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The hardest part of my back injury isn’t the pain, it’s the judgement

“I don’t understand where you’re injured. Is it your L5, your L4?”

The Master Sergeant sitting across from me is the picture of confusion.

“No,” I say. “It’s my sacrum. I fractured and displaced my sacrum.”

He still looks confused. Despite the x-rays and doctors’ notes I’ve turned in, convincing the cadre that I’m injured has proven difficult.

“I don’t know where that is, but you need to get off profile and get back to training,” he told me.

He dismisses me, and all the frustration I’d been holding back rushes through me. I’m not in a cast, I don’t use crutches, and the fact that I can walk makes people assume I’m okay. If only that were true.

Breaking my back was not part of my plan. I joined the Army National Guard to pay off student loans, gain leadership experience, and make a difference in the world. My injury changed everything. Forget about running or sit ups, just sitting and standing leave me feeling like I have the flu because my body hurts so much. But pain is felt not seen, and to outsiders I appear perfectly fine, just slow moving and stiff.

The pain starts at my tailbone, wraps around my left hip and races through my spine before infiltrating my thoughts and shooting harsh words out my mouth. Chronic pain isn’t easy to live with, but the burden of having to prove your pain to doctors and friends makes it worse.

Saying “no” to movies because I don’t feel like sitting or “no” to festivals because my hip is out make having a social life unpredictable, if not impossible. Considering their point of view, I can understand why friends struggle with my excuses. If Facebook and Instagram have taught us anything, it’s that life is judged by appearances not reality, and I appear fine.

A cure, a miracle, a pain free life is what I’m after, but the shuffle from doctor to doctor leaves me discouraged not hopeful. VA medical care is like unwinding a tangled spider’s web, and it takes over three years after my injury before I’m seen by a VA doctor to discuss treatment. Guilt winds its way through me as I pass amputees and Agent Orange victims in the hallways. Shouldn’t I just be grateful I’m alive and with all of my limbs? Is this why the doctors don’t listen to my complaints? Pain shouldn’t be a competition, but too often, I feel like it is.

Now four years out from the injury, doctors tell me they aren’t certain what’s going on, but that the pain is normal and I should just try to live normally. Have I tried yoga or Motrin?

Painful moments are supposed to be learning situations, and if so, my injury has taught me this: The proper response to someone in pain is empathy. True healing only comes when those in pain are understood and can openly share their feelings with others and not be judged.

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