What You Learn From Pain


Last year, I had three screws drilled into my right knee a week before Christmas.

My knee cap had been randomly dislocating from time to time since I was young. Each episode would leave me incapacitated and unable to stand up until the pain went away. They mostly happened in public, and I was usually lucky enough to be around strangers who were willing to help me. I got used to it, eventually accepting that it was just something my body did. But lately, the dislocations had gotten worse to the point that my knee cap would automatically pop in and out with every single step I took. 

I tried therapy in the hopes that the combination of electric pulses, physical exercises and swimming would strengthen my knee enough to prevent more dislocations. It didn’t work, and we finally opted for elective surgery to avoid more damage to the bone and potential muscle tears.

Going into my surgery, I was determined to be brave and resilient. I wanted to be an inspiration. I wanted to be the picture of perfect peace despite a major challenge, and I had no doubt I could do it. I promised myself I would never complain about my situation, to take each day with a serene mind and a light heart, and I was all set to channel my inner Gandhi. 

I broke down by the first day out of the operating room. I was watching TV when a story came on about a man paralyzed from the neck down. Two days after the surgery, I was still unable to move my right leg, or even the toes on my foot. It felt like a hunk of lifeless rubber whenever I touched it, and it didn’t feel like my leg. It was totally unresponsive and the disconnect terrified me. Seeing that man in a wheelchair unable to move for the rest of his life triggered an irrational, claustrophobic panic that made it hard to breathe. 

What if something was damaged during the operation, paralyzing my leg for good? What if I had to walk with a limp for the rest of my life? What if I never actually regained mobility? What if the surgery didn’t fix anything? What if the pain never went away? What if I were worse off than I was before? What if the surgery was a total mistake?

I watched that man in his wheelchair and how he was now an inspirational speaker, but all I could think of was that he’ll never move again of his own free will. His body must feel like a straitjacket he can never escape. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? I was fully functional before even if my knee cap dislocated from time to time, and now I can’t even feel anything in my right leg. I hated having to wear my heavy immobilizer. I felt trapped inside the hospital, I felt trapped inside my body, and I felt trapped inside my head. I had this incredible urge to run away but I couldn’t even get my fucking toes to move. I started to sob and then cry, saying “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this anymore” over and over again. I bit my pillow and wiped my tears with the back of my hand like a five-year old throwing a tantrum. It was a full-on freak out.

My mom was in the room, and I expected to be hugged until I calmed down. Instead, in a steady voice she told me, “Stop it. You have no choice but to walk again. No one can walk for you and no one can fix this for you. You have no other choice but to be strong and get over this.”

It felt like a stinging, verbal slap in the face. I choked down my sobs and wiped my cheeks, not wanting to cry in the presence of someone who’d rather lecture me than extend some sympathy. It got me angry. But the message struck me hard, and it turned out to be the most important thing I learned so far in this experience. It was tough love at its finest.

A month in, and I still couldn’t raise my leg on my own. I needed help with my daily activities, and I used a wheelchair whenever we went out. My doctor says it would be at least a full year before I can regain full use of my right leg, and it also depends on my performance in rehab. I’ve got a long way to go. 

It’s normal to be overwhelmed by a painful situation and an uncertain future, and that’s okay. You can break down, spend a whole day crying, and feel sorry for yourself. But never forget that healing is primarily a solitary activity. Whatever you’re dealing with right now, no one can decide to move forward but you. No one can make your choices for you, and you are your strongest advocate. 

One of the best things about life is that it happens only one moment at a time. You don’t have to win everything at once. You only have to take one step at a time, as small or as big as you want, until you finally cross your finish line. 

image – Helga Weber