February 13 2018
Colleen Kelly Alexander discusses the accident that changed her life and how she has rebounded in spite of the trauma to her mind and body.
I have a chronic illness called RSD, which stands for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. It’s a chronic pain condition that I’ve lived with every day for more than 10 years. Simply put, my nerves are constantly sending signals to my brain that I am experiencing pain in both of my legs, from my toes to my thighs. The cycle never stops. I live in pain all day, every day. My RSD reminds me daily that I don’t have complete control over my body. Sometimes I will hurt physically and mentally just because the wind blows or because someone is talking too loudly. It’s easy to get defeated by my reality and lose motivation. In fact, RSD thrives off this mentality. It invades my body. It is pleased when I comply with its painful trajectory.
If I’m being honest, it’s easy to let RSD take over my friendships, family life, school or work aspirations. I have definitely been down that slippery slope before. However, after years of battling with a body that is riddled with pain, I realized that I have control over the choices I make each day about the life I lead, the way I love myself and how to chase my ambitions.
One way I put this mindset into practice is through running. Running helps me to do something with my body that makes me feel strong. When my pain is really creeping up, it can feel like my body is betraying me. When I go out for a run, I remember how amazing my body is. Even when it hurts, it is strong.
It may be hard to imagine going out every day and running even when it hurts. But I’m an athlete and I have chronic pain. These realities come with unique challenges and successes. I consulted Dr. David Sherry, a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who specializes in treating this condition, about the paradox of pain and persisting in activities. He shared an interesting perspective.
“We tell people with amplified pain to not avoid activities due to pain or the fear of pain,” says Dr. Sherry.
I found his advice reassuring and reflected in my own experiences. Although it seemed like I would never be able to run a half marathon, I’ve completed several long distance races and am currently training for a marathon, despite my pain. It is one of the biggest accomplishments of my journey thus far. Running has helped me to better understand my capabilities and to tune into my body in a way that I was previously unable to. I stick to my training plan, even when it hurts. I’d rather experience some moments of intense discomfort than regret missing out on a “runner’s high” or post-race celebration!
One thing that helps me overcome the mental hurdles of my pain is mindfulness. The practice stands in direct opposition to the common RSD solution of finding a distraction. People with RSD are often encouraged to find ways to ignore the sensational pain they’re feeling. When I’m being mindful, I acknowledge my pain, and I am better able to decide what to do next after I assess how I’m feeling. I ask myself questions, such as “have I felt this pain before?” It allows me to get a better sense of whether this is a familiar pain or an impending injury.
This mindset helps me essentially shift my experience of pain from an emotional and physical experience to an intellectual one. With this awareness of my body’s cues and signals, I can notice my pain, accept its existence, and move forward—literally. Being mindful about my body has also allowed me to be mindful of my emotions too.
When I asked Dr. Sherry about successful approaches to pain management, he shared a similar sentiment. “One has to use their mind to control their body, not let the pain dictate what the body does.” If I acknowledge my pain, but I don’t give it power, I gain control over my body and my choices.
I don’t deny my reality or try to pretend my pain doesn’t exist. Instead I live fully and with a whole heart. I approach each day, each step, as an opportunity to be vulnerable and real about my strengths and my shortcomings. Being true and true to myself and committed to my running goals shows my RSD that it cannot take me down. I am stronger than this pain.