On chronic pain and my identity as an athlete

Exercise has always been a major part of my life. As a kid, my siblings and I would roam the parks near our home, playing soccer, catching frogs, and chasing each other on bikes. Into my teens and 20s, long-distance running dominated my time, but I also played volleyball and went to weekly spin classes. I still run track and long distance several times a week today, but for the last five years my primary sport has been competitive kettlebell lifting.

Exercise has been many things for me. It’s been a way to relieve stress. It keeps me feeling happy when things aren’t so good (like they haven’t been, globally, since 2019). It helps me feel alert at my job and diminishes my pain when I have my period.

More than anything, though, competitive athletics has been for my mind. Achieving something really hard makes me feel powerful, confident, and resilient. Nothing feels better than beating a personal record or completing a set that seemed impossible.

Exercise has been many things for me. It’s been a way to relieve stress. It helps me feel alert at my job and diminishes my pain when I have my period. It keeps me feeling happy when things aren’t so good (like they haven’t been, globally, since 2019).

And this mental aspect has been really important. I’ve struggled with anxiety and loops of depression for as long as I can remember. Bedtime panic attacks were near-daily occurrences at a number of points in my life. My anxiety has caused me severe digestive issues and insomnia more often than it hasn’t.

But worst, anxiety made my brain so…loud.

Exercise as medicine: the socially acceptable addiction

Today, I manage it pretty well. Over time, I found that exercise was one of the only predictable methods of regulating my brain. It helped me find my breath when my mind was spinning out of control. It helped me access rational thought when I could feel myself shutting down.

But last year, in 2020, when the world was collapsing under the weight of a pandemic, it was taken away from me.

I became injured.

Injury was never something I feared. As an athlete, I’ve accepted that it’s is something of an inevitability. Yes, the severity, duration, and frequency can be managed with rest and nutrition. But intense training — especially one with repetitive motions, like lifting — puts me at higher risk for injury.

What I hadn’t anticipated was an injury no one could diagnose. An injury that stumped every physician and practitioner I saw. An injury that would stick with me for nearly a year, sidelining me for the majority of that time. An injury that would inhibit my ability to deal with stress the only way I knew.

In my past, injuries had been frustrating. But sleep and a more diligent massage schedule usually helped resolve themin a few short weeks. This time it was different.

And then came…the COVID pandemic

It was March 2020. Like much of the tech sector, I had just been ordered to work from home indefinitely. The world didn’t really understand what was happening yet; people were having “Corona parties” and attending virtual music events in their living rooms. It hadn’t set in yet that our lives were going to change, fundamentally, for a very long time.

I had set up a “temporary” gym at home, co-opting the second bedroom closet to store my kettlebells, chalk, exercise bands, and yoga mats. But it was only a few weeks into this new reality that these things became all but obsolete.

It seemed to happen all at once. Suddenly, there was this pain in my cervical spine. One I couldn’t kick. I would sneeze and an intense pain would shoot up my back, rendering me breathless.

I tried to ignore it. I took painkillers and stretched more. But one day, I couldn’t lift my kettlebell. It felt like my bones were grinding against each other, like the muscles in my shoulder had formed into some immobile mass overnight.

I became defined by my pain, by the things I couldn’t do. I had to factor in at least an hour of stretching every day. I had to think twice about going for runs or walks because I wasn’t sure if my body could handle it.

By June, I would no longer pick up a bell for fear that I would make things worse. By July, the pain was following me everywhere, a constant companion. Going for a walk would cause intense, stabbing pain to grip the back of my right arm. I could no longer carry groceries home because my neck would scream in pain and I’d get a splitting headache. Working at my desk for more than an hour would require regular doses of Advil.

I became defined by my pain, by the things I couldn’t do. I had to factor in at least an hour of stretching every day. I had to think twice about going for runs or walks because I wasn’t sure if my body could handle it. I had to purchase brand new office equipment — a lot of it — just to make it through the day.

An injury with no physical symptoms — and no diagnosis

By the end of the summer, I had started seeing what felt like hordes of specialists. I added acupuncture and physiotherapy to my standard massage roster. I saw a sports medicine physician who told me there was nothing structurally wrong but I was suffering from “occipital neuralgia” (inflamed nerves leading to severe headaches) and “upper crossed syndrome” (my neck, shoulders, and chest were too tight).

I was referred to a pain doctor who asked me questions about my mental health before telling me that many patients who complain of chronic pain have no visible injury or issue that can be found through imaging.

As the months went on, my desperation to solve the problem grew. More subtly, I found that my identity started to change, too. I no longer thought of myself as an athlete. I began to see myself as a person with chronic pain. And I started to rethink how my life would be, in this new reality.

My identity started to change. I no longer thought of myself as an athlete. I began to see myself as a person with chronic pain.

Desperation gives way to experimentation

I was willing to try anything at this point and went down experimental paths: topical anti-inflammatories (which made me break out in rashes), nerve block injections (which provided short-term relief), oral medication to treat nerve damage, and three rounds of ketamine infusions. And while the last on this list did help me identify some major sources of chronic stress and anxiety, I never believed that the injury was something in my mind.

Even after months on the sidelines, I still believed that my injury was something that could be treated with rest, stretching, and strengthening.

Emotional burnout with physical manifestations

Up until this point, I still believed that my physical injury was isolated to my body. I hadn’t even considered — or, perhaps more aptly, I was stubbornly refusing to consider — that my pain might have an emotional or mental root.

That changed toward the end of 2020, when I left my job — and the startup industry altogether. I had been working with or for startups for the entirety of my 20s. Perhaps slowly, I had adopted the startup mentality of “work until you drop.” I worked long days, ten hours or more, for years. I worked weekends. There was no overtime pay. No additional vacation time. No, there was an expectation that this was the status quo, the culture. To top it off, when I wasn’t working, I was often consulting through my technical communications business.

And the thing was, I couldn’t stop. I was afraid that, if I stopped, or signed off early, or took time off, people would think I just “couldn’t cut it.” That I wasn’t made from tough enough stuff.

And the thing was, I couldn’t stop. I was afraid that, if I stopped, signed off early, or took time off, people would think I just “couldn’t cut it.” That I wasn’t made from tough enough stuff.

I don’t think I realized I was burned out until I took time away. I’m not sure any of us really do. I had adjusted to this way of living: to signing off well after the sun had gone down; to savoring the short 30 minutes I had with my partner before going to bed and doing it all again the next day; to yearning desperately for my Saturday, the only day off I had all week, before spending Sunday in dread that I had to go back to work on Monday.

But taking time off changed my mindset. I realized how much I just wanted to be with the people that I loved. That work wasn’t everything.

I ended up leaving the startup space and, in early 2021, taking a job at a small B2B Enterprise SAAS company that had never taken VC funding.

Almost overnight, my day-to-day had fundamentally changed. In many ways, I was doing the same work (marketing in tech only changes so much). But in others, it was fundamentally different. I signed on every morning around 830. I signed off around 5, sometimes later, sometimes a little earlier. I had full evenings with my partner. I felt relaxed enough that I could take time out of my days to watch webinars or short courses on industry changes or learn a new skill.

Slowly, my mind began to quiet. And with it, my body did, too.

Pain exists in the mind

When you’re part of a high-growth startup, you’re never doing enough. You’re never moving fast enough. No matter how many hours you work, the work just keeps piling up.

During COVID, my friends in startups and I were working harder than ever. But our anxiety also increased; the world was so unstable. Our worlds had shifted. What if we lost our jobs? If we did, would we be OK? Would we ever find new work?

High-growth startups have this constant sense of excitement, but also this high level of stress. The pulse of the company is racing. Cortisol is through the roof. No one sleeps. Everyone is killing themselves for an IPO or acquisition that will make them wealthy (or at least wealthier).

And this mentality is so ingrained that it feels…normal. Signing off at 11pm and back on at 8 the next morning becomes standard practice. During COVID, me and my friends in startups were working harder than ever, too, trying to prevent any drops in revenue due to the crisis. But our anxiety also increased; The world was so unstable. Our worlds had shifted. What if we lost our jobs? Would we be OK? Would we ever find new work?

And so, on top of managing this COVID fear, we were also managing regular startup anxiety, as well as trying to help adapt the business, and also prove our value and commitment from behind a screen in our homes.

Leaving the startup space was hard for me, mentally. I felt like a failure. Like I couldn’t cut it.

But the reality was…I didn’t want that. I had a happy relationship. I wanted to see my friends and my family and have a puppy and enjoy my life while I was young and mobile. Because life is long but it’s also really, really short.

And so I decided I wouldn’t work for another startup. Not for now, at least. Not until I had left the industry, gained new perspective, and gotten some insight into how the world could be.

By the time I was a couple of months into my new job, the pain had started to fade from my body. It happened slowly, but quickly too: I was seeing a physio regularly, and we were working on mobility together. I was sleeping more, waking up less during the night. I was spending time with my partner. I was writing. By February 2021, I was lifting again, slowly. By March, I had re-engaged my coach and started back into kettlebell sport.

Importantly, I had stopped feeling pain when I worked at my desk. And I started referring to myself as an athlete again.

Leaving the startup space was hard for me, mentally. I felt like a failure. Like I couldn’t cut it. But the reality was…I didn’t want that life.

The body and the mind are one

I’ve thought a lot over the last few months about what the pain doctor said to me, about how chronic pain patients often don’t have imaging results that match up with their pain experience. He described to me two patients: one with an MRI that showed significant structural damage in his lower spine; the other with an MRI that showed no damage. He told me that the first patient in this example felt no pain, while the second was plagued by it.

I was that second patient. My stress and anxiety had become so consuming mentally it had begun to show in my body. I was so used to the chronic stress that I didn’t even realize I was stressed.

Removing the stress calmed was like unplugging a drain. All of this stress and pain and anxiety and panic drained from my body.

Of course, physiotherapy, mobility, and addressing my muscular imbalances were important. But more important was taking the time to address the mental part. It was going to therapy. It was sitting in a chair doing ketamine infusions and sobbing for hours. It was doing yoga with my partner and feeling my breath enter and leave my body. It was rising above the surface of my panic enough to realize I wasn’t ok, that I was abandoning my mind.

I’m lifting again now, and continuing to do mobility work. I’m still doing yoga and breath work. I feel like I have a really good work-life balance. Best of all, I feel like myself again: strong, resilient, confident. Patient. Calm. And as much as it was hard for me, I feel that the pain experience was also really, really important. It helped me relate my brain and my body in a way I previously hadn’t. It helped me feel…whole.

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Brigitte Dreger

Brigitte Dreger

49 Followers

Talking about the things people are afraid to talk about. LGBT+, Startup Culture, Diversity.