I’ve been in pain every day for three and a half years.
I injured myself in unspectacular fashion: by spending a week walking, running, and dancing around the South by Southwest festival while wearing terribly unsupportive shoes. By the end of the week my heel was hurting, but I didn’t pay it much attention until the pain got worse every day for a month. By the time I was diagnosed with chronic plantar fasciitis, I was in the worst pain of my life.
Plantar fasciitis is an injury to the band of connective tissue (fascia) that runs along the bottom of the foot, continuing all the way up the back of the leg. It is often encountered by runners, and will usually heal in a few weeks when taken care of, but it can also be incredibly stubborn. Every step you take can damage it more, especially if your body is out of alignment or your muscles are tight. Chronic plantar fasciitis in my right foot has made it difficult to do so many of the things that lift my spirit and bring me joy, not to mention function as a normal human being in our society. It hurts to dance, aches when I hike, and is uncomfortable even just to stand for an extended period of time. I have battled endless frustration, bouts of depression, and the discomfort of feeling like I am not only missing out on some of the prime years of my life, but that I am letting others down by not being there in the ways I think I should be.
It is hard to describe how frustrating this kind of chronic injury is. The many activities it hinders are significant and upsetting, yes, but there are also many subtle ways it negatively affects my life. My pain is ever-present while upright, and particularly bad while simply standing, so I am often distracted and not as fully present as I want to be with others. It is also generally an invisible injury, meaning I have to either bring it up all the time, or grin and bear it, and possibly come across as rude when I cut off a conversation to go sit down. I almost always have to wear sneakers, which can lead to feeling like I am underdressed for social situations (a date being a prime example), or simply like I am not putting my best foot forward (pun definitely intended). Seemingly minor issues like this can be surprisingly deflating, especially as the months and years have gone on. Finally, chronic plantar fasciitis requires so much care, patience, and ongoing work, that it can be easy to lose patience and do something that sets my healing process back.
I tried every form of therapy available (and I live in the Bay Area, so there are many!). I consulted with podiatrists, physical therapists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and even Big Mama the energy healer who found me lying in the dust in pain at Burning Man. I tried numerous gels and creams, boots that keep my foot flexed while I sleep at night, bathing my foot in ice water every night before bed for over a year, contrast baths with epsom salts or cider vinegar, athletic taping, various kinds of self massage, and innumerable stretches and exercises. I spent hours rolling my foot on tennis balls, golf balls, frozen water bottles, frozen oranges, and prickly plastic logs. And I tried dozens of shoes and dozens more orthotic insoles. I even walked with crutches for about a month. I embraced the nuanced exploration required to determine what helps and what hurts, what’s good pain and what’s going too far.
Despite all this, I am finally making progress. One primary lesson l’ve learned is how clearly our bodies are not made for the modern lifestyle, and how much this can contribute to chronic pain. Taking every step on hard, unyielding pavement is not what our feet were designed for. Spending all day sitting in the same position at work causes muscles to deteriorate and bad physical patterns to become ingrained. Every time I walk barefoot on grass or dance on soft earth the difference is palpable and my foot thanks me.
I have also discovered how truly terrible stress is for us. When I am anxious or stressed out my pain gets significantly worse, and when I am relaxed and happy it eases up. Another key for me has been to mostly stop drinking. Alcohol numbs the pain and makes me lose that connection to the subtleties of what is happening in my body, so after drinking my foot often feels worse. Finally, I have also found a treatment that works. Steven Goldin who practices Zen Bodytherapy (similar to rolfing) has introduced me to the most effective body work I’ve tried. (He is a magic worker, go see him!).
Over the last year I have started dancing again, though I do have to take regular sit breaks. I have also survived a couple short camping trips, and while pain can flare up, I know that after a few days of walking in the woods my foot will feel better. My ability to read my body has improved, and I do a better job of communicating my needs both to myself and to others. In general, I have become better at taking care of myself, without feeling shame about it, and pay much more attention to my physical health than ever before. I developed a deeply felt empathy for all chronic sufferers, and feel gratitude I’m not sure I can adequately express to all the friends and family who have been so understanding and helpful throughout this process.
I have also truly learned the meaning of patience and acceptance, though they are practices I have to renew on a daily basis. Today each step without pain buoys my spirit, every physical activity I can re-integrate into my life brings extra joy, and the moments when I have been able to lose myself in dancing are pure revelations. Reaching this nearly pain-free place has been an epic journey. May we all be healthy and pain free, but more importantly may we all find peace and acceptance with whatever challenges life has thrown our way– this is where the true growth and happiness comes from.
Tibet is a web developer; he lives in San Francisco.
Image: “El Venadito” (The Wounded Deer) by Frida Kahlo (1946)