How My Chronic Pain Changed My Outlook On Friendship

In 2010, a car T-boned me as I was driving on a residential street near my home. I wasn’t hurt, so I drove away—filled with gratitude that it wasn’t worse. But within days, signs of a possible injury started to surface. My fingers tingled in a strange way, and my back, neck, and shoulders were stiff. Within a week, I could barely walk at all.

I went to the doctor and received a diagnosis: It was “mild” whiplash. The pain only increased, though, radiating down my spine like a flaming spear. Months later, I was reevaluated again only to learn that I had been misdiagnosed. I actually had a severe whiplash injury and possible broken bones in my rib cage.

Sure, over the months my insides healed themselves—only, they did so pretty poorly. Because of this, I lost partial range of motion in my neck, and the muscles in my shoulder and neck were damaged.

Before the injury, I was surrounded by friends and parties—always chasing the next thrill, the next experience. I was the sort of person who was up for anything. I wore high heels almost every day and spent nights out with my friends. I was always on the go. I loved to exercise and be outdoors. I rode my bicycle everywhere. I hiked and backpacked on weekends. Sometimes I spent weeks at the coast and in the woods, where I learned to gut my own fish and identify edible plants. My world was big, then. I felt independent and able to explore—wild and free.

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But after the injury everything changed. For one, I became much less independent. With my neck’s limited range of motion, I felt unable to safely ride my bike. And I could no longer afford to live in the Bay Area, as I was too injured to work. It became glaringly apparent that I needed to return to Portland, where my family and friends were—and where they could offer emotional support.

Before the injury, I was surrounded by friends and parties—always chasing the next thrill, the next experience.

When I got to Portland, I moved to a not-so-central area. I was unable to go out and socialize because I was in pain, and it was challenging getting my friends to visit—when I reached out to them, they were always at a bar or a show or an opening. Coming to see me at my place, or just coming to my neighborhood, did not sound nearly as alluring as their Saturday night plans.

People I once valued like family became mysteriously absent from my life. I felt forgotten. Only a handful of people were willing to put in the effort to stay in my life. After all, I could no longer stay up all night drinking and dancing in stilettos. The new me wore sneakers and leggings. Mascara? Only if I was really feeling really glamorous.

While my friends finished college degrees and moved on to new careers, I laid on a plush couch in fuzzy sweatpants, plugged-in to a heating pad. I floated on a sea of pain killers, and the dull, throbbing pain resonated through my body like the beating of a heavy drum.

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Looking back, it felt like it was separated into two parts: before the accident, and after the accident. My soul felt divided. I desired pleasure, excitement, and new experiences, but my chronic pain kept me captive in isolation.

People I once valued like family became mysteriously absent from my life. I felt forgotten.

At that point, I learned to sit still with the grief, and in many ways, I am still learning.

I’ve realized that my body is not predictable and it does not care what’s on the agenda. My body is like a difficult child. It throws fits, it raises fists.

Now, I dream of thriving. I dream of wearing fancy shoes and dancing until sunrise. I dream of hiking in the back-country again and riding my bike.

But that’s not in the cards right now.

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From all of this, I learned a valuable lesson: I realized that before my injury, I extended myself far too much to people who were not right for me. Alarmed with this new knowledge, I learned how to cultivate other kinds of friendships, especially through social media. I met people who cared about the same things I did: writing, poetry, and art. These were people who didn’t need me to be a person who had endless energy, who was always ready to go out. True friends stick together, regardless of how difficult circumstances become. They were willing to make changes in modes of interacting, as life necessitates.

My new friends were willing to travel to “my” side of town to meet in-person. I think, because I chose people who really seemed to care for me, I started seeing people show up for me.

It is hard for me to acknowledge how much I depend on others’ emotional support. Throughout this experience, I had to learn how to ask for help— at first it was an uncomfortable process, but now I am gaining confidence in expressing my needs. I realized that it is a lifelong process to accept and heal the emotional scars of a physical injury.

Eventually, I returned to school to finish my BFA in Nonfiction degree. Now, I am surrounded by solid friends old and new, friends I’ve cultivated in my vulnerability and transparency.

Because I chose people who really seemed to care for me, I started seeing people show up for me.

My friends understand when I cancel plans due to pain, and they don’t judge me for not being as financially secure as they are. I am at a different place in my life than they are, and they have compassion. This injury drew me an unusual path and it’s a struggle. When I’m ill, they ask what they can do to help.

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To those on the outside looking in, people with chronic pain come across as needy, flaky, and high-maintenance. But in reality, we must constantly assert ourselves in order to prioritize our health and honor our bodies. (Yes, I’ve actually had to leave a concert on my birthday before the band even started playing because of a pain flare-up.) So, you never know what someone is dealing with. Outside, I seem healthy, but looks are deceiving.

Living with chronic pain has raised the stakes. I seize every moment I can and cultivate authenticity in every interaction. Learning to fight for my body and advocate for my needs taught me about resiliency and determination. In fact, I have never felt so true to myself as I do now.

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