Still hurting, part II
February 29, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Chronic pain and depression - like peanut butter and jelly?

Hi y'all,

As you can see here, I have been suffering from pain from a bulging disc, and everyone (as to be expected) left me helpful tips to overcome my back pain.
Unfortunately, since then, everything has kind of taken a dizzying downward spiral. I was hospitalized about a month ago for the severity of my symptoms and received several MRIs that identified two bulging discs. For a few weeks after that, I slowly but surely tried to go through the day, only to bend over the wrong way one day and be unable to get out of bed the next morning. The cherry on top is that I have developed a bleeding ulcer from all the painkillers, which is going to be okay but means no more ibuprofen (which was helping, unfortunately). I am falling so far behind in school, because the drugs make me foggy and because getting around is so painful - I am trying to keep up with the bare minimum of the semester so as not to lose my fellowship for the fall, but now I'm wondering if it's even worth the effort.
The next step is pain injections, which I am supposed to be getting soon, along with physical therapy, and everyone seems fairly optimistic about my prognosis, so I am trying to remain hopeful that I will, eventually, get better.
But I'm now realizing that, as you can probably tell, I'm feeling pretty depressed. I feel like I'm not really participating in my life - my school work, my friends, my extracurricular things, are all slipping by without me. My family is far away (and is pressing me to just withdraw from school and move back home). My friends are absolutely wonderful, but of course they can't take care of me 24/7. My boyfriend is, but he has his own life to attend to and I'm afraid I am becoming too much of a burden. I am trying not to slip into a spiral of negativity because I don't want to drive him away, but it is so hard to get up in the morning and know that I can't go with him on the trip we had planned this weekend, or go out for a long walk, or do any of the things I normally do to make myself feel better. Poor guy has zero experience with depression, and his "Chin up! You'll feel better soon!" is well-intentioned but just has no inkling of what it feels like to just not want to get up in the morning. It makes me feel like a crappy girlfriend and I worry that eventually he will start to resent me. And then the cycle continues.
I know y'all will suggest therapy, and I've started looking for a therapist, but I really was just wondering if anybody had day-to-day tips for getting through this kind of blackness. I have never been in a situation like this before.
Thanks - y'all are the best.
posted by bookgirl18 to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
others will certainly comment more helpfully on this situation holistically, but I just wanted to mention that it is perfectly fine to take off the semester if you're having these kinds of problems and are falling behind. it'll take off a lot of stress and you'll appreciate the break and being able to focus on healing and resting. i took off a semester midway in college and definitely never regretted it. check with administration about logistics and to see to what extent you can withdraw without financial and/or academic penalties (i lost half that semester's tuition but managed to 'catch up' by graduating early later, certainly would not have been possible without the renewed health)
posted by saraindc at 8:50 AM on February 29, 2012

I am trying to keep up with the bare minimum of the semester so as not to lose my fellowship for the fall

Do you know for a fact that if you take a medical leave of absence this semester you will lose your fellowship for the fall? Have you spoken to your institution's Office of Disability Services or equivalent? Because I would be shocked if they didn't have some kind of mechanism in place by which students can take medical leaves without it affecting their eligibility for fellowships and other selective programs.

I don't mean to derail your question, but I also want you to have all the information so that you can make the best-informed decisions.

Okay, taking off my "former university administrator" hat and putting on my "person with chronic pain" hat--it's perfectly reasonable to be angry and upset and unhappy about chronic pain. For me, one of the things that really sets me into a shame spiral is feeling that I "shouldn't" be so unhappy about my chronic pain. Fuck that shit! Of course people with chronic pain are going to be unhappy about it sometimes, because pain fucking hurts.

Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach has some really helpful stuff in it. There's also a workbook. I think of this as the chronic-pain equivalent of Feeling Good, only even more hardcore. Alas, the book and the workbook aren't cheap, but they are great resources.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:07 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry about your situation. It sounds like you have thought about the right things, like therapy.

One thing that sometimes helps when I feel depressed is to listen to classical music, especially Beethoven. When I listen to something really beautiful and immense, it helps me to put things in perspective, at least for a little while. I don't mean necessarily "happy" songs but things that make me aware of how there's a whole world out there and this is just one moment in that world and it too shall pass. Of course if you hate that kind of music you'll want to think about what kind might have the same effect for you.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:11 AM on February 29, 2012

Response by poster: I should say something about the specifics of my situation. I am in a two-year graduate program, and next year, my tuition is paid by a teaching fellowship. I have to complete one course this semester, in which I prepare my syllabus for next fall, to be able to certified to teach in the fall. If I can't do it this semester, then I have to delay it all for another full year, or, I suppose, give up the teaching fellowship entirely. So that's another wrinkle.
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:13 AM on February 29, 2012

Poor guy has zero experience with depression, and his "Chin up! You'll feel better soon!" is well-intentioned but just has no inkling of what it feels like to just not want to get up in the morning. It makes me feel like a crappy girlfriend and I worry that eventually he will start to resent me. And then the cycle continues.

Tell him what kind of support you need from him. If you don't want to hear "chin up!", just tell him what kind of support you want. Communication is key in this sort of thing, which is tough, but even a little bit will go a long way.
posted by Slinga at 9:18 AM on February 29, 2012

I have been, and am, there with you. Having herniated discs is one of the most painful and horrible things I've ever experienced. And sometimes, resting only makes my neck worse - if I'm not in exactly the right position, it fucks with my neck and turns into neck pain + muscle pain, which is WAY worse.

The best two things for me have been:
1. The book, Treat Your Own Back/Neck (I have the neck one)
2. Appropriate pain management (i.e. more than ibuprofen)

That book has been a life-saver. It seriously got my neck from abject misery and constant pain that interrupted my sleep and daily functioning, to pretty okay really fast. Now, it didn't FIX it, but it taught me ways to manage and readjust.

Also, I'm on pretty significant pain management drugs. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be able to function at my job. They do slightly impair my ability to think at times, but then, so did the pain. And I'd rather be a little foggy but not in pain than a little foggy because of the pain.

If your doctor won't prescribe something long-lasting (like morphine, oxycontin, or even short-acting like vicodin), go to a pain management clinic and get on their caseload. There is a stigma to pain management, and there will probably be people on here who think it's not necessary; however, as someone who quite literally has felt your pain, it probably saved my life. I couldn't have lived in that pain, and now, my life is pretty damn good, despite occasional break-out pain.

It absolutely helped me with the depression and desperation I felt when I was in your position many years ago. Please feel free to memail me if you want someone to talk to who understands. I get it, I've been there, and I'm happy to commiserate or just listen or whatever. It's a shitty club to be in, but I've been in it for six and a half years, and if I can help in any way, I'd like to.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:24 AM on February 29, 2012

bookgirl18, have you talked with your Office of Disability Services and found out that there is no way you can receive a medical accommodation for that? Can it be arranged for you to do the course as an independent study, for instance? Or online? In my days as a university teacher and administrator we would have tried to find different options for someone in your position.

If you've already tried that approach and nobody has come up with anything more helpful than "do your best with this course this semester," I am sorry.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:25 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it would be helpful for you to start physical therapy sooner rather than later. I started PT this past year for pregnancy-related pain issues and it helped me a lot. One of the benefits of PT, besides the actual pain relief, was feeling like I was actively doing something to help myself. From your description it sounds like you feel helpless because you're waiting on other people/systems to make it go away, and that's just a sucky feeling. I also learned to modify my movement to protect myself. Also, my physical therapist was wonderful for moral support - she had far more insight than anyone else into what I was going through, since she spends her workdays helping people with nearly the same problems, and thus I was able to believe in her optimism.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Chronic pain sucks!
posted by stowaway at 9:38 AM on February 29, 2012

I remember your old question!

Anyways, I really can sympathize with you. I can't do anti inflammatory drugs either as my stomach bleeds.

Try the heatpad, try acupuncture, try eating healthy, and taking walks. Again, I can't tell you how much cannabis has made my life significantly better when it comes to dealing with pain during off work hours. Forget the stigma, and if you can obtain some safely to try. I am a grad student, working full time, while getting involved with multiple outside projects. The only way this is possible and trust me, I have many bad days as you describe (not being able to get out of bed, excruciating pain), is to take care of yourself.

Mefi mail me if you want to commiserate more, that alone is helpful to know you are not alone in dealing with this blinding, stupid pain.
posted by handbanana at 9:54 AM on February 29, 2012

This all sounds very distressing, and I'm sorry you're having such a difficult time.

I'm usually the last one to suggest it (you may want to check out my previous comment on amino acids and depression, since they are also useful for some kinds of chronic pain), but I think you should talk to your doctor about a low dose of antidepressants. It sounds like you might need a band-aid to get you through this rough patch, and that's what they're there for.
posted by Specklet at 10:42 AM on February 29, 2012

Oh, make sure you take or have appropriate levels of vitamin D. It seems to make a bit of a difference. My doctor also recommended B6 and B12
posted by handbanana at 11:29 AM on February 29, 2012

One final comment (I promise my last), read The Pain Chronicles. It is a great book on pain history, science, and a personal account. It really helped put chronic long lasting pain into perspective.
While most bulged discs heal (not always), some will plague you forever as is my case with spinal arthritis.
I've found a day at a gym with a pool, hot tub and sauna to be a great way to relax muscles and offer pain relief, but remember to take it easy. I would alternate between the pool, hot tub, sauna, pool, sauna. You can find a good combo that works for you.
posted by handbanana at 11:43 AM on February 29, 2012

Pain like that has a way of wearing down your morale. It is completely understandable to be feeling down because of this. Back pain flare-ups turn me into an emotional mess. I second the recommendation for the Treat Your Own Back book. Physical therapy has helped me more than anything else. Plus it can make you feel empowered because you can do something that helps with your pain more than any painkillers do.

Keep moving gently and don't bend over at all. Bend from your knees. Get one of those grabber tools if you need help putting on your socks and picking things up off the floor. Heating pads also help in my experience. I'm sorry you're suffering. Hang in there.
posted by purple_bird at 3:06 PM on February 29, 2012

one idea: could you talk to your department and see if you could get a grading job, instead of a teaching one? there would be less walking around, it would be more flexible in terms of when you would work.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:19 PM on February 29, 2012

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