Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Pain

By Olivia Morrissey

One, two, sometimes three times a month, if I’m lucky, I go through an entire day without my ankle hampering my activities. Almost every other day of the month, though, I am crippled physically and mentally by my left ankle. Over the past three years, I have fielded so many questions about it that I can reply now almost without thinking.

“It’s a long story…” I begin, starting with the way I misjudged a landing on a trampoline, then summing up the surgeries and injections and medicines that I've endured in a sentence or two. I always accompany the explanation with a smile. I can dole out these sound bytes with ease, but sometimes people will still press me: they want to know what exactly is wrong with it: a sprain, a break, a tearing of ligaments?

Here, I, and medical experts in numerous fields in numerous countries, are stumped as to how to respond.

Originally the diagnosis was simple enough: a slight sprain. Then it became sinus tarsi syndrome, which the experts thought would be fixed with a cortisone injection; instead, the injection thinned the skin and turned my foot a nasty bruised colour which is only just now starting to disappear. Then I had an operation. My ankle got better, then worse, then much worse.

A doctor in Boston predicted that I would never be able to walk even close to normally again. A doctor in Amsterdam was slightly more optimistic, and I had an operation to snap the adhesions in my foot. That worked, for a while, but the pain returned. More doctors. More medicine. I had to choose whether I wanted my mind to be clouded by pain or by the stupor brought on by the pain-control drugs that I was prescribed. The doctors attempted to reboot my nervous system with an operation on my back. Nothing was working.

And, I admit, I began to despair that I would never be cured.

No one could name what was wrong with me, and therefore no one seemed able to fix it. I was tired of being experimented on, fed up with being shuttled from one specialist to the next. My ankle was deemed "hypersensitive," as if my intense pain was an exaggeration on my behalf. Eventually, most doctors began to give up and decided I probably had chronic pain syndrome, a condition that affects as many as one in ten Americans. It costs the U.S. economy more than $90 billion each year in medical fees, disability payments and lost productivity, and yet there are very few treatments for it. Chronic pain syndrome is not only difficult physically, but emotionally – many with chronic pain suffer from depression as well.

It’s not hard to understand why. My ankle pain meant I couldn’t go out to parties, couldn’t go shopping, couldn’t even walk my dog. My parents funded taxis to help me get places, and my friends would come over when I couldn’t go out, but it was a difficult adjustment from the life I had lived before. I had always been athletic – now I couldn’t even walk to the end of the street without being in pain.

Then, just over a year ago, I found a doctor who did not give up on me, and I had my final operation to remove further scar tissue and shave off a bone. I was told that if this did not work, there would be no more operations; my foot simply wouldn’t be able to take it.

Now, a year of physical therapy and chiropractic and osteopathic treatments later, I can function almost normally. I no longer have to judge whether I can afford to walk downstairs to get some water, or whether I can go back to the dorm for books in between classes without having to rest my ankle for hours afterward.

I do not think that my ankle injury ruined my high school experience – rather, it shaped it in such a way that I believe has made me a different and better person. I no longer resent my ankle injury as much as appreciate the skills it taught me: durability, courage, and the knowledge of how far I can go before breaking (which is much further than I would’ve thought possible). It made me turn away from sports and instead turn to writing, which is now central to my existence, and it meant that I surrounded myself not with people who went out clubbing every night, but rather those who were perfectly happy to lounge around discussing anything at all.

I now revel in every step that I take, every mile that I manage to go. I walk slower, yes, but, at the risk of sounding clichéd, my leisurely pace makes me stop and actually enjoy the things around me. I enjoy the world. I wonder at my movements. I count my blessings.

Writer Olivia Morrissey, a freshman attending Georgetown University, grew up in London. This essay acknowledges Joan Didion's famous piece, "In Bed," after which it was modeled.

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