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Managing Chronic Pain: 5 Lessons from Being Hit by a Truck

Woman in Pain

“Pain can change you, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change. Take that pain and turn it into wisdom.” ~Unknown

You know how people say, “It was like being hit by a truck”?

I know what they mean.

But the impact took over ten years.

It was a cold, snowy January, and I was in my car, singing along to the radio.

I was doing a steady, careful sixty miles per hour, in the middle lane of a busy British highway. I was on my way to deliver my first solo course for the company I’d joined a few months before. It was a good day.

Suddenly, my world shook. I saw a flash of yellow in the passenger side window, and two big bangs jerked me to a stop.

I went from cheerily singing to a terrified shaking in the front seat, car stopped dead at a lopsided angle in the fast lane.

My body, infused with adrenaline, struggled for air, and I felt paralyzed, knowing I needed to do something, move the car, get out, anything, but it was as if my brain was frozen. What the hell had just happened?

I’d been hit by a truck.

A foreign lorry (the driver on the opposite side of the cab to UK cars) had pulled into the middle lane without seeing it was already occupied. By me.

The side of his yellow truck hit the side of my car at sixty miles per hour, pushing it out of the way like a child knocking over toy soldiers.

I was shunted at speed into the fast lane, where I hit the back of another car. Instead of spinning out into the middle of the highway, I came to a stop after this second hit.

And then I wept as the adrenaline hit me and I realized what had just happened. And what could have happened. And was just grateful it was over.

I wonder what my reaction would have been if I could have seen the longer-term impact of that accident—the impact that would stretch ten years and more ahead of me.

Immediate Impact

At the time, I suffered mild whiplash, my car needed extensive work, and unsurprisingly, I didn’t deliver the course.

But after that, apart from some slight twinges in my shoulder and neck, I felt okay. Maybe a little quieter and more anxious than usual for a while, but okay.

There was some pain, but I saw an osteopath for a few sessions, and my body seemed to settle.

But after another couple of months, the pain returned. I saw the osteopath again, and after a few sessions it subsided.

Rinse and repeat.

This pattern happened again and again, and I started to expand my treatment options. Physio, acupuncture, Bowen, deep tissue massage—you name it, I probably tried it.

And although the treatment often did help, the intervals without pain became smaller and smaller until eventually, the pain was constant. I was diagnosed with chronic pain, something you need to manage, rather than acute pain, something you can cure.

Sometimes You Have to Learn Lessons the Hard Way

Fast forward another five years, and I’m no longer in London, working in a stressful job with long hours and high demands.

I spend most of my time in Thailand. Yoga is a big part of my life, as is writing, blogging, and sharing both my expertise as a psychologist and my experiences as someone who’s lived through great personal change and development myself.

So what lessons did I learn from all this that helped me to change my life so dramatically?

1. Think of your body as an integrated system and not unconnected parts.

When I started to see consultants, I would see “the shoulder consultant” or “the back consultant.” But our bodies don’t work like that. I had more than one issue, but struggled to get the back consultant to think about my neck, or the shoulder consultant to take into consideration my arm.

Since the accident, I’ve learned a huge amount about my own body. I understand more about the “flavor” of different kinds of sensation and pain. But most importantly, I know that my body is a complex system of many different parts working together, not a set of connected-but-separate pieces.

Doctors aren’t trained to think that way. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. Keep track of your symptoms, read up, and be open to seeing different practitioners who might be able to help you view your body as a whole.

2. Your body is both strong and fragile.

I used to have an arrogance around my body, my spirit, my independence. I used to say that I never wanted to be dependent on anything—food, coffee, pills, a person.

Now, I take a number of different medications every day. I’m no longer independent.

I wasn’t particularly fit, but I thought my strength of will was enough. I was wrong.

I learned that our bodies and minds have both infinite strength, but also fragility and vulnerability. And I’m slowly learning to embrace the vulnerability as well as the strength.

Where are you strong? Where are you vulnerable? Work on identifying and more importantly, accepting, both.

3. Be open to what can help you.

I was also very skeptical of any kind of alternative therapy. But when you’re in constant pain, you’ll try anything. I’ve seen many different practitioners now, and have tried to be as open as possible to each.

Unless I really feel uncomfortable or negative about them, I will give a practitioner three goes. And I’ll monitor the impact of their treatment.

Given that you can also end up spending quite a lot of time and money, if the impact isn’t enough—the cost-benefit isn’t high—then I won’t continue. Some treatments have surprised me in how much they helped; others have disappointed me.

I’m well aware of the placebo effect, but I’m okay with it. But I’m also cautious when the practitioner says something like “the effects are subtle.” Too subtle, and maybe I should be spending my time and money elsewhere.

What have you closed your mind to without further exploration? What could you experiment with if only you could put pride aside?

4. Manage your own “stuff” with boundaries and kindness.

Chronic pain is a challenging condition in many ways, as it’s invisible; it’s not like a broken arm, where your cast clearly shows others something’s wrong so they don’t bump into you.

To other people, I look no more or less healthy than them. When I have a bad pain day, it’s hard for others to know, and they are much more likely to “bump into me.”

We all have “stuff” like this—and it doesn’t have to be a health condition. Invisible stuff—a stressful day, a bad day, grief, loss, pain, rejection—the list goes on.

My relationship with my body has also changed over time. Before the accident, my connection with my body was functional; it did what I needed it to. After the accident, I was angry, and disconnected my mind and body. I even talked about it as another entity: “My body and I have a difficult relationship.”

It took me a long time—and work with mindfulness, yoga, and meditation—to learn to accept my body and just “be” with it.

And rebuilding the shattered relationship between body and mind has also meant learning how to be in my mind (remembering that the two aren’t distinct). Understanding what I need when I have a bad day. Being kind to myself. And also creating self-care boundaries; I don’t have endless energy, and so need to curate it carefully.

Do you know when you’re having a bad day? What do you do to protect yourself? Where are your boundaries? How are you kind to yourself?

5. Good things can come from bad.

I don’t believe that I had to be hit by a truck to change my life—that “everything happens for a reason.”

I try and flip it round—what good can I find in this tough situation? How can I, as the quote says, turn this pain into wisdom? It’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. I’m a work-in-progress, just like everyone else. I get knocked down; I get up again.

Chronic pain was a critical factor in my decision to completely change my life, going from a workaholic management consultant in London to running my own business online, basing myself mainly in Thailand.

It’s helped me to learn (and re-learn!) the lesson of acceptance of “what is,” rather than constantly wishing the world was somehow different.

Because once you accept the now, you can build on that foundation and apply all the other lessons to the next stage of your life, or even just the next day.

Because every moment is a new moment. An opportunity for change. Another start.

Woman in pain image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Ellen Bard

About Ellen Bard

Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you shine more brightly at work and in life. She has a fancy degree, works with those who are too tough on themselves, and loves all things that sparkle. For the free cheat sheet: 5 Unusual Ways to Take Care of Yourself, click over to EllenBard.com.

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  • Rob Newman

    Ellen, Thanks for this. A friend of mine suffers from continuous pain. “Invisible” is a very good word to describe it.Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Ellen! How much better our world would be if more people realized that everything is intertwined and interconnected!

  • Thanks for commenting Rob. I hope your friend resonates with the post, although of course we’re all different in the way we respond to these things. Ellen x

  • Thanks Jessica! Yes, it took me a while (and a lot of different consultants) before they dumped – sorry, referred me – to the chronic pain clinic, but they actually have a much more joined up view which was useful. It’s been an education in biology and my own body as much as anything…! Ellen x

  • John Anderson

    I felt like I was in the car with you…very scary. I went off a mountain road about two years ago and ended up upside down. I ended up with a herniated disc in my neck, but was lucky that physical therapy brought it back into position. Thanks for posting this!

  • The doctor who finally put everything together for me was a naturopath! Thank goodness for practitioners who take a more holistic view.

  • Peace Within

    Glad you are doing so much better!

  • Thanks John, and that sounds like a harrowing experience. Despite my challenges, I’m super grateful that I have access to healthcare that can help me manage my health successfully. Ellen x

  • Michelle

    Hi, Ellen, thanks for sharing your story. As someone else who lives with (a completely different type of) “invisible” condition, there are some good reminder here for me. Especially what you mention at the very end, about learning to accept what is, rather than wishing things were different. That one is VERY hard for me, but I continue to work on it.
    I also really like your take on the whole “everything happens for a reason” platitude. Whether or not that’s true, it’s most definitely NOT what people want to hear right in the middle of something difficult. But turning it around and asking what good you can extract from it? That’s a more empowering way to look at it.
    Great post!

  • Thanks Peace, I’m doing well. New opportunities open up as others changed. Just took me a while to see it 🙂 Ellen x

  • Thanks Michelle, glad it resonated with you – wishing things were different is a waste of energy, but it can be really hard to stop yourself sometimes. But we need to try otherwise we remain in place. But yes, I’ve been told ‘everything happens for a reason’ a few times, and it drives me a little crazy-pants… but that’s not to say I can’t find good in the situation later. Appreciate your comments! Ellen x

  • Great story, Ellen. That headline drew me right in. 😉

  • Nina

    Thanks for a good article. I also live with chronic pain due to reumathism in my muscles and soft tissue. I do agree with your advice on how to deal with chronic pain. I’ve been so lucky to have found an M.D who really understands how it is to live with chronic pain and he has much experirence with patients like myself. I am so grateful for such a good doctor 🙂 The worst and most frustrating part for me are when the pain stops me from being with other people and enjoying myself, and the fact that I do get tired sooner than I used to and to set my own bounderies before the pain gets to bad. But I’m getting better with that day by day, although I do get tired and angry with the pain, sometimes.

  • Sorry to hear about your troubles. Your post is well written though. I like your lesson at the end too.

  • Steve Sanduski

    I like this: “What have you closed your mind to without further exploration? What could you experiment with if only you could put pride aside?” So often people get stuck in their same old routines or belief systems without examining other options. Your story is a great example of the benefits to be gained from letting go of preconceived notions and exploring new possibilities. And by the way, what attracted you to Thailand?

  • Thanks Steve. I know my own pride gets in the way a lot – being aware of it is a good first step. Thailand began as a few months of travel…and turned into a completely new life 🙂 Ellen x

  • Thanks Bryan, appreciate you commenting. Ellen x

  • Hi Nina, thanks for sharing a bit of your own story, and it’s true, the right Doctor can make a huge difference (i.e. not a Doctor saying to you each time ‘you’re on a lot of pain medication, aren’t you?’ (!))

    You’re right, boundaries are super important with chronic pain, but hard to set. Be kind to yourself on your continued journey, Ellen x

  • Thanks Leanne, much appreciated 🙂 Ellen x

  • Nina

    Yes, having a skilled Doctor makes all the diffence and it is so important that he or she can understand how it is to live with chronic pain and how to deal with it the best possible way.
    Thank you for your kind words and wishing you a safe contiued journey.
    Nina 🙂

  • Thank you Nina x

  • Most definitely Jessica. And when you find a good one, hang on to them! x

  • ELD

    Thank you for sharing this, Ellen. It often helps to hear about others’ experiences to make some sense of our own. And nicely written.

  • Thanks very much El D. It’s not an easy task, but I hope it helps others to consider their own difficult times in a similar light. Ellen x

  • Thank you Nina x

  • Hi Ellen “heroine of her own adventure story” love the bio! It’s not about what life throws at us but how we deal with it isn’t it? I struggle on a daily basis with RSI repetitive strain injury. In fact I am in a noisy cafe trying to dictate a message to you. I could give in and try and type, but then be in pain for hours… But on a good day, MOST DAYS, I’m able to wizz through dictating long emails, record notes ‘on the go’, etc, giving me a slight competitive advantage. Neat eh? Keep up the great blog.

  • Sue Anne Dunlevie

    I found your post through Serious Bloggers Only. You can really understand a pain condition since you have been through it yourself.

    I loved that you talked about the invisibility of chronic pain. No one can see I have fibromyalgia and sometimes even my friends don’t understand when I’m having a bad day. That was the hardest thing to come to grips with.

    Now I am open and tell friends up front when it’s not a good day to do our planned activity and they are more open to understanding.

    Thanks for the great post. I felt understood and that hasn’t happened in awhile online.
    Sue

  • Hi, Ellen! I’m new to posting in online discussion boards, but I wanted to thank you for your article. When we’re in chronic pain, it is very easy to fully identify with the pain and feel brought down by deconstructive inner voices that are trying to be “helpful.” I was encouraged by your offering of questions (“How can I turn pain into wisdom?” and “What good can I find in this situation?”) that help create some separation between our pain and our true selves and try to find some redemption in the pain, without necessarily buying into the notion that “there’s a reason” for it.