Around eight months ago I attended a unique course that I came to call St Thomas’s School of Pain. I remember distinctly deciding beforehand that I’d write about it, and multiple posts at that. Through writing this blog and sharing my experiences, I’ve learned that there are people in my life who have gone and are daily going through similar struggles, including some with chronic pain. I’ve received touching messages and had conversations both moving and inspiring off the back of things I’ve written, and have even been told that others have found my writing comforting and helpful. This is so far beyond any expectations I had when I first set fingertips to keyboard on the topics of guns and cake, believe you me. About to embark on a four week residential course to help me cope with chronic pain, I felt I would try to share anything I could; the off-chance that some small snippet would help someone for even one hour of their entire life seemed to make it more worthy of writing about than most of my subject matter. It still does. Thus I resolutely decided I would share my experiences. Given we had a selection of teachers who ran classes according to a weekly timetable, and at various times even used the white boards, with breaks morning and afternoon, and lunch dished up to us by a lovely, warm lady in an apron as we queued in a chatty line with our trays, my ‘school’ analogy felt pretty solid overall. I had even decided on the somewhat twee titles I would use for the posts I had yet to write, an homage to Enid Blyton: ‘First Term/Second Form/In the Third/Last Term at St Thomas’s’.
Eight months later, on the day my final follow up session, and I’ve still not written a word.
Those four weeks living on the South Bank, just over the river from Big Ben, barking at you every fifteen minutes (which I actually loved, incidentally), changed my life irrevocably – and fortunately for the better. As a direct result of St T’s SoP, I moved house, setting those wheels in motion before the fourth ‘term’ had even finished. With my teachers’ support, I’ve reduced my reliance on the NHS to almost nil – the single appointment I’ve had with my GP since October would have seemed unthinkable to the Me of the last couple of years, when I’ve averaged at absolute minimum one appointment a month, an MRI a year, and countless other tests, the two involving tuning forks and electric currents making my hands move among the most bizarre. And now? I haven’t yet been to see a GP in 2016.
Not unconnected to this, almost (but not quite) the most significant change to my life, as I know those close to me will agree, is that with my teachers’ guiding words ringing in my ears (and letter for the GP in hand), I’ve gradually taken myself off absolutely all my medication. It took over four months, but these last eighteen weeks (and damn right I’m counting!) I have taken absolutely zero prescription medicines. This is the first time in years I’ve not been popping pills daily; three years ago today I was a walking maraca, popping 37 tablets a day including doses I had to take at work. Right now I feel so liberated to have shed my maraca status that I take any multi vitamins and supplements on a distinctly sporadic basis, simply so I am taking absolutely nothing ‘daily’. No antidepressants, no anticonvulsants, no pain meds of any kind. Nada. Zilch. Zero.
As the dose of meds reduced, the fog in my head started to lift. This has in turn had all manner of catalytic effects. That fog had crept in so stealthily, with such patience and persistence over months and years, that I didn’t even know it was there. The change was so subtle and occurred so gradually that I hadn’t noticed. Yet a week into my new ‘no-meds’ state, and without any knowledge of the changes I’d been making, my old boss commented that my focus had visibly improved, my drive had picked up, my clarity of communication sharpened, and overall I was more on form than he’d ever known me. I smiled and laughed and said thank you. Inside I wept. I was overwhelmed with despair, self-pity and grief that I had been so masked for so long, and with relief, and gratitude and sheer pleasure that ‘I’ was back. The cherry on top; I was unbelievably moved that he’d noticed. I don’t think he had any idea that his passing comments that lunchtime will stay with me forever.
Forgive the cloying metaphor but in this newly rediscovered, fog-free, crystal clear blue sky, I have found and stretched my wings, and started to fly. Since I ‘graduated’ from St T’s, I was approached about a new job, went for it, and got it. I now find myself happily succeeding (so far) in the most senior role I’ve held to date, in a company I’ve long-admired, with a not inconsequential pay rise, actively looking forward to my upcoming three-month review. I can’t say for sure it wouldn’t all have happened had I not attended the School of Pain, but I sure as hell know where I’d have put my money.
Finally and by far of most significance to me, I have reclaimed my sense of identity.* Not only has the lifting of the brain fog enabled me to be Me in the truest sense (mostly for better but at a few times for worse) right to the core, I also no longer think of myself as someone with a problem, an illness, or an affliction. This could not be demonstrated more clearly to me than by the fact that no one at my current job** knows I suffer from either HNPP or chronic pain. One of the sales team, currently suffering with a wrist problem, knows I had issues with my wrists that caused me to wear splints on them day and night for a few months, a couple of years ago, but he doesn’t know why. And that’s genuinely the extent of it. I have no need to share it; it’s not who I am when it comes to introductions or getting to know me, and it is simply not relevant to my current job or my ability to do it and do it well. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a period where I may need to share the information with them or a future employer – and it won’t be a problem or a failure if or when I get to that point. But the difference in me through even just the interviewing process for this role vs. my previous one was night and day. Interviewing for my last role – during my redundancy if you’re a longer term reader – I felt wracked with guilt that I wasn’t declaring upfront that I had Something Wrong With Me. When I did come to tell them, post-confirmation and commencement of employment, I felt ashamed, as though I’d let them offer me the job and accept my acceptance on the basis of some deceit. This time round, it simply didn’t come up. C’est tout. I’m damned good at my job. If I hurt a bit while I’m being damned good at my job, what does it matter to them?
I didn’t realise until St T’s how much I’d come to think of myself as less of a person as my struggle had worsened, and frankly I’m ashamed of myself for it. I would never think of a friend or colleague who struggled with a similar affliction of being worth any less because of it, so why the hell did I treat myself any differently? The answer I sadly feel lies in us as a society as much as in me as an individual. While very few people would consciously say someone with a medical affliction is worth less/is more hassle, etc. (or so I sincerely hope), there were unconscious, unspoken messages that reinforced my negative self-perception. I remember an employer running their hands through their hair in exasperation when trying to talk about struggling with my workload. Another colleague rolling their eyes in the background as I clutched my head in pain trying not to cry out. An occupational health professional saying “the company probably won’t like that” about things I could do absolutely nothing about, and “you should be very grateful” as though a) I were demanding preferential treatment rather than asking for a small amount of support to enable me to get through a working week, and b) that I weren’t already inordinately thankful I worked for a company abiding by the spirit of the law as well as the letter. I remember someone stepping directly over my twitching body as I screamed silently in pain into the carpet of our office, mascara streaming down my face, struggling to breathe – incidentally a scenario already much more humiliating than those dreams where you appear naked in a crowd, even without someone stepping over you like an inconvenient log. In my case there was also the even less subtle message from Mr #6 and his ‘I don’t want to date you in case we end up together, I don’t want my kids inheriting what you’ve got’***. For the record I stand by my previous post on that: he can fuck right off.
Personally I’ve found taking fewer tablets and attending fewer appointments to have had a big impact here. It’s easier than I thought it would be to let much of the pain tick along in the background, like a ticking clock on a mantlepiece. Without the pills, I don’t have a daily (or thrice-daily) reminder of my condition. Going to the GP no longer interrupts my life on a monthly basis. I’ve found it easier to focus on the good stuff without these reminders of the struggles. But I wish I could go back to Old Me and tell her to focus on the pub lunch planned for after an appointment as much as possible, or the pleasant taste of the coffee with which I’m taking my pills, more than the appointment or tablets themselves. Focus on the good stuff, and let the rest become background noise as much as possible. This is also something I’m determined to hold on to, as it’s highly unlikely I’ll stay off the meds for good. Still, never say never.
I realise that even in writing this post, I haven’t shared an iota of what we actually did during the four weeks, and I may be guilty of misleading you, as I’m afraid I’m not going to. It was intensely challenging, personal, emotional and at times made me feel incredibly, uncomfortably vulnerable. I’ve no desire to repeat that experience here for all the Internet to read. But if you know me and want to know more about the course, please feel free to get in touch and I’ll happily tell you much, much more on a one-to-one basis. If you struggle with chronic pain in the UK and feel that you have run out of options within the NHS, I couldn’t recommend strongly enough that you speak to your specialist about the INPUT Pain Management course (as they’re unlikely to know what St Thomas’s School of Pain is) as an option. It may not be right for you, and even if you complete it, for all I know may not work for you, but it has changed my life and I will never stop being grateful to the team there. Their work has a positive impact on me every single day of my life, and has had since I entered their care. It isn’t possible for me to thank them enough.
If you don’t suffer from chronic pain (or if you do and are bored of it infiltrating every aspect of your life), never fear: normal service here should resume in the not too distant future, starting with more tales of cringeworthy dates… Let the Tinder Tales recommence!
*As an ex-philosophy student, I feel I should state that I’m absolutely ignoring the ponderings of David Hume et al. on whether such a thing as identity even exists. The man also wrote on mitigated scepticism; if an epistemological sceptic can accept his own refusal to put his hand in an Alsatian or Rottweiler or whatevertypeofdogitwas’s mouth, I’m sure Hume would forgive my commentary on the change in what I perceive as my sense of identity, whether or not it exists. Though even if he wouldn’t, I don’t think I honestly care that much.
** I love the fact that I blur lines between colleague and friend; if you’re reading this and work with me, that’s fine and this is all stuff I’m happy to chat about it; but please know & respect that it’s not something I particularly want to draw attention to at work, so maybe wait until we’re in the pub rather than the office. Offering to buy a round never hurts either.
*** for the record I’ve got: brains, wit, practical skills, musical talent, confidence, a good eye for a target, reasonable physical strength, a good palate, sex appeal, good looks and a so-far decent metabolism… And I’d keep that lot over a second PMP-22 gene any day of the week.