Friday 23 June 2017

'What once was once a colourful life has begun to grey' - Elle Gordon (26) on living with chronic pain

Pain is an invisible companion, the darkest of acquaintances. It buries itself beneath watery smiles and declarations of 'I'm fine'. Twenty-six-year-old Elle Gordon gives her account of living with long-term pain. She knows she's lucky that she can often get by with the help of medicine, but there are times when pain is almost unbearable and positivity deserts her. She is determined to fight back and live life, not merely exist. Pain is real, but so is hope.

Elle Gordon is determined to fight back and live life. Photo: David Conachy
Elle Gordon is determined to fight back and live life. Photo: David Conachy

I have become accustomed to gritting my teeth and burying a hand in my coat pocket; my fingers balled into a tight fist, hidden from view.

Teeth gritted; hand clenched: just keep moving. I get on with it. I manage. I'm fine. The rattling sound of a little bottle of white painkillers is one I am relieved to hear when it becomes too much, and I need some relief. Its importance surpasses that of my wallet and keys. Without my pills, I would be useless.

I hate that about myself. Pain changes a person.

For me, pain arrived like an unwanted new neighbour around the age of 19. Before this, I thought I knew pain - but, as it turned out, I did not really know pain.

Elle Gordon. Photo: Kip Carroll
Elle Gordon. Photo: Kip Carroll

Hip dysplasia is when the socket, or acetabulum, is not in the proper position to support the ball, or femoral head, causing abnormal wear on the cartilage. In simple terms: my hip is worn out. But given that I am still young and have other complications, a clear-cut solution is difficult to find.

At first, my new neighbour would call in occasionally, interrupting my train of thought as I stepped onto a pavement. Ouch! Or it would arrive with some vigorous thumping after a particularly fun night out. While my friends were busy fearing hangovers, I was caught up feeling fearful of my hip.

But life goes on, and whether in pain or not, I wanted to live, not merely exist. I carted myself off on my second J-1 aged 21, lapped up the sunshine, enjoyed a summer love and had a ball like anyone else. But I had not left the pain behind. By the time I reached New York, having walked a lot at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, my body was making its pain known.

I remember the day - I was excited about our first proper day in New York, and eager to go sightseeing and shopping. They were our last few days in the US, and we were determined to enjoy them. But try as I might to don my usual 'get on with it' hat, I simply could not.

While my friends went off out and about, I was glued to the bed, devastated. This was not how I had imagined it.

Please pain, not today.

Elle Gordon wears: Dress, Isabel Marant; jacket, Karen Millen, both Brown Thomas. Photography by Kip Carroll.
Elle Gordon wears: Dress, Isabel Marant; jacket, Karen Millen, both Brown Thomas. Photography by Kip Carroll.

The one thing I have always had power over is my attitude. But when pain, literally, will not let your legs hold the weight of your body upright, a positive attitude becomes a huge challenge. For me, positivity slides down a slope so steep, it soon becomes a distant memory. To smile on that particular day was like trying to lift an anchor by hand. I had nothing left.

Thankfully, my mother's old favourite line of 'this, too, will pass' eventually clicked into place, and the next day I was at The Lion King and munching in Shake Shack. Smiling was, once again, a breeze. On such days, I can almost forget the pain, and wonder what on earth had me so low just a short time ago.

I think it's important to say that it's OK to feel sad. So often, it seems, we can jump from talking about a person who is happy to a person who is depressed. I know that I cannot expect life to be sunshine and rainbows all the time, but five years on from that day in the hotel, my battle with pain and trying to manage the down days has reached new heights.

While back then I relied upon the power of the over-the-counter painkillers, I now take prescription ones. They have their own punch to pack and certainly dim the particularly loud ebbs, but again, as time goes on and my hip deteriorates further, they are starting to lose their efficacy.

This scares me.

I am in my 20s. This is supposed to be the time where you relish cutting your teeth on opportunities, or taking off on an adventure and travelling the world because, hey, "Do it while you are young," as they say.

"It's only downhill from here" - a joke we have all become accustomed to hearing, - can send shivers down my spine.

As I climb into bed on a bad day, wincing as my aching limbs beg me not to lift them, I wonder, "If this is me now, what will I be like in 10 years' time?" Pain and fear are old acquaintances.

My friends, pillars of strength that they are, rally around me like rays of sunshine. We alight from a taxi and one of their arms will link me automatically as we walk on cracked pavements. My family would go to the ends of the earth to keep me smiling. I hope that they know how much this means to me.

I used to laugh all the time, feeling truly happy. Now, laughter comes heavy, tired. I can still do it, but it's often distracted - like laughing at a funny joke while someone else is whispering in your ear. For me, this is pain taking away, chipping away; at times, it's unbearable.

And yet, I must continue.

There are surgeries, decisions drifting around my future that I need to make.

They might not even work.

Ever tried a walking stick? My eyes glaze over. Decisions.

Sure it's only a bit of pain - get over it. I find myself inwardly screaming. I push on.

I sympathise with anyone who has to live with pain. I often find myself defiant, my gritted teeth moulding into a determined smile because, really, what else is there to do?

As usual, I feel wary about writing about what I consider to be the darker nooks of my life. The things that, like many others, I try to keep buried so as not to burden my family or friends, are not easy to write about.

Everyone has their shit to deal with, a friend once pointed out. She was right, and I always remind myself of this.

But I think again that this topic is something that goes beyond me.

When I google 'young adults living with pain', what jumps out at me are painkiller suggestions, or advice on how to help loved-ones who are living with pain, cope. But I think that if I could rewind on some of my lowest days, what would have been most helpful to me would have been a voice, a story.

A story that I could relate to. One of a wrinkle-free face and a creaking body. A gentle nudge - you are not alone.

I think it's hardest when asked, as I often am, in appointments with consultants: "How is your quality of life?" Really fantastic, should be my answer. I can walk; that's a privilege. I'm alive; another privilege. But, over the last while, it has felt as though what once was once a colourful life has begun to grey. I am determined to get my colour back; to punch back as hard as the pain hits me.

As young people immersed in the social-media age, we can become victim to the 'insta-sham'. The filtered, perfectly working bodies doing exactly as they should, looking how society insists they should look. Lives that appear so carefree that we can begin to think the two most dangerous of words - why me?

What we don't tend to see is the icing of muscles that might occur after the workout; the evenings where the gym is too much; people going through rehab; the grit; the bad days. The reminders that no one is perfect, and no one should feel alone or isolated in their pain.

A gym can be an intimidating place. Dragging myself in, already looking like I've fallen off the treadmill never loses its ability to make me shake with nerves. But pain causes stress, and the one thing that is certain is an outlet is needed. I decided to stop torturing myself and instead slot in where I can. I may not be able to control the physical pain, but I can certainly keep at bay the heartache it insists on bringing with it.

I do so by swimming.

There are many evenings, such as at aqua aerobics class, that I suspect I might be the youngest by about 20 years. And yes, I will admit that the majority of attendees are people whose laughter lines run a little deeper than mine.

But what does that matter, when I can feel what it gives back?

It has given me back a freedom that I have not felt in a long time; a lightness.

I may never be pain-free; in the water I can often feel the slice as an ache runs through my joints. But it takes me out of myself, it is something that is ok for me to do, and somehow it feels like I'm fighting back in my own small way.

Hope.

For anyone who is young and in pain and feel they are alone, the pain might never leave. But in your own small way, don't lose your ability to fight against it.

For me, the plan is simple: Pain is not going to win.

Instagram @ellegordon3

Photography by David Conachy

Hair by Ellen Daly;

Make-up by Aoife Smith, both Brown Sugar, 68 Ranelagh, D6, tel: (01) 485-1988, or see brownsugar.ie

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