“I wanted to die…I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up,” the Viet Nam vet said, as his voice cracked and eyes filled with tears.
It still shocks me when I hear those words come from someone with chronic pain…though I have heard it enough over the years that I should be far from surprised. You see, I’m the “last stop” for many on their pain journey…I’m the doorstep on which people find themselves when they have exhausted their options, and believe that there may just be no hope any longer. It hasn’t always been the case, however. Allow me to back up to a time when I found myself in similar shoes as my clients…in excruciating, relentless pain that didn’t seem to care that I had things to do.
It was Monday, February 23rd, 1999. I was about to be married. The entire weekend was spent on wedding planning things…all the last minute ends that needed tying together, with friends & family pitching in. Despite the fun of the social nature of things (which I typically thrive upon), I was miserably suffering with a headache. Nothing touched it all weekend…not over-the-counter meds, not prescription meds, not yoga, not sleep, nothing. I woke up Monday morning to an even worse scenario: in addition to the headache, I could not move my neck at all, and I had a fever that was 102 degrees. I knew the dangers of that combination, & high-tailed it to the ER, where spinal meningitis was confirmed.
The next 14 months were a blur…I spent them in a mental & emotional fog, in pain and seeking things, ANYTHING, to help to at least take some of the pain away. I tried Eastern medicine. I tried western medicine (over the counter and prescription medications mostly, which resulted in liver damage). Ultimately I landed at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota…where I was lucky (?!) enough to be interviewed & then accepted into Mayo’s Pain Rehabilitation Clinic. They only accept the worst pain cases in the world, as the program is roughly a month long, and maxes out at 15 people at any given moment.
So there I sat on my first day…which was to be the last day for the Viet Nam vet & another person who had “graduated” the full program. The vet told his story, matter of fact-ly for much of it, until he got to this: “I went through war! This should have been nothing compared to that…but I could no longer function well. I wanted to die…I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up…on a daily basis. When I found Mayo’s program, I told my wife about it…I interviewed & was accepted. As the program was about to begin, I told her that I would give the program a shot, but if it didn’t work, I was going to come home to kill myself.” The room was eerily silent, as we were all stunned to hear this BIG (probably 6’4 or 5), masculine guy in his 60s admitting that he had wanted to die…to just give up. Mayo was quite literally his “last stop on the pain train”. The tears were flowing as he finished sharing, expressing his gratitude for the program & supportive staff who ran it. It was an honor to witness that shift in him…as he answered the call to action to JUST BE THERE.
Speaking about that day again, as it is the 19th anniversary, has reminded me how lucky it was that veteran & I both made it through. What about others who might not be so lucky? I don’t take lightly this responsibility I have to help…to be the bridge between physical and emotional health when it comes to managing pain. There is enough of a stigma between mental health and suicide, to add pain on top of that must increase the statistics at least tenfold, I would think (note to self: do research!). How will you, or someone you love who lives with chronic pain, answer the call to action? Pick up the phone to chat with me…& hear how I can help you take your life back.