Living in pain – the coping mechanisms

I know I don’t look particularly fit or athletic, but at this point, this is therapy. Pixie thoroughly enjoys the sessions too. (It’s taking a lot of courage for me to post these images.)

This week I shared one of the biggest challenges I’ve been struggling with for most of my life. I described how difficult it can be to live in chronic pain, and just mentioned that little adjustments to our daily routines could potentially make a difference. I’ve had to adapt a lot to continue getting by and for the most part, act like everything is fine.

The pain in my back thanks to the listhesis, will not get better. Time will actually continue to make it worse. So finding coping mechanisms is essential. As a teenager my ballet teacher Johane Casabene (the same teacher that first discovered my spine issues), introduced me to her physiotherapist and to pilates. I’ve done Physio, pilates and yoga on and off for years, and they truly are therapeutic. I’ve been lucky enough to have instructors who have also given me tips and tricks on how to make little adjustments in my everyday life to cope with the pain. But let’s be frank, all of this comes at quite the financial expense. Fortnightly physio sessions, pilates or yoga one on one sessions (because of the injuries) ideally at least three times a week…. the bills add up. So especially during my student years, I could not keep it up consistently. I also always preferred dance to pilates and yoga, so I would rather spend more on that.

As I wrote in my previous post during the summer of 2018 I had reached an all time low, where I couldn’t swim or go for walks anymore. Desperation led to me initially giving up on any form of therapy, but slowly my mind set started changing to try and pursue new coping mechanisms.

In January 2019, I started going to fortnightly physiotherapy sessions, which included acupuncture during every session. My physiotherapist told me that I had also developed hip bursitis which was adding to my struggles to walk and swim. The acupuncture was an excellent temporary relief, but it became almost like an addiction. I needed my fortnightly fix, to be able to get through the next two weeks. These sessions continued for a year, and I actually stopped them when the country went into lockdown (just under a year ago), because of the pandemic and couldn’t visit my physiotherapist. I was in a bit of a panic because I wasn’t sure how I would get through my days.

Between November 2019 and March 2020 as we were rehearsing for The Addams Family musical, Grandma Addams (or rather the actress playing the role Sarah Jane Zrinzo) reminded me of the joys of pilates. Apart from being a wonderful actress, performer and dancer, Sarah is a fabulous pilates instructor with a lovely studio in San Pawl tat-Targa called Seven Steps. Taking the role of a hundred and something year old, Sarah Jane spent hours crouched over in rehearsals, so in between scenes or before starting a rehearsal, I would see her apply pilates techniques to warm up and stretch out. We had several conversations about it and toyed with the idea of me starting sessions with Sarah, to help me deal with the pain. We had to wait until after the production because I couldn’t afford to add anything else to my schedule, but just when I was meant to start attending sessions lockdown hit. Sarah and I started discussing the possibility of online classes. Because of my injuries we weren’t sure whether this would be the best idea since Sarah wouldn’t be able to see my body physically, but since she knew I was rather in tune with the way my body works through having lived with the injuries and having had dance, yoga and pilates training, we thought we’d give it a shot.

Sarah and I rehearsing for ‘Grisly Cabaret together, because I couldn’t find a photo from ‘Addams’ rehearsals

I felt so weak at that point, I was scared of how my body would take to the training, but the positive changes started manifesting almost instantaneously. Sarah and I found a routine of 2 morning sessions a week. This was decided so as to work around my routine since I tend to work late on most days, and I am not in the mood to train after. Through keeping these sessions up, I started noticing tiny changes in my body, where the pain started reducing a little. I’m still constantly in pain but I feel like certain muscle groups have got stronger and offer better support.

For the first time in two years, last summer I managed to swim for at least half an hour to an hour. By this I mean that rather than just staying in the same spot in the water and avoiding to use my legs at all cost, I could actually kick through the water. What might seem absolutely normal to everyone else, feels like a massive achievement on my part. Almost a year on, and I’m still doing these sessions as regularly as I can, and although I struggle through every workout because of the pain, I do feel that certain muscle groups have regained quite a bit of strength. If I miss a session or worse still two, I go back to barely being able to walk.

But why online?

There were days where I would have never dreamed about doing workouts outside of a studio and in my own home. I love the interaction with my teacher/instructor and I used to love interaction with my classmates. But since I’m not as comfortable in my own skin anymore and feel a lot clumsier when I train, I tend to be more at ease when I’m alone in my living room. Even if there are other people in the online session, I know that their screen will be focused on the instructor and not on the other people in the group.

It also works a lot better around my current routine. Trying to get up earlier to go to a morning class and then going home to shower and possibly to the office later would take too much time. Trying to make an early evening class is close to impossible between getting stuck at work and getting stuck in traffic. I did try to attend a class in Sarah Jane’s studio during the Christmas break. Traffic was so bad I arrived half an hour late. I could have possibly left earlier but would have still wasted about an hour in traffic. It really doesn’t seem worth it. Having said this, Sarah’s studio classes are rather fun, and the other ‘attendees’ are great sports, and the best and most important part – not judgy!

In such scenarios, I think that finding someone who truly understands your needs is key. It takes understanding of how a schedule works well for you, what sort of training your body can endure, how much you can be pushed or you can push yourself, and most importantly of all, understanding the injury and what causes the pain. It is crucial to always be 100% honest with yourself firstly and with your trainer. Pride needs to be kicked out of the way when training for recovery, since if you push yourself too much or too hard, you can worsen your injury instead of improving it.

Sarah is always adapting the workouts according to how my body would be feeling, but makes sure to continue challenging me. I still feel like crap after every workout mind you, but she says she sees how much stronger I’ve become. To me the fact that my pain has become slightly more manageable and I can get through my day a little easier is all that matters at this point. It’s definitely a HUGE improvement from being scared to attempt a workout because I wouldn’t be able to handle the pain. I think this has turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise from the COVID-19 pandemic, because we have come to realise that with modern technology, we can really adapt different aspects of our lives to better fit our needs.

Other remedies…

It takes little adaptations with everything I do really, so stretching for example, is essential… The fact that I work for a dance company really helps. Even though I’m an office girl, my colleagues aren’t taken aback when they see me sitting on the office floor, stretching whilst typing away on my iPad, or standing up at my desk instead of sitting. I try to adapt to get through my days, and that involves a lot of moving around. So when I answer the phone I’m constantly pacing around. In meetings with my team, I get up and rotate my spine for mobility. Even as I’m writing this I’m constantly stretching. I’ve been lucky to have found colleagues that understand my difficulties, and through that I managed to acquire a height adjustable desk for the office (and ended up buying one for home too), so when sitting becomes painful I can work standing up. A good office chair is essential. I use hot water bottles and deep heat patches throughout work days, especially when the air is particularly humid (which happens quite often when you live on a tiny island). One thing I’m yet to try but for some reason I keep postponing, is using a gym ball instead of a chair at my desk. I’m more concerned about this taking away my concentration from my tasks at hand, more than anything else. But it might make a world of a difference, so I really should give it a go. I would to try treatments at a pain clinic, and possibly a chiropractor, but haven’t got round to that yet.

On most days, especially if I’ve got a lot of walking around to do, I use a backpack instead of a handbag, to distribute the weight evenly, and make sure to wear comfortable shoes. I’ve also switched to working on a desktop computer with a larger monitor at work, and carry around an iPad instead of a laptop, because it’s lighter to carry in my bag. It’s literally the smallest things that can make a world of a difference.

I’m still terrified of what it will be like to continue living in pain, and having the pain get worse as I get older. But at least adopting these coping mechanisms in my everyday life is making the struggle a little more bearable for the time being. I guess the next step would be to add a few more sessions.

If like me you’re suffering with some sort of chronic pain, I know how hard it can get, but please don’t give up on yourself or your body. Find the strength to speak up and take action. Ask for help at work and from those around you and listen to your body and its needs, constantly.

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