April 12, 2019 | Narrative
breaking the silence
ibuprofen, physical therapy, and generational pain
Ibuprofen is the duct tape of the medicinal world (that and Vicks VapoRub). I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with empty bottles of Advil and prescription-grade ibuprofen for my chronic pain for a portion of my life. And despite greater medical access since packing up my things and moving across the country, the once-magical effects of a 200mg Advil tablet have steadily withered into nothing for me. Back home, the pain was bearable. Now, even four pills at a time do nothing to assuage the all-too-familiar aches in my shoulders, chest, and back.
So, I’ve learned to deal with it.
It must be a family thing—the pain and the frustration. Be it my grandmother’s knees, my mother’s back, or my brother’s entire body, pain seems to come with the territory. Although some of us are better at brushing it aside and getting on with our day, I haven’t always experienced that luck. Instead, I’ve dealt with my physical health gradually deteriorating until I’ve been unable to move out of bed due to the immense pain in my shoulders.
I’m not exactly sure what prompted me to seek help. Perhaps it was the unbearable throbs that kept me awake at night. I was already plenty stressed during my first year here at Brown, but I was determined to do something about it—or at least, find a more effective alternative to Advil.
The first time, the doctor said my pain was from stress—yoga and “not being stressed” would alleviate it. Despite my insistence that this problem ran considerably deeper than just stress, the doctor assured me that a routine of yoga would help me tremendously. And with that, I waited for over six months before mentioning my pain again.
The second time, a different doctor referred me to physical therapy and gave me muscle relaxants to help me deal with the pain. Had I not been at Brown, my lack of insurance would have ushered my pain into silence and forcefully swept the constant discomfort I faced under the rug.
It was weird. The first night, I didn’t feel my shoulders tense or the usual ache radiating down my spine. I had become so accustomed to the pain that I felt naked, even vulnerable, without it. My pain had morphed from a nuisance into a twisted safety blanket—its harsh arms would envelop me and keep me in its grasp, regardless of where or how I was. Even at Brown, where I was aimlessly afloat in an unfamiliar world and trying to find some sort of direction, my physical pain was the unyielding part of my life; it was the strange stability during the relentless weeks of chaos.
Unfortunately, the muscle relaxants turned out to be a temporary fix for a chronic problem. But the weeks I spent in therapy taught me how skewed my perception of reality was and still is. While I had grown used to my pain, I was reminded that most people are not consumed by daily aches that inhibit their ability to do certain things. I was reminded that most students here are not barred from physicians due to income or are entirely unaware of the magic of physical therapy for those who need it.
Attending my bi-weekly therapy sessions introduced me to the handful of Brown students also taking advantage of the service. I felt awkward, as if I were taking space I didn’t earn or deserve. I never knew what physical therapy entailed or what it was until I was a senior in high school, but there I was, surrounded by patients that were as young as three years old.
However, what hurts most is not the occasional sharp jolts that travel down my spine or the dull throb in my lower back. What hurts most is the realization that my pain is only a symptom of something much bigger than myself. The reality is that this is not a temporary or minor condition but one that permeates every aspect of my life—from budgeting money so I can afford copays to shifting the way I sit in class to mitigate my pain.
It hurts, deeper than the knots in my shoulders and the slight curve of my spine. And it hurts even more to know that my family members have dealt with similar experiences but could never fathom a reality free of them, whether due to their lack of money or the “weakness” they believe accompanies speaking out. It hurts to know that even at age 20, I still barely view seeking help as anything but a weakness.
It hurts to know that chronic disease is not a rare occurrence. It hurts to know that my conditions will never be cured. Instead, I’ll learn how to deal with them like the many other things I’ve learned to manage. Physical therapy and muscle relaxants are merely luxuries for me. I will eventually return home, to doctors and their resigned sighs as they tell me this pain is nothing more than stress. I will see my family again and remember that access to adequate services is something only I have the opportunity of experiencing.
And although I find a melancholic comfort in sharing my pain and struggles with them, it hurts to know that writing off our pain as nothing or simply pushing through it is the thread that strings marginalized communities together. The silencing of our pain is a byproduct of bigger systems that prevent a space for discussion or an avenue for adequate medical access. For a world so thoroughly saturated with images of marginalized communities’ suffering and dominated by morbid curiosity, we still seem to be obligated to suffer in silence.
But with every effort to soothe our own pain and create a community to voice our shared struggles, we are steadily breaking this silence.