Thriving - Not Just Surviving - with Chronic Pain

Tomorrow I'll be having this screwed into my spine, and a disc replaced too. And not a moment too soon.

I've been living with chronic lower back pain since January 2016, taking a cocktail of (prescribed) painkillers including Endone, Targin, and Valium; as much body-mobility exercises as I could get from my physiotherapist, chiropractor and pilates instructor; and a little help from Zoloft to keep me from the depths of depression.

I'm one of the 7 in 10 people in the world who suffer from chronic back pain; mine being degenerative and came to a head one day when all I did was stand up, resulting in complete muscle spasm, difficulty breathing, an ambulance ride and a 6-day stay in hospital (which of course all happened when I was at home with my two young kids and my husband was overseas).

But despite this, my career has thrived. I dived into the speaking circuit - head-first, it seemed - and my very first conference was a biggie: NDC in Norway. And things have snowballed into interviews, webinars, articles, and more speaking engagements all about employee engagement and how to make the workplace a happier and more productive place to be. My passion fuelled me.

With back chronic pain affecting so many, and me on the verge of (hopefully) saying bye-bye to it forever, I wanted to share my story that enabled me not just survive, but thrive, despite the challenges that pain and subsequent side effects that medication brings (as a result, my concentration span is the same as my 4 year old's, so this will be brief!).

Tip #1: Create a medical 'support group'

When it comes to back pain, there are an indeterminable amount of 'experts' out there who profess success and immediate recovery. We'd just moved to the Gold Coast from Sydney, and therefore didn't know the 'good' from the 'bad' practitioners. My first step was to find a decent local Doctor who could help me build a support team that included a chiropractor, physiotherapist, pilates instructor, diagnostics team, and surgeon. Communication between this 'support group' has been paramount in bringing me to today - the day before surgery - and having complete confidence that all other avenues for me have been exhausted and surgery is the only option left.

Tip #2: Enlist empathy

Being new to the Gold Coast, I didn't have many friends. Having a bad back doesn't exactly have me out and about much, so meeting new people has been difficult. Instead, I started building rapport with people I came into contact with regularly - including the lady at the local bakery and even our Friday night Pizza Night delivery driver - and sharing my pain. Katrina and Carole have been instrumental as sounding boards, and I now call them friends. It's amazing how effective a sympathetic ear can be, no matter who it belongs to!

Tip #3: Fake it till you make it

No-one in the audience at my speaking engagements would know I have a bad back. Part of my presentation actually includes a section about faking being happy as it can trick your brain into producing the neurons that help you feel happy. So I had to take my own advice and fake not having a bad back on occasion. Wasn't easy, but it helped me get through some rather challenging situations.

Tip #4: Hack it

Although hacking might be more the forte of my husband rather than me, I had to learn. The little things can make a huge difference. For example, I can't stand up for long periods, which is kind of a requirement when presenting. So I'd choose a point in my presentation where I was telling a personal story and so use the chair as a way to convey a more relaxed atmosphere, and give me a chance to rest my back at the same time.

I've also been known to carry around my little brown pillow that I'd sit on/lean against - pretty much everywhere I went. It's enabled me to get through days (such as conferences with hard shitty chairs) that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to sit through.

Tip #5: Take any opportunity to lie down

The NDC conference included an exhibitor stand with a massage chair that could almost lay flat. It quickly became my new best friend and something I was able to incorporate into my presentation as a way to illustrate 'marinating' i.e. taking time out of your day to sit/lie down and let your mind wander and distil the day.

Tip #6: Acknowledge the side effects

Being on a cocktail of meds means I'm not always firing on all cylinders. It took me a while to acknowledge that my memory and concentration levels take a hit when on painkillers, as well as having a general sense of 'fogginess', and so knew that there were some things I'd have to let go. One of these was the production of my next Pluralsight course called 'Embracing Change: How to Drive and Thrive'. It's not fair on anyone if I'm not able to bring my A-game to the creation of a course, and so I've had to put it off for a few more months. My Editor, Sean Lowery, is an absolute legend and the team at Pluralsight have been super understanding.

Tip #7: Ask for help

This is something I constantly struggle with, but have had to learn to do more of. Recently I had to ask one of the school mums if she could bring my son home from school, as it was a particularly bad day for me. I was almost in tears when she said "no problem at all - happy to help". I'm also very fortunate to have amazing in-laws; my mum-in-law called up the other day to ask if there was anything she could help with, as Troy was overseas again. I ended up with 2 nights' worth of dinner and my little guy having a sleep over. Win!

Tip #8: Articulate how you're feeling

At the end of the day, it's you who is experiencing this, not anyone else. My husband is supportive, but has no idea what I'm going through as he's never had back pain. He's an anomaly (reckon some would say this of him irrespective of back pain!). So I've had to become better at articulating what I'm feeling/needing/etc. Which is hard because the side effects of the meds turns my brain to jelly.

And raising two young kids has meant the phrase "be gentle with Mamma" is in almost every conversation I have with them.

Tip #9: Do random acts of kindness

I feel as if I'm in a little bubble. A bubble of pain. Whenever I do something nice for someone else, that bubble shrinks ever so slightly. It makes me feel good, even if it's just for that moment. Try it - even if it doesn't alleviate your pain, it just might alleviate someone else's.

Tip #10: Follow your passion

None of my career achievements this year could have happened if I wasn't passionate about what I do - bringing workplace happiness down from the clouds and into reality. It's enabled me to dig deeper into my resilience, strengthen my resolve, and say Yes when my body is screaming No.

This is my story. You can thrive despite chronic pain. I'm living proof.