms, so that's what she was following. As I complete exercises, I can see my right side being more flexible than my left and overall stronger. My occupational therapist can see me struggling with certain exercises, I don't have to tell her. My whole "relaxed" position changes when the muscles are irritated. I lift up my shoulders into a stuck position as I walk back to her table.
Now being two weeks into going two times a week to occupational therapy, I have not been in it long enough to see any progress. I was told this would be about 6 months, but I only have 2 more before heading for college in California. I hope that along with gaining muscle in my arms, it will somehow connect to decreasing my neck pain.
More recently, last week actually, May 25th of 2021, my dad made me go to a bank meeting with him and he told me it would be short. It turned out to be two hours of me sitting there in agony thinking about my neck. I was already not in the mental head space with my pain levels. And my dad does not pick up on the signals as well as my mom because he has never been to any of my appointments. I let him know that my neck was burning and I myself was ready to lay on the bank floor. He just told me "Ok". Once we got home from the meeting I was explaining how hard it was for me to sit there and my dad made a comment along the lines of, "Wow, so hard. No one ever does hard things" I stayed silent and couldn't believe it, he has never tried to understand the pain, he figures I use it as an excuse. My mom went on the next day to tell him the things he said made me upset and he said how I have to learn how to deal with the pain because it is not going away. Someone who has been dealing with a chronic pain injury for two years should never hear those words from someone, doctor or not. Immediate tears filled my eyes when I heard that only because he has no right to openly be giving up on an injury that is not his to be living with.
At 18 years old I know I don’t deserve this amount of pain, but I wouldn't change what happened. Through all of this I have seen myself mature. I have seen myself gain strength and conviction. I have learned how to take care of myself and to care more for others’ safety, knowing I would never wish this pain upon another individual. That day of the accident, it hit me that you really never know when things might change, for the better or for the worse. While you can’t always control what happens to you, you do have control over how you handle it and whether or not you continue living life to the fullest, and that is exactly what I plan on doing.