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How I Bounced Back: From Chronic Pain and a Complete Breakdown in Mental Health

Welcome to How I Bounced Back — a monthly column in which I chat to people who have overcome incredible hardship and built their lives back up. After the past two years, we need a reminder that obstacles can be overcome and there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when we feel the opposite is true. Through these stories, so generously shared, I hope you will be inspired to keep going, no matter how tough times may seem.

“I’d be completely out of action, suicidally depressed.”

Journalist Stephanie Anderson got sick in 2010. What started as a virus turned into a bout of appendicitis which then evolved into 11 years of chronic pain, endless doctors appointments, a dependency on prescription medication, major depression and two stays in an inpatient treatment facility.

“I have fibromyalgia, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, borderline personality disorder, endometriosis, joint hypermobility, and some undiagnosed heart thing that’s a real pain in the ass, and they all feed into one another,” she says.

Anderson, who is one of the funniest people I know, just FYI, reflected on her ordeal over a phone call at the end of 2021.

“It just progressively got worse and worse over 10 years,” she explained. “In the last five years, I would say you could really see a pretty steep decline in my health.”

Compounding the ongoing issue of her poor health, and the mental toll that came with it, was the fact that Anderson was also working in a high-pressure job, which was unfortunately situated in a sometimes toxic environment. Although she was becoming increasingly aware that her situation wasn’t sustainable, quitting did not feel like an option.

“I thought that if I quit my job, that would be a sign of failure,” she said.

Eventually, driven by the realisation that she was essentially working in a less than ideal environment simply to pay for all of her doctor’s appointments, Anderson made a life-altering choice. “I literally made the decision to quit my job and move back to Adelaide in a 12-hour span,” she explained.

“In hindsight, I think quitting your job, and deciding to move states in a 12-hour period is probably the sign that you’re on the brink of what is called a complete physical and mental breakdown, but I don’t regret it. And at the time, I was like, ‘this is the smartest thing. This is the smartest move I’ve ever made in my life. I couldn’t be happier.'”

That happiness, unfortunately, was short-lived, as her chronic pain continued to worsen. “If your mental health is bad, your physical health is going to be worse, if your physical health is worse then your mental health is going to be worse. And so it just kind of feeds into one another and creates a kind of perfect storm. It’s not just about getting the pain under control, it’s about getting your mental health to a point where you can physically build your strength back up.”

Elaborating further, she explains, “Pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder is completely debilitating. From the day I ovulated until a few days into my period, I’d be completely out of action, suicidally depressed and completely unable to implement any of the other things I was supposed to be doing to work on my physical and mental health.”

“No one goes into taking painkillers being like ‘I can’t wait to get hooked on these!'”

In order to manage the constant agony she was in, Anderson took pain medication so that she could function. “I didn’t think that I was getting addicted to painkillers,” she recalls. “But as it turns out, that’s what was happening, I thought that my pain was getting worse and worse, so I was taking painkillers to deal with the fact that my pain was getting worse, but what was actually happening with my body was becoming more and more dependent on these medications.

“I’m not someone who was taking, you know, 16 painkillers a day or anything like that. When you have chronic pain your body adjusts and then becomes dependent. I thought because I was taking Codeine, or Valium or Temazepam [a sleeping pill], because I was alternating between them I thought I was beating the system. I thought ‘I’m not getting addicted to any of these because I’m rotating them.’

“It sounds really unhinged to say in hindsight, but I guess that’s how everyone gets addicted,” she concludes. “No one goes into taking painkillers being like ‘I can’t wait to get hooked on these!'”

While Anderson was aware that her painkiller intake was potentially becoming a problem, she was also at a loss as to what her other options were. As she reminded me during the course of our conversation, there is still so much that remains unknown or misunderstood about chronic pain. Nevertheless, not wanting to exacerbate her health concerns any further, Anderson decided to check herself into a psychiatric treatment facility, twice, in order to safely switch medications.

“I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to work again’.”

“I don’t think you realise a lot of the time that you’re going through a mental breakdown until after the fact,” she explains. “I didn’t really realise that that was what had happened until probably even this year, which is wild to say because, you know, you’d think spending 10 weeks in a psych ward would tip you off that something wasn’t right.” (Told you she was funny.)

She continues, “Because when you’re in it, you’re just kind of trying to get through the day. And when you’re heavily medicated, you don’t have the capability to see what’s going on.”

After her first stay in a treatment facility, which lasted six weeks, Anderson found herself exhausted by even short bursts of physical activity. “No one had told me that if I didn’t stay active all my muscles are going to be de-conditioned,” she said. Faced with only being able to walk for about six minutes a day, Anderson was confronted with a devastating thought.

“There was a point last year [2020] where I was felt like I was never going to get out of it, never make the progress and build back up to where I was,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to work again, I’m never going to be able to go to a concert and stand in general admission — all of these things that you just take for granted when you can do them.”

Now, after several frustrating setbacks, Anderson is back up to a point where she can walk 50 minutes at a time and has the goal of being able to walk 10,000 steps a day.

“I used to think of exercise as such a chore, something you do because you have to because you want to lose weight or whatever,” she says. “Now it’s something that I really cherish because it’s my freedom, it’s the thing that will make my world bigger, that will let me engage with the things I enjoy again.”

“Not all days are going to be great, but you just have to keep going.”

During our conversation, I asked Anderson if, prior to experiencing her breakdown, she had ever experienced any struggles with her mental health.

“It’s interesting because I hadn’t been diagnosed with anything,” she mused. “I mean, in hindsight, there was all this stuff kind of lurking under the surface but it was 2010, so those conversations around mental health weren’t as prevalent as they are now and people didn’t really talk as openly about anything.

“Maybe I knew about it, but I didn’t acknowledge it. And I was like, ‘this is fine’. I figured it was the kind of thing that I could just deal with that at some point down the track.”

During the darkest days of her journey, Anderson admits that sometimes, hard as she tried, she simply could not find things to feel grateful for — a valuable lesson in itself.

“Your world gets really small,” she explains. “I spent a lot of the time just not really caring about things — it’s really hard to kind of work up excitement for things when you’re just trying to get through the day. So, sometimes, there would just not be anything good in a day. And sometimes that’s okay, you know, not all days are going to be great, but you just have to keep going.”

When asked about her sense of humour, which I confess to her is one of the reasons I adore her, Anderson laughs and rationalises that it most likely started as a defense mechanism.

“I think you have to find things to laugh at,” she says. “Because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. And I never want to be the kind of person who is just constantly stewing in being a victim and being someone who is defined by being sick. I think, for a lot of last year [2020], it did become this huge chunk of my identity, it really kind of overtook everything. And I was just ‘a sick person’. Whereas now, I kind of want to shed that and remember that I’m a lot more than just a person who’s unwell.”

At the moment, happily, things are in an improved state to what they have been for the past decade and optimism has made a welcome return to Anderson’s life.

“I’m still a way away from being recovered but I’m feeling better than I have in years, and that’s something to celebrate, for sure,” she says. “I mean, my pain is not gone. But I have hope that it could be in the future, which is exciting. I’ve been able to pick up more work and I’ve been just trying to do things that make me feel a bit more normal.”

“People don’t tell you that recovering from a mental breakdown is honestly so boring and frustrating.”

Anderson’s path has been a long and tedious one, (“people don’t tell you that recovering from a mental breakdown is honestly so boring and frustrating” she says) but she credits several things to her improved mental and physical state.

“It was all about finding the right medical team so that we could come up with a multidisciplinary plan that would tackle everything simultaneously, which sounds pretty daunting, but it’s kind of the only way when you have so much going on,” she explains, noting that her team consists of a GP, a pain specialist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a gynaecologist and a physio who specialises in chronic pain.

“For me, it took getting my meds right, stopping my periods so that I could actually make progress and commit to therapy and physio without all the hormonal input throwing me off, and then time. Lots and lots of time.”

She continues “I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to stay at my Mum’s house, that I’ve had a roof over my head and support while I do all of this. Without that, I genuinely don’t know how I would’ve managed to navigate all of this. It’s such a privilege and I can’t pretend that it’s not”

“It’s very hard to comprehend that you can get sick one day, and just never get better.”

Before our conversation wraps up, Anderson reveals what we, as a society, can start to do better in order to better understand and accommodate those suffering from chronic pain and its knock-on effects.

“One of the things that I’ve experienced, and some of my friends who also have chronic pain and invisible illnesses have also experienced, is a lot of pushback when it comes to working from home and having their bosses believe them because they don’t look sick,” Anderson says.

“I know I have experienced a lot of pushback when I’ve needed to work from home in the past, but then, as soon as COVID hits, suddenly everyone can work from home, suddenly, it’s not a problem at all.”

She continues, “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I know a lot of people who have invisible illnesses and have dealt with chronic pain and dealt with that level of suspicion and questioning. So I think that there needs to be more compassion and leeway, and understanding that these are real illnesses that can be really, really debilitating.

“We’re not trying to stay home because we just can’t be bothered going into the office, it’s not something that people make up for fun. So yeah, I think you need to believe someone when they tell you that they’re sick.”

Perhaps Anderson’s most sobering lesson in all of this, that she would love for everyone to take away, is that health can be fickle and once gone, can be arduous to get back, if at all.

“Until you experience it, it’s very hard to comprehend that you can get sick one day, and just never get better,” she says. “I think that was really evident at the beginning of COVID, as well, so many people were like, ‘well, I’ll just get sick, and then you know, everyone’s just gonna get it, and then we’ll all get over it, and it’ll be done’.”

“I don’t think people understand that some people don’t get better. Sometimes you can be a completely healthy person and just not bounce back the way that you think that you’re going to.

“Sometimes you get sick, and it changes your entire life.”

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

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