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

About Ellen Bard

Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you be your best self at work and in life. A Chartered Psychologist, she’s published two books on self-care, works with those who are too tough on themselves, and loves all things that sparkle. For the free cheat sheet: 5 Unusual Tips to Take Care of Yourself, click over to EllenBard.com.

See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!