When neuropathy strikes, it often starts slowly and with symptoms that people tend to attribute to generalized aches and pains. It isn’t until the disease progresses and the nerves break down substantially, that the pain becomes intense, specific, and chronic. This was how it developed in my friend, David. This is his story about his journey through the chronic pain of neuropathy.
I’ve known David since I was a child. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be BIG! Everything about him from his 6’5” frame, to his personality, to his laugh were big, loud, and unapologetic. As a young man in his 20’s, he oozed vitality. He rode motorcycles, fished, and hunted with his friends. He had the world by the tail and was living his life to the fullest.
When he hit his mid-30’s, David developed diabetes. At first, it didn’t seem to impact him much at all. He watched his blood sugar and took his medications as prescribed, but within a few years of diagnosis, his disease became incredibly difficult to manage. To make matters worse, he suffered a series of heart attacks as he hit his 40’s. Suddenly, this vital, strong man struggled everyday to just have enough energy and wellness to go to work and come home. The final blow came as neuropathy began to take hold in his lower extremities.
David wrestled with some pain, mainly chest pain, prior to the onset of neuropathy, but once it set it, his pain skyrocketed. Like many people, the more pain he suffered, the less he was inclined to move. The less he moved, more issues began to manifest. In David’s case, an old back injury from a motorcycle accident flared up to the point that he couldn’t walk without a walker.
The worst part for David was he couldn’t participate in his nieces’ and nephew’s lives. A lifelong bachelor, he doted on his extended family. He went to their ball games, recitals, and birthdays. He helped them fix their cars and took them to concerts, amusement parks, and airshows. As his health stole his stamina, he retreated into his cabin on the lake. He missed his kids and resented the failings of his body. Anger consumed him to the point that he wouldn’t talk to anyone beyond the necessities of work.
Not surprisingly, his health deteriorated sharply. His brother went to check on him after David’s work called him concerned that he hadn’t come in and hadn’t called. David was unconscious with a blood sugar of over 600. After a long hospitalization and being fitted for an insulin pump, David’s health stabilized. He called it his ‘wake up call,’ and it led to an epiphany.
David told me when I visited with him in the hospital that he had been hiding from his health issues and wallowing in his pain and self-pity. Everyday he struggled to think about anything else besides his own misery, but he vowed to me that he was done living like that. David said, “I will not let this be the rest of my life. I won’t miss the kids growing up, and I will get back on a motorcycle.”
It didn’t happen overnight. David focused on setting small goals and started working with a therapist. He finally tackled his health issues head on. He read books about diabetes, neuropathy, and heart failure. He attended classes about nutrition and for the first time, engaged with his treatment instead of just going through the motions. Of course, it was an uphill battle, and the wins were few and far between to begin with.
Neuropathy is notoriously tricky to manage, and David’s case was no different. He said his legs felt like they had been burned and couldn’t stand for even the lightest touch of a sheet or pants. He wore shorts all year round, even when there was snow on the ground. It took months of experimentation to find a medication regime that helped. He used a TENS unit and worked with physical therapy to increase his strength and address his pain. He included massage, particularly of his lower back. There wasn’t one single thing that was the magic fix. All the treatments worked together and made his pain manageable.
The most influential part of his recovery was finding his joy again. He attended all the kids’ birthday parties and ball games, even if it meant calling and asking someone to drive him. It was humbling for him, but he refused to let his pride keep him from his life. Sometimes, he only stayed long enough to give a hug or a high five before returning home, but the smiles, positive energy, and love he received from getting out, despite his pain, lifted his spirits and kept him out of the destructive cycle of isolation and self-pity.
David also reconnected with his friends and family via social media. He had avoided getting a cell phone or a facebook page for the longest time. However, with his mobility issues, he decided to give technology a try. He instantly found old friends from high school and motorcycle buddies. Of course, David’s nieces and nephews were all online and ready to include their uncle in their social media circles. It opened a new communication line for him, and he loved to send funny videos and chat online. Little by little, he reclaimed his connection to the world.
The day David felt like he had really conquered his chronic pain and illness was the day he climbed back on his vintage Indian motorcycle- complete with sidecar! He reestablished his old motorcycle club, and they began planning day rides. There were times that David couldn’t go because of his chronic pain. One of the guys would fire up his Go-Pro and stream live so David could ride right along with them. He eventually built up enough strength and stamina to go on several longer road trips covering 15 different states. The club worked with his limitations and kept the daily riding short and took rest days along the route. They were always conscious of his limitations and were happy to work within them. They were just happy to have their friend with them.
David talked to me about his early days of dealing with his chronic pain. He told me that he initially couldn’t accept the fact that he wasn’t the man he always had been- big, strong, and life of the party. He was full of self-loathing and pain, both emotional and physical. “When I realized I hated myself for letting something like this happen, I had to forgive myself first. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I was in this situation- least of all my own. I had been dealt a bum hand of cards, but I had to focus on where I was going to go from there.” David discovered there could be no recovery without the initial step of loving himself. Once he found that, the management of his pain and overall wellness improved exponentially.
David lost his battle with heart failure a couple of months ago, but until his last day, he was smiling and living his best life. He had pain every day of his life for the last several decades, but it didn’t defeat him. It didn’t define him. He concentrated on winning the small battles, and it made all the difference in his quality of life. Take a step in your own pain recovery. Set a small goal and work toward it. Little successes lead to long term pain management. If you need help, try the Pathways app (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here). It gives you all the tools and support you need to write your own success story!
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.