Lately, when I think about killing myself, I try to remember Brazil.
I recently went on a week-long trip to the beautiful sea-side country, and although it was technically for work, I was able to experience plenty of amazing moments — moments I try to remember when I think about ending my life.
I try to remind myself that it was such an unexpected trip that came up out of the blue, and it was so incredible and magnificent, and if I had killed myself a few months ago like I wanted to, back when the pain was particularly bad, then I would have missed out on the whole thing. I would have never made it to Brazil.
From there, I try to remember that the rest of my life is still filled with so many incredible possibilities and ending it now would be a mistake.
These days, though, I’ve had to remind myself about Brazil more often than I’d like.
I just got back from a much anticipated visit to the (in)famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
It’s supposed to be THE place to go when you have things like excruciating random rib pain that you wake up with one day for no apparent reason. It’s supposed to be the hospital that puts all other hospitals to shame. The one that can diagnose the undiagnosable and cure the incurable. The very mecca of the chronically sick.
Except for me. Aside from the pretty buildings and the fancy tour guide facts on the shuttle bus ride between the hotel and the clinic, it ended up being pretty much just like any other doctor’s visit.
Which is exactly what I was afraid of.
I mean, sure, the doctor was nice enough. A strong Italian woman, she had the kind of fierce personality I often wish I could muster. With her relatively thick accent, she went over my medical history with a strikingly straightforward approach, saying things like, “Oh yes, you are on the Amitriptyline. It’s makes you fat.”
Oddly, that comment was among her more comforting words. I mean, at least she didn’t think it was because I was just a lazy slob, like everyone else did.
But, as we started to talk about the nitty gritty, I quickly realized that she wasn’t going to dig very deep into my pain. And in fact, she was just going to do what all the other doctors before her had done.
She concluded that she thought the pain was probably intercostal neuralgia, even though I’ve already had a test to show that it’s probably not intercostal neuralgia.
Then, she said the same thing all the doctors say, “We don’t know what caused it. We’ll probably never know what caused it. And we don’t know exactly how to cure it, but if we throw a bunch of different treatments at it, maybe something will work.”
After that, she sent me off for two days of peripheral nerve tests that had almost nothing to do with my pain — one of which literally electrocuted me for three minutes straight. Another burned the top of my left foot to test my pain tolerance. All of them came back normal.
In the end, her best piece of medical advice seemed to be to take off work and attend a three-week, outpatient pain clinic — which just made me feel like she had run out of ideas and was shipping me off to the place people go when they’ll never be cured. Also, who the heck can just take three weeks off work?
On Thursday evening, after all the tests and all the appointments were done, I reflected on the experience in the hotel hot tub, and I tried desperately to wrap my head around what was happening.
I had tried to mentally prepare for this outcome, to remind myself that nothing might come from this visit. But I also had still allowed myself to hope for more. And honestly, with so many people out there on social media rooting for me and writing messages on my Facebook wall about how they were praying I would be cured at Mayo, I somehow also felt like I was letting the whole world down.
For a half a second, I honestly thought about pretending that I had actually been cured at Mayo.
I could come back and tell everyone the news they so desperately wanted to hear. I could let my boss believe my health was no longer affecting my work, and I could date guys without worrying about whether or not they were secretly turned off by my pile of orange prescription bottles.
But then I remembered how sick I really am, and I realized that my plan wouldn’t work. I mean, how many days could I last at work without having to tell my boss I needed to sign off early and lay down? I can only fake so many episodes of the flu.
Which really only leaves me one option — I somehow have to deal with the fact that I’m just going to continue to be sick, at least for now.
But that’s where the suicidal thoughts start to creep back in. Because, if I’m being honest, looking at a life filled with unendurable pain seems too overwhelming to handle. And coming to grips with the fact that even THE Mayo Clinic couldn’t help me, makes me want to just give up on doctors and prescriptions and life in general.
But I try to keep reminding myself about Brazil. And about the palm trees, and the sound of the ocean waves, and the way the people I met there have left such a strong impression on my heart.
And I keep going. At least for now.
I first woke up with horrible rib pain on February 3, 2013, the day of the Super Bowl.
By the next morning I was in the ER with a morphine IV. They completely misdiagnosed me at the hospital and then gave me medication they said would cure all that ails me. Except of course it didn’t.
And thus, I was thrust into an entirely different life than the one I had on February 2, 2013.
I had no idea how much my world had changed or how to deal with it. In fact, back then, I didn’t even know that I would be classified as someone with “chronic pain.” It took me months to figure out where to find the right support groups on Facebook.
I’ve learned a lot since then about how to cope with my situation. But I wish someone could have handed me a pamphlet back on that fateful day in the ER spelling some of it out for me, saving me the trouble of having to learn so much of it the hard way.
While that didn’t happen for me, that doesn’t mean you have to be in the dark about all the craziness that comes with this illness.
Below are five things I wish I’d known sooner about chronic pain.
1. Doctors are not gods
In fact, they aren’t even very smart sometimes. When I first got sick I went to the ER, where the doctor looked me straight in the eye and told me that a stomach ulcer was the only logical explanation for my symptoms. He was wrong. Then, I went to a family practitioner who told me I had Costochondritis. She was wrong too.
After that, I went to a doctor at a University Hospital. After I told him I had been enduring level 10 pain for weeks, he gave me prescription strength Aleve because he was too scared to give me anything stronger. Aleve for level 10 pain!
The list goes on, and on, and on. I kept searching and searching until I found a doctor I could trust. Thankfully, I have. He’s two hours away and I have to cross state lines to get to him, but it’s totally worth it. He’s experienced and he believes me when I say I’m in so much pain that I want to die. His visits are two-way conversations as opposed to a one-sided lecture.
In short, I had to fire a lot of doctors before I found a good one. Don’t be afraid to do the same.
2. You don’t have to take a shower every day
I seriously wish I had figured this one out way sooner. Showers are the type of thing that completely wipe me out and send me to lie on the couch in front of Netflix for hours to recover. Add in blow drying my hair and I’m basically done for the day.
When I first got sick I was so stressed about trying to follow our crazy American standards of cleanliness that I still tried to shower every day. Eventually, I realized that was basically killing me, so I started to do the every-other-day thing and now I’m on the twice-a-week plan.
Even after I made that life choice though, I still tried to keep up appearances on business trips because I am stupid. I’d wake up every morning, hop in the shower, blow dry my hair and do a full face of make-up. Then, I’d either end up having to spend most of the day recovering in my hotel room or popping tons of pain pills. Or both.
Thankfully, I’ve since learned that even on business trips, it’s all right to skip a few days. Like on my recent eight-day trip to Brazil. One of my survival techniques was showering only once every three days. I used lots of deodorant, perfume and dry shampoo; and then on the third day, when my hair was especially dirty, I just wore it up in a top knot.
My body had a lot more miles on it each day and nobody even seemed to notice. Or at least they didn’t say anything to my face.
To sum up, if showers make your body rage with pain, it is completely all right to skip them. Just don’t forget to buy some dry shampoo.
3. Sleeping pills save lives
When I first got sick, I was in such severe pain every single day that I couldn’t sleep through the night. The pain was like a huge claw that grabbed my ribs and woke me up in the middle of the night, or worse yet, wouldn’t let me fall asleep in the first place.
The thing about sleep though is that it’s kind of important. In fact, if you don’t get enough sleep, you go crazy — which I did. My body never got any down time, so the pain just ratcheted up every single day, and my brain never got any time to reset. I got severely depressed to the point that I was planning ways to kill myself. I was such a mess that I thought I wanted to die solely because of the pain, but it was actually the lack of sleep that was pulling me closer and closer to death.
With severe chronic pain, Tylenol PM may as well be Skittles. And so, I didn’t think there was anything out there that could help me. Until I told my pain specialist about the situation and he put me on Amitriptyline.
I mean, yeah, sure, that stuff knocks you out cold. But, on the up side, that stuff knocks you out cold.
After just two days of sleeping like a regular person, my suicidal thoughts drastically decreased and I was suddenly able to use my logic and reasoning skills again.
Since I’ve started taking the medication, I have skipped it a couple of times for various reasons, to disastrous results. On one particular occasion, I was between doctors and ran out, so I missed two nights. Just two nights. You wouldn’t think that would be such a big deal.
Well, it was. By the third day I was in so much pain that I ended up getting a shot of dilaudid from the doctor, which I had a reaction to. I then spent the entire next night throwing up repeatedly. It was the worst 72 hours of my life.
So, if you are having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about your options. Seriously.
4. Pain pills can give you the will to keep going
It took awhile for me to get on the right dose of the right pain pills. When I first got sick, I had no idea that doctors would be scared to give me the medications I needed or that there was any sort of controversy around opioids. I just assumed that, like with any other illness, I would get the care I needed.
Alas, that was not the case. Like I said before, at first they tried to give me anti-inflammatory medications, which did nothing for me. Then, when the doctors finally did put me on Narco, the dosage was so low that I thought the pills couldn’t help me. It wasn’t until I started doubling the dose that I realized relief was possible.
It makes me incredibly sad whenever I read that someone is trying to avoid opioids just for the sake of avoiding them. There is no reason to live a life enduring excruciating chronic pain every day, when modern medicine has come up with a way to put it at bay. Obviously, the pills won’t make you 100 percent, but for me they temper the pain enough to allow me to hold down my job and even go out sometimes.
And without them, I’m sure I would be dead by now. If you need pain pills, take pail pills.
5. You don’t have to accept crap
One of the things pain communities like to say over and over and over is that once you accept the situation you’ll find an inner peace. Except, I don’t buy it. I don’t think you have to accept the situation. I don’t think you have to accept the fact that your life is now just one, long string of pain or that you’ll have to endure such pain for the rest of your life. I don’t think anybody should accept that.
I have accepted the fact that I can no longer drive long distances, swim, wear bras with underwire, or sit up straight for more than 45 minutes at a time. I have accepted that my life is different for now. But only for now.
Because I cannot give up hoping that one day I will finally wake up pain free. And you shouldn’t give that up either. Nobody should.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as a column on the National Pain Report.
The pain in my ribs has been particularly horrible the last few days.
I’ve rarely been able to get out of bed or off the couch. I’ve been absent from conversations. And I’ve been trying to sleep whenever I can because it’s the only relief I can find.
I don’t want this life.
I don’t really much care if “God has a plan for me.”
I don’t really care if I’m “still needed.”
And I really, really, really don’t care if I’m supposed to “learn something” from this awful experience.
I started taking Cymbalta about a month and a half ago, and I have to admit that it has curbed the visceral suicidal thoughts that started about 3 weeks after the pain started. The ones I was having on an almost daily basis. The ones I used to wake up with and go to bed with. The ones that used to linger in my head as I’d contemplate things like whether I should try to live through the next week to see the next episode of “The Good Wife,” or whether I should just go ahead and slit my wrists in the bathtub that night.
But even though the Cymbalta has helped with primal urge to end it all, there are still plenty of other suicidal thoughts lingering around.
Reason is enough of a reason to want to kill myself. I ration that if I have to endure this horrible pain for the rest of my life, then I don’t want to live the rest of my life.
I start to think that I might have the horrible misfortune of both never being cured and living for the next six decades. And I come to the conclusion that taking a bottle of pills all at once would be better than bearing that.
It’s hard to explain to people just how quickly pain makes you crazy. How quickly it makes you want to give up.
If I had been asked a year ago how I would react to something like this, I would have assumed everything would have been so different.
I would have thought my faith would have given me the strength I needed to get through it. I would have thought that my friends and my family would have understood just how horrible the pain really is and that they all would have rallied to support me. And I would have imagined that I would have been able to go to a doctor and get some sort of relief.
But I would have been so very wrong.
I can understand euthanasia now. I can sympathize with those patients.
And I can’t help but wonder if some of the thousands of deaths each year caused by accidentally overdosing on prescription pain pills are no accident.
When you’re enduring horrible, horrible pain on daily basis, it’s as if your body is hard wired to assume you must be close to death. When you aren’t though, when you just keep on living, day after day after day, well, it makes you crazy.
But then, just when you’re about to give up, just when you can barely breathe, you inhale a gasp of air.
My brother and my grandma and I were in the living room the other day. And we were talking about my other grandma, on my dad’s side of the family, and how devastating it was when she died. And I turned to my living grandma and said, “When you die, it will devastate this family.”
And my brother turned to me, as if he’d been waiting for the right time to tell me this, because he knew where my thoughts had been, and he said, “Crystal, if you die, it would devastate this family for years. You are the rock that holds this whole family together.”
It’s just enough to air help me breathe a little while longer.