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How Chronic Pain Forced Me to Value My Own Needs

I got a concussion in June of 2014, and that concussion set forth a cascade of chronic pain I still deal with today, nearly three years later. My chronic health struggles have held some of the lowest moments of my life. The hopelessness, the desperation, the fear, the isolation, the uncertainty about my future; it stays with me like white noise, and at times can be too much to bear. But my health problems have also given rise to a stronger, more compassionate, more self-loving me, and has forced me to take care of myself and put my needs first. This is the story I wish to share.

When you have a chronic medical condition, you contend with an immediate feedback loop, where if you don’t listen to your body’s needs, your body will let you know (and trust me, it won’t be quiet or kind about it). You can’t just “push through” the pain because you’ll risk flare-ups if you don’t take care of yourself. That meant that in social situations, I had to learn to speak up for myself. I had no other choice, lest I risk my body punishing me the next day.

To give a few examples, my concussion made me incredibly sensitive to light, so I learned to ask my friends to turn off certain lights in their houses to accommodate me. My chronic neck pain meant that it was easiest to stare straight ahead, or at the very least, only turn my neck left (not right) to talk to people, which meant advocating for a specific seat at the table when I went out to a meal with friends. My chronic shoulder pain meant that it was hard for me to sit down for long periods of time, so I had to communicate when I could no longer tolerate sitting. Finally, my chronic leg pain meant that high chairs or sitting directly on the ground (for example, in a picnic setting) were tricky for me, which meant I had to make my furniture needs clear to friends before we picked a place to hang out.

Those asks may seem small, but it forced me to take care of myself, over and over again. It was precisely that repetition that allowed me to validate and honor my needs, and gave rise to a more confident me. I saw myself change from:

1. Suffering in silence because I didn’t feel like my needs mattered and I didn’t want to burden anyone else with them.

2. Meekly speaking up about my needs and feeling ashamed and embarrassed by it and, like, it’s totally chill if you can’t meet them, but also, it would be great if you could, but, like, no biggie if not.

3. These are my needs. Can you help me meet them?

I think about this change in myself, and how it probably would have taken me a good 15 more years to learn what I had learned in one, had I not been dealing with multiple chronic health conditions. Seeing myself grow and advocate for myself made me realize just how hard it was to stick up for myself in the past. How automatically I had discounted my needs and put everyone else’s needs first, so immediately and so thoughtlessly that it went unquestioned in my own head.

I think about how this past downplaying of needs showed up most sharply in my interactions with men, where the uneven power dynamic so many men are unaware of shrunk me to my very core. The pressure to be agreeable around them, to be likable, to not alienate them. I think about all the times I’ve put my health at risk by letting men do more than what I was sexually comfortable with, or not use condoms — because I was concerned about pleasing them and didn’t want to seem like a prude or a hypochondriac — and the anxiety I felt in the months afterward about whether or not I had contracted an STD. I think about all the times that men had stood me up or ignored me, only to use me for my body later, and how I had let it slide, or only confronted them in a “joking” manner, because I didn’t want to seem high-maintenance. I think about all the times I bit my tongue when men said sexist things in my presence, because I didn’t want them to think I was a bitch.

I look back at the self I was before my concussion, and I want to hug that former self — a self that was so lost and confused and didn’t know what she wanted or how to stand up for herself. I look at the self that I am today, and am so proud of how in touch I am with my needs and how unapologetic I am about the people in my life meeting them. I’m proud that I no longer see my needs as selfish or shameful, but rather, valid and important. In a chronic pain support group I once attended, a woman said, “As humans we struggle to put up boundaries, and sometimes those boundaries get put on you.” That’s what my chronic pain did for me. It put boundaries on me that I wasn’t quite ready to put up for myself.

If you spend enough time in the chronic pain community, you know how much we bemoan non-disabled people telling us there’s a “silver lining” to our medical struggles. There is no silver lining to chronic pain, and I still grapple with constant grief from not being able to live the kind of life I most desire, due to my limitations. But even amidst all of my moments of immense anger and sadness and grief, I also hold gratitude. I know I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today, without the guidance of my chronic pain.

And for that, I am forever grateful.