I Lost My Career To Chronic Pain
In my pre-chronic pain life, I worked as a Clinical Genetics Technologist. In lay man’s terms, I performed genetics testing in a clinical lab geared at making a medical diagnosis.
I loved what I did.
It was fast-paced, challenging and really interesting. The research & clinical genetics fields were advancing quickly and there were opportunities for those who enjoyed learning new things and figuring things out. I was one of those.
My first year out of school, I got a 1-year contract position at a major downtown Toronto hospital, in the molecular genetics laboratory covering a maternity leave.
I started out performing DNA testing that identified mutations that would make someone genetically predisposed to blood clots (hereditary thrombophilias) and a genetic disorder that causes your body to build up too much iron and that eventually leads to iron overload (hemochromatosis).
I then worked on changing out the lab’s current hereditary thrombophilia genetic testing to a new, more streamlined & efficient testing method. It all began when my section head, a hematologist, handed me a science article & said to set this up and get it working properly in our lab.
I got it done.
This was my first experience in the lab of taking an idea and with some background information figuring things out until it ran smoothly & as expected.
Next came bringing on a new way for our lab to extract DNA – from spit. It worked out great. It’s amazing how much more DNA you can get from spit than from a blood sample.
The next project was bringing over a test from one of the hospital’s research labs over to the clinical side. It was a test to screen colon cancer patients to see if more in-depth genetics testing was required to identify an inherited mutation.
It was a busy year for me but I thoroughly enjoyed the hard work and challenge.
Next, I got a position at the same hospital analyzing breast cancer samples for the HER2 biomarker. And I also took over the research & development of a cutting-edge test that looked at the entire genome and identified big and small deletions & duplications that are the underlying cause of some genetic disorders.
Over the years I also did a lot of laboratory quality assurance work amongst a variety of other things.
I was good at what I did & I was really happy in my career choice.
PREGNANCY IS NOT ALWAYS EASY BREEZY
But, all of that came to a screeching halt when I became pregnant with my oldest child. Seemingly overnight, I began to feel severe pain in the left side of my low back & a little bit later in my left hip. Eventually, I also developed severe pubic pain. You can read a bit more about my chronic pain story here.
My always brisk walk slowed down to turtle speed.
I couldn’t tolerate sitting for extended time periods at the computer, lab bench or microscope. I had to sit on a foam cushion but that only offered temporary relief.
Getting up from sitting to standing was an ordeal every single time.
Standing still was very challenging.
I had a very difficult time making the long commute from the suburbs where I lived to the downtown core where I worked.
I had to be incredibly careful with EVERY. SINGLE. MOVEMENT.
Much of my first trimester and a part of the second was spent working on and off, but mostly off.
Things somewhat settled down for several weeks in my second trimester and I managed to show up at work on a fairly regular basis.
Thankfully my sick bank days got re-set during this time because before I knew it I was barely functional once again. I was back to working on and off and then I was totally off of work for most of the third trimester.
But I wasn’t concerned about my career. I thought to myself, if my pain came with the pregnancy, it will just go away after pregnancy and my life will return back to normal.
That mostly happened. I initially had some trouble with going on long walks but by the time I went back to work about 14 months later I felt like my old self.
What started happening during my first pregnancy and maternity leave, even though I did not realize it, is that I started falling through the cracks. Check out this post to make sure that hasn’t happened or doesn’t happen to YOU.
PREGNANT WITH SEVERE BACK & HIP PAIN. AGAIN.
After being back at work for a couple of months, I was pregnant with my youngest child. And the pain came back, but now it was on the left AND right side.
So, both hips, and what I finally knew to be both sacroiliac joints & eventually the pubic symphysis (or symphysis pubis) joint were all painful – this is otherwise known as the pelvic girdle.
Although I have to admit, the two-sided pain in this pregnancy was initially not as bad as it was with my oldest child when it was only on the left side. So I managed to show up to work on a much more regular basis in the first trimester and the beginning of the second trimester.
But I was completely off of work at the end of the second trimester, which was earlier than with my oldest child.
After my son was born, my body did not recover as it did after the birth of my daughter. Although I was attending physiotherapy and massage therapy, the pain was working itself up my back. But then a few months before going back to work I began acupuncture and I felt SO MUCH BETTER!
I was cautioned by my care team to not be surprised if I had some hiccups going back to work. But there was no doubt in my mind that if I did have any issues, they would be minimal at worst and that I would be able to work through them.
That did NOT happen.
WORKING WITH CHRONIC PAIN CAN LEAD TO DISASTER
From my very first day back at work, I thought to myself:
Oh no, this will be a bigger problem than I ever imagined.
The physiotherapist, massage therapist and naturopath all said that my body will need to get used to being in a static posture for long stretches of time – something that doesn’t often happen being at home with a toddler and an infant.
However, when I started making frantic calls to the clinics trying to get last minute appointments, I began realizing that THIS return to work, was most definitely turning out to be a bit of a nightmare.
I wasn’t really sure what was happening & most certainly not why it was happening. I mean, I stuck to my physiotherapy, exercises and all, & massage therapy sessions like glue. All I knew is that the muscles of my pelvis and back REALLY did not like it when I was sitting & if I wasn’t moving about.
I began sitting on the foam cushion that I used during my pregnancies.
I brought in a microwaveable heating bag from home and I was never without it sitting at the microscope. When one heating bag wasn’t enough, I ran down to the pharmacy and bought another one. I then brought in tennis and lacrosse balls and sat in my chair, having them press into the loudly protesting muscles of my back and pelvis.
I was getting up all the time to do my physio stretches.
I was constantly trying to change my posture.
The closest washroom had a lounge room off to the side with a couch so I would go there to take breaks to lay down. This was the only thing that offered relief. But as soon as I came back to working and being static, the relief was gone.
My family doctor prescribed various pain medications and muscle relaxants, but they did little if anything to help. Which was really confusing to me because aren’t pain medications supposed to help your pain?
Initially, once the workday ended & I was able to move about again, I would have relief.
But things got REALLY scary once that stopped happening.
I managed to work full time for 1 month.
Then I spent a couple of weeks working reduced hours.
And then things got so bad that I just couldn’t work at all.
I was in severe mind-numbing pain around the clock.
I got stronger pain medication from my family doctor, but it just took the edge off and somewhat helped ONLY if I hardly did anything but lay down.
Driving to local medical appointments was too much for my body.
Carrying a purse, with only the bare essentials I must add, was too much for my body.
Using my arms, other than with elbows by my side was too much for my body.
I could barely walk because of the hip & sacroiliac joint (SI, SIJ) pain.
I kept thinking that it feels like my body can’t support my head or even support itself being upright.
It also felt like my body had at the same time both fallen apart and become one big muscle cramp from the hips up.
Laying down was most bearable but even that was challenging. Because if I lay on my side, my hip and SI joint on that side would hurt. If I lay on my back, my backside would hurt. Laying on my stomach hurt my already aching neck and upper back.
It was agony.
CHRONIC PAIN BECAME A PART OF ME
Everything in my life started revolving around my pain (much of it still does – I just have more leeway with it).
The only upside during that time was that mentally I held up really well. Although none of the treatments I was trying were really helping much, my game face was on. I was not going to leave any rock unturned, any treatment untried.
But then months turned into years.
My hopes got dashed repeatedly so I simply stopped hoping in order to save myself the horrible letdown of yet another failed therapy.
Then came the depression. A huge black hole trying to suck me into its abyss. These were my toughest times.
If you are suffering from chronic pain or chronic illness, but have your mental health, it IS tough, but at least you have the inner strength to trudge along.
My depression tried, and many times succeeded, robbing me of my inner strength. 2015 was a tremendously tough year for me. And I am so thankful to have my fighting spirit back again.
I am finally on a treatment plan that is taking my recovery in the right direction. That feels really great, except that it has been awfully slow. I have been heading in the right direction for 2.5 years now and I still have some ways to go.
But I will take even a TINY bit of improvement over NO improvement, ANY day. I realized long ago that there will be no quick fixes.
I cherish every little bit of functionality that I gain back.
THE LAST DOOR CLOSES ON MY OLD LIFE
It is now 3 1/2 years since I first stopped working due to my chronic pain. But really, chronic pain has kept me from my career most of the last 7 1/2 years.
A little while ago, my employer and I parted ways. It shook me up more than I expected.
It hit me that this will be the last door to close on my former life as I knew it before my chronic pain journey began. I had hoped that I would be able to return back to my career, but it was not to be.
I sobbed as everything that my chronic pain had robbed me of flashed before my eyes.
In many ways, I am not the same person anymore. My life is not the same & not by choice, but by force.
My career felt like my last connection to my old self and my old life.
It is not a reaction that I expected from myself. I have been keeping myself together pretty well for the last while. I really thought that I was at a place in my life now where I have accepted my circumstances and that I was ok with just letting things be.
I am not totally sure what direction my work life will take now. Most jobs at the minimum require prolonged sitting or standing or walking or repetitive movements – everything I continue to have trouble with. All I know for sure is that it will have to be flexible because life with chronic pain is fairly unpredictable & you have to show your body a lot more care and compassion than you would have to otherwise.
HOW DID I COPE WITH THIS TURN OF EVENTS?
I let my emotions out. I talked about them a bit. I did not suppress them in the coming days but I didn’t dwell on them either.
I did wonder how long it would take for me to be able to set this event aside and if it would trigger low moods, which I am intimately familiar with because of the depression.
I worried that perhaps I was not at peace with letting things just be like I thought I was.
But then life happened. I continued on with appointments, errands, chores, helping the kids with their homework.
I made time to meditate and practice mindfulness.
And I kept hearing the voice of the elderly gentleman, who facilitated the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) workshop I attended during the earlier part of my chronic pain journey.
Hello old friend. So we meet again.
Because this is not my first letdown as a result of my chronic pain, nor will it be the last.
And so I would quietly glance upon my emotions, thoughts & fears, with loving kindness, without judgment, and after all, just let them be. Then I would gently bring my attention to the present moment and savor the soft breeze on my face, the sight of the beautiful spring flowers, my children’s laughter as they come up with one silly idea after another.
Almost on autopilot by now, I would quietly give thanks for the things that many people in our society take for granted – for the roof over my head, the food on my plate, the clean water in my glass, the clothes on my back & the country I live in. I gave thanks for my rumbunctious but healthy & happy children.
And like always, I was ever grateful for each improvement I’ve made, no matter how small, & that my medical issues are not life-threatening or more debilitating. Because another important lesson that I learned during the MBSR workshop is that there is more right in my life than wrong.
Because a big part of dealing with the hurdles that living with chronic pain brings is your perspective.
Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.
– Lou Holtz
But this is not a lesson that you pick up overnight. And it is much harder to do if you are not yet seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is never too early or too late to start. This has been the ONLY way I have been able to cope with everything that chronic pain has thrown my way.
What has been your experience trying to work with chronic pain or chronic illness?
What helps you deal with living with chronic pain or chronic illness?
I would love to hear some of your story in the comments section below.