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Emily Painter - Quartet Patient Ambassador
October 31, 2017 - 11:00am

Therapy changed my outlook and my life when chronic pain led to depression

On June 6, 2010, my life forever changed when I fell down a flight of concrete stairs, crushing my lumbar spine and immediately causing permanent damage.

Before my accident, I was in the best physical shape of my life. I went from working out five to six days a week to not being able to tie my own shoelaces. I was absolutely devastated.

I filed a worker's compensation claim for the accident. However, as too often happens with such claims, the excruciating symptoms of ever-increasing pain I was experiencing were downplayed and dismissed. Over time, my condition deteriorated and my quality of life diminished drastically.

Four years in, I decided I had enough of the dragged-out workers' compensation process and settled my claim. I then underwent a spinal fusion — a massive surgery I believed would allow me to regain a normal life free of pain.

But my life did not go back to “normal” post-surgery. Instead, it was the start of a lifelong journey to manage chronic pain and the mental health challenges that come along with it.  

I returned to work in a tender state four months post-operation — within a month, I developed horrible new symptoms. My surgeon ordered extensive imaging and found that the rest of my lumbar spine had deteriorated more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.  

Needless to say, I was not pain-free. I could no longer work, so I lost the career I had strived hard to build. I  lost any semblance of my life as I knew it, and I fell into a deep and paralyzing depression.

My friends and family members saw what I couldn’t at the time — that I had depression and needed help. I begrudgingly set up an appointment with a mental health provider. I couldn’t have known then that this decision would change the trajectory of my life.

I was saddled with thoughts that I would not have the life I had previously imagined and worked to build. I now had to accept that I would live with chronic pain for the rest of my life and learn to move forward with the life I had now.

The process of acceptance felt like going through a terrible heartbreak. My therapist helped me be OK with feeling that emotional pain and to mourn the loss of the life I had envisioned. Our work together equipped me with coping mechanisms.

Without that guidance, I would still be just as shattered as I was post-surgery.

I learned the importance of "self-care" and slowly began to practice specific techniques to focus on my present and future life, not the past.

I discovered that my identity was not tied to my work — that I was so much more than one aspect of my life. I learned that I am not a failure and that the voice telling me I was worthless for not being physically able to work was depression telling one of its favorite lies.

I learned to channel feelings of depression in other ways. One of the greatest blessings of my life came out of this: I started my blog, Emily Speaks, as a way to help others with chronic pain understand they’re not alone. I’ve found my closest friends through my blog and the community that has come out of it.  

The process of learning these coping mechanisms and accepting the pain was an important step in managing the impact of the chronic pain on my life.

While it can’t make the pain go away, it has helped me to change the way I think about the pain. This allowed me to mitigate its disruption to my day-to-day life.

Those therapy sessions–once a week for nearly a year–were hard work. Sitting with your thoughts about your situation and letting ALL of your feelings and emotions pass through you is not fun.

As someone who has gone through that process, I can assure you that your precious mental health is worth every single moment of that fight.

To hear more from Emily on her journey managing chronic pain and depression, visit her blog: EmilySpeaks30.com