Journal

My chronic pain story: From paralyzed by pain to a 110 km hike

This is my long and very personal story of having struggled with different types of chronic pain several times in my life. Not all of my experiences are included here, because I only wanted to share those relevant to my journey in overcoming my fear of pain and many of the struggles connected to it. I am sharing this, because it is part of who I am and has influenced so many of my decisions that it would leave a void to neglect it on my blog and in all of my stories, YouTube videos and so on…

I have always been an active person…

I was always an active person, until one day I wasn’t. After high-school I became a nurse and kept working in the hospital and at a geriatric ward. While doing this I maintained a pretty consistent training schedule as a half-marathoner, and occasionally went on dayhikes to the Bavarian mountains. I also did a lot of bike-riding, since I didn’t have a car until my 28th birthday.

Many of my colleagues complained about back-pain and headaches, a stiff neck or sore feet. I never had that. Never. I made it my mission to be healthy and active, especially because so many people in my family were either obese or had some kind of moot-skeletal impairment.

As a kid, I was always told that I could never be a runner or an athlete, because of my weak ligaments. It did not keep all those GDR-trained sports teachers from pushing me to my low limits. Nonetheless, after school, I discovered running for myself. And to stay strong, I also started doing yoga. Yoga has always been a part of my life. It helped me gain strength and stay calm, it is basically a way to keep my body (including the brain) healthy.

I had a weird knee injury, which never really got figured out completely, but I got this bandage and it seems to help. I still wear it today. Apart from that, yoga and passive motion like cycling helped me a lot as well. My knee is back at full range of motion. However, yoga did not help as much with my feet…

First knee injury, followed by a year of inactivity

After working as a nurse for five years, I wanted to move on to university. Right before this transition, I had a really weird knee injury. Basically I was riding the bike pretty hard, and something just cracked. After that I had knee pain for almost two years. It was the most frustrating time in my young adult life.

I remember that I just got my first student apartment, and I was really proud of moving alone to a new city and starting over, but this pain was killing me… Overall the pain would stay for two years until it was completely gone. In the beginning, it was so bad that I could not carry my laptop (2 kg) to the library. It was a heavy laptop, but not too much so for a normal healthy 20-something. And I remember that so well because I had no internet in that new apartment, and it was pissing me off, because I had to go to the library to check my emails. With that laptop. Because on their dumb computers there, you weren’t allowed to do anything. (If you haven’t been to a German library, don’t bother with the computers there. They just suck, they’re old, and sticky.)

Anyway, it took three different doctors to diagnose me with the unsatisfying explanation that I had a patella misalignment. Sure, that might have been the reason of my pain. But if there was no other damage, so WTF? I got a knee bandage and that was it. The system was done with me, and I was done with the system.

I might add that I am a very strict believer and applier of school medicine. I have no problem with alternative methods, but never in my life have I been interested in any kind of alternative “healing” practices. I am not spiritual enough for that. It simply doesn’t give me much. I am and will always be a scientist, and even though I didn’t have a degree yet back then, this has always been my approach. If there is a problem, there must be a cause. If there isn’t a cause, it is either a psychological issue (which is a cause), or the measurement instrument is crap.

So, what was it? I do not know up to today. But at that time, I decided that it must have been something organic, because I was—apart from the pain—having the time of my life, and it was not some psychological issue. (It wasn’t.) That brought me to intensifying my yoga-practice and becoming more active again.

Stretching sideways / yoga

Yoga and cycling helped me gain back range of motion

After I had started studying, I became less active. It was just so much time I had to invest in my studies, that I could not keep up with my gym activities, hiking or any outdoor activities. But I discovered yoga and it helped me quite a bit. I studied chemistry for one year and my knee got much better. I also did a lot of cycling.

In the beginning it was really hard. I could only use my right leg, the left I had to move passively. So I rode my bike like this: I put most force into the pedal with the right knee and then pushed the left down with my arm. It must have looked really weird or disabled. And it was. It was so weird to me… But that is how I got better.

After two years the pain would have been gone. But I did not dare to hike again. I tried it once or twice, and it caused me just enough pain to be scared and not go on a mountain for over ten years.

Studying and working 24/7 while becoming an obese couch potato

Eventually, I switched to physics, which–according to 100% of my family members—was one of the hardest subjects I could have possibly picked, and too much for a woman, lol… Well, I love my field (laser physics), but it surely has always been very competitive. And I became quite the couch potato and also gained a lot of weight.

My weight gain was so massive that I ended up with elevated blood pressure and recurring migraines on top of my double chin. It was not funny. And because I am small, everyone (especially “professionals”… ehm, sorry, but the average family doctor is a pro when it comes to nutrition) kept telling me that my weight was just slightly above the norm. The BMI is such a scam. Especially if you don’t have a norm body and are norm-sized.

So it took a while until I figured that the weight was the cause of many of my issues. Including the knee pain coming back from time to time. I am mentioning this to underline that my knees and feet are very sensitive, even to seemingly slight weight gain. I am a small person, so 1 kg is more for me than for a tall person. And people seem to think in units rather than body-weight-percentage when it comes to gains and losses. This is pretty stupid and dangerous though. Things should always be brought into the correct relative perspective.

In the end however, I lost the weight. I ended up in a happy relationship that gave me just the right motivation to change things. I was commuting a lot and I simply didn’t have so much time to eat anymore. After one year, I was back to my old lean self, and I was very very happy about it. I never got back into hiking or running though. I was too scared of the pain coming back. I would always refer to yoga as the only remotely “sport-like” activity I did.

Being inactive during my pregnancy was one of my biggest mistakes. It lead to even more fear and anxiety, which lead to being more and more and more inactive overall. After I had my Flauschi, I was at a low point of my personal health.

Having a kid and neglecting my health completely

Years later, I would meet my husband and we would go through an almost 4 year long IVF/ICSI struggle until I had Flauschi (not her real name). My pregnancy was all but happy and easy. Before I even got pregnant, I was constantly worried of losing my only chance of having a kid by not weighing enough. So I gained some weight. And then some more.

When I finally got pregnant, I was too worried to move. I used any elevator I could get and sat on my ass all day. I know that it sounds crazy in retrospect. But there wasn’t a day when I didn’t wake up and have some cramping, and I simply feared for my baby. So I did not care about myself or my health. I only cared about that little one. I thought, I could catch up with my health later.

This was a huge mistake though, and I wish I had found the strength to be more rigorous and less fearful. I should have pushed myself to keep doing yoga, riding the bike much more and being more active. And most of all: not gaining so much weight. This topic is especially important to me.

On social media, basically only one narrative exists: Women are starving themselves wherever they go, even pregnant women. Telling someone about the risks of obesity is body-shaming and you should stay quiet. Well, in my case I would have really needed somebody to tell me that this weight was unnecessary for the health of my kid, that it only added a useless risk, and that the norm should screw itself. Some lookup-table does not determine your health. I knew I was too heavy because I had trouble breathing, moving and sleeping at night. I knew.

But the worst effect was the damage to my feet. Since they were swollen a lot, I did not wear my insoles, I did not wear shoes that supported them enough, and on top of that, the only thing I still did were long walks or walks in the city. On concrete. Great, right?

Three years of chronic pain, pointless appointments and unsolicited advice

After pregnancy, I felt good for about three to six months. I started recovering, I lost the weight, but I also lost a lot of muscle. I was what some call “skinny fat”. I personally don’t like that term, because I was pretty thin. So not fat at all. But for my weight, I had an unusually high body fat percentage and a low percentage of lean mass. And that can be problematic.

In my case, I would have really needed some muscles, to support my knees and feet. I would have needed strength training and power yoga. But it was too late. A lot of damage was done during my pregnancy, and it caught up to me eventually.

I don’t know whether I just noticed it at that time (because I was so occupied with my baby and my job) or if that was the onset, but when my kid was 6 months old, i noticed the pain for the first time. When I was walking the stairs, it was worst. When I carried something. When I got out of bed in the morning.

At some point, carrying my kid was just too painful. What I had was a really bad case of fasciitis and tendinitis. (Please spare me all of your “knowledge” and unsolicited advice on the topic at this point. Thank you!) Usually, these self-resolve after about a year and patients are pain-free again. I did not worry too much about it in the beginning, especially because the pain was kind-of on and off.

But soon I noticed that it only got worse. It took me a year to see someone because I knew this was partly my fault, and I also knew that there was only so much you can do about this conservatively. And I was right. Everyone I saw just told me the same thing: Physiotherapy, stretching. Oh, so much stretching. Yeah, sure.

Sometimes, I wish I would have said something like: You know how much stretching I do compared to the average person? Probably ten times above average. Okay. Are we done with that “therapy suggestion” now. Can I please have a real fucking solution?

And even though I put my hope and compliance in every single suggestion, nothing really helped. At some point, I also think, I overdid it. From my knee injury (and that is the reason I mentioned it), I knew that I had achieved so much good through yoga. But why would it not work for my fasciitis?

And yes, throughout this whole thing, I had more than enough advice, both professional and asked for, as well as unprofessional and completely unsolicited. The latter was the most hindering. And I do not get why people provide you with their opinion, especially if it is based on nothing but hearsay from relatives and the media, even though you explicitly say you do not want it—which is on one level with not asking for it. One one and the same level! I wish people would finally get that. An opinion unasked for is an opinion unneeded. Get it into you fucking heads.

My all time favorites in this context are:

  • Oh, I have that too / my friend/relative/brother of my husband had that too. It’s not that bad.
  • You are doing something wrong if it is really at all that bad for you.
  • That is something only old people have. / Isn’t that a runners’ disease?
  • You don’t have chronic pain, you just have tendinitis. Everybody has that.

I am so sick of being undermined for something that is so individual as pain and that has so bad that I could not get up in the morning or hold my kid. The worst was that obviously everybody had their feet hurt in their life at some point. And to them it is all the same. It is all “Oh, so your feet hurt?” and “Ah, I have that too, I think.” No. You do not. You most certainly don’t. Fuck off, piss off, get out of my fucking life.

People who say “I have that too” as the first comment to you sharing a shitty experience, aren’t worth any of your time anyway. Get them out of your face and never look back. Remove these idiots from your everything and forget that you ever knew them. They are trash. People who can’t say “Shit, how has that been?” but say “Oh, that can’t be that bad”, they are garbage.

I’m done explaining anything to anybody, and I am only sharing my whole shit journey, because then many of my videos and other things I have done make more sense to my audience. To me, this is kind of a necessity. I am so not looking for advice. But also not for pity.

Anyway, let’s get back to this story. So basically none of the standard advice or yoga (yes, for the 100th time, I did all the “right” asanas, whatever you think that means, I’m certain that I probably did all of what you’re about to dump in my comment section) or physiotherapy did anything for me, which left me frustrated and kind of helpless.

At some point, my pain was so bad that I was at 6-7 of 10 in the morning. I could not sleep, because my feet hurt through the night, and even when I just walked around in my apartment, it was exhausting.

Oh, and one more: Yes, of course I tried the fucking keto diet, left out night-shades, stopped eating sugar alltogether. Yes, yes, yes. Just insert whatever, I tried it. And now get the fuck out of my face! (There are probably people who think that this is rude, but I am 100% sure that everyone who has a chronic illness gets it just fine. Trust me, what’s rude is giving unsolicited advice. Trust me, nobody in pain wants to hear your social media insights. All we want you is to listen.)

So eventually, I had given up and when I had to do something, I just took a bunch of Ibuprofen and tried to get it over with, knowing that after a day with my kid on the playground or a shopping day in the city, I would be knocked off my feet for a week. I did not like moving anymore, and my husband did a lot of the things that I wanted to do, as in be with my kid, carry her around and so on. I missed out on many things because of the pain.

I thought that barefoot shoes might be a solution. But heel spurs can get way worse in them. Only in the forest they helped me and walking on soft ground was quite therapeutic for my feet. That I discovered in Sweden, hiking in a place called Traneröds Mosse.

Hitting a low-point in 2020

Then Covid hit Germany and with it, enormous restrictions to personal freedom came. It was horrible, because most of them were targeted directly towards families and children. Playgrounds were closed right after daycare and every “non-essential” business was shut down. For months.

So, all of a sudden, I had to take care of my kid at home alone, while my husband had to work. First, I had to work full-time too, then I was officially on parental leave. I.e., I actually wanted to work on both my health and a personal project. But that was now impossible. So after four weeks of hell on my feet while both working and taking care of my kid together with my husband, I was at my absolute breaking point. Calling all the offices, and nobody was there who cared. There was absolutely zero solution for sick or disabled parents in place in this country. Nothing.

If you were in a “critical position” aka a hospital worker or police officer, even if just one in the family worked there, you could bring your kid to daycare. But if you were a single mom, a sick parent etc.—nothing. We fell right through the cracks and I was furious. I desperately wanted to get better, and now it seemed even more impossible. My pain got worse every day.

Finally, daycare opened for sick parents. Wow. After weeks they found that this was necessary. Bravo, “social state” Germany. Good job! Thank you so much. It was a great relief, yet came with a lot of bitterness. There were many new rules, as in masked teachers, measuring kids’ temperatures in the ear at the entrance, and lots of disruptive and weird practices. E.g. they threw away our toothbrush and some other things “because of Covid”. Thanks, that was a 6€ toothbrush, bitch.

I know, this is a small thing. But all of this just added to the picture of our system. Of a completely careless monster that swallows each and everything that does not work well with it. Like the zero waste culture or parents who need a little help. I found it all so disgusting suddenly, and I was sad for my kid who was treated like a vector of infection, not the sweet tiny human she is.

So quite intuitively we decided to leave for Sweden for our summer holidays. Well deserved after this whole German shit show that was. Oh, how happy we were to get out of Munich, out of the country that followed a man who said “You will soon all know somebody who died of Covid”. Since today I don’t, so well, fuck you. I have recovered just fine from it myself, and so have a bunch of my relatives. The sentence should have been “Soon, we’ve all have had it and it would sometimes suck and sometimes go completely unnoticed.”

Sweden was a relief for us. Open shops and an intact society, life in the streets, yet no careless interactions. People did what was necessary without a government that was continuously threatening them. We felt free. We just felt so much better here.

Hiking was my cure

We stayed in a beautiful house in Skåne, from where we could drive to the sea in under an hour. And we discovered the nice landscape here. We also went hiking for the first time in so long… My husband always asked me: Are you sure you want to do this? Will you be able to do this? It was disheartening. But I get it. It is no fun to go for a hike with someone who starts yammering after 500 m. I didn’t even go to the grocery store anymore at this point. (And it was just around the corner of our apartment.)

As part of my “last resort trial and error” strategy to battle the pain, I had also bought a bunch of barefoot shoes. I had the weird idea that they might help. But they didn’t really. The hard concrete was not good for my feet, so I did not wear them very often. However, I took them on the trip to Sweden, because I thought they might be great “forest shoes”.

And that was when I was utterly surprised. All yoga and therapy would not help me anymore, but walking in the forest suddenly did. I had no idea. But for the first time in years I was able to walk two kilometers. It was not without pain, but without the complete exhaustion afterwards. The first day after the pain got a bit worse, and then it actually improved. So we went for hikes more often and I really enjoyed it.

That was how I found out that hiking helped me. It was all thanks to the miserable situation in Germany, the Swedish democracy and the forest. Crazy.

Impressions from the Fjällräven Classic 2021. A little more than one year before I took this photo (and the year before that), I often wished I had a wheelchair. I was in so much pain (yes, despite professional help and pain killers—also, there is only so much you can take, thanks for not giving me unsolicited advice!) that I didn’t want to get up in the morning. Just stepping out of bed was painful. Meeting friends was impossible.

The Fjällräven Classic: From 0 to 110 km in a week

Not much later, I got an ad on my phone for a thing called “Fjällräven Classic”. I had never heard of it before. I had a Kånken backpack from Fjällräven and that’s it. Just for fun, I started reading about it, and it somehow struck me. It was like a weird calling from far away saying. You have to do this. You just have to.

And that is how everything started. I started hiking again, I actually hiked the Bavarian mountains a lot. Up there, I met many cool people, a lot of them also looking for an escape from all the restrictions in our country. Because guess what, there is no police on a mountain. There are no fees on a mountain. It was so freeing, at some point it was scary to me, who had done some serious social distancing thanks to just being ill and not having fun when doing anything social anyway…

My first longer hike after my long break of about 10 years. It was really hard to get up there, but I did it. It was really so amazing.

And then, I also started looking for solitude, for hikes that I could just spend all by myself. Just walk and record the impressions and not see anyone or anything. I have to say, that is almost impossible though in the Alps. There are people everywhere. It’s quite crowded in most places, especially on the weekends.

However, it was my training for the Fjällräven Classic, which I completed just recently. I signed up for it, because I needed a goal. It was my goal to finish this hike. This hike in Sweden, a country where it was possible to host a social event in 2021, when everything in Germany was still on hold. Because this is not just a hike, as you might think. It is a giant meet-up in the mountains. It’s a place to meet people from all over the world. And I am so happy that I did it.

My feet hurt like hell after completing it. But this will give me strength forever. What this did was take away what was left of my fear of the pain. This feeling in the morning like “Oh no, the pain is gone, when will it be back?” or “Oh no, the pain is back and it is worse, how bad will it get?”. This I no longer have. These thoughts are in the past now.

My pain is still there. It is not at zero. But it is far from 6/10. And in hiking I have found my cure. Inactivity was what made everything so much worse. And it feels like a dumb dream that I did not push myself earlier. Furthermore, I have also dealt with my knee. Losing some weight again, wearing my knee bandage, and taking it very slow when descending, I have now minimized my knee problems.

Furthermore, I discovered that trail runners and running shoes in general reduce my pain tremendously, while barefoot shoes only work for me in the forest and on soft ground… I wear orthopedic shoes at home that were custom-made for me, and in general I have invested a lot in getting better.

How I feel now and what I wish for the future

If you are dealing with this kind of disease or chronic pain in general, I hope that my article helped you, even if it was just a tiny bit. I tried to share as many details as possible so you can judge for yourself what might be similar in your case.

For me, the psychological component was also of great impact. Whenever I was stressed out, my pain levels peaked. However, stress management is not everything. And it is a fact, that in an average life of a working person, there is always stress. We can not all move to a cabin in the woods and enjoy ourselves. We have to deal with these things how it fits our lifestyle and not everybody can afford a slow life.

I know I can’t. And I am also a very driven person who likes to be fast and efficient. I enjoy being that. So for me, it is rather conflicts and inefficiencies I am working on in my life and relationships. In 2020, I also rid myself of a whole lot of “friends”, especially online.

I am much more rigorous with my choices and I am not afraid to say what I think. Keeping shit inside is what makes you sick. However, it would be way too simple to reduce hiking to its psychological effects. What I do, mountaineering, is a hardcore physical training. And it takes discipline. I need to go on a hike every few weeks, to keep up the benefits. Otherwise my pain comes back. In between, I do yoga twice a day, not just once. I found out that only after 40 min per day, it started helping, and I was simply not doing enough, especially when it comes to strength building.

But more than all of that, I have accepted that pain is a part of my life. And that I am more than my pain. I am stronger than it. On the Fjällräven Classic hike I had to “switch off” the pain and I was in “panic survival mode”. When I was up on the mountains, all wetted out in the cold, I did not think about my feet. I just kept going. So now I know that I can do that. My body can do that. And the mind is just one tiny part of that body.

So now, pain is no longer a stress signal for me. It’s just there. I don’t have to listen to it. I have to listen to what makes more sense than the pain.

What I wish for the future is to keep going. To not lose my faith in improvement ever again. So I need to set a new goal every year, that is what I told myself. I need something to work for each year. My next goal will be the Karwendel Höhenweg. A high mountain trail in the Alps. Just like with the Fjällräven Classic, everyone has been telling me that it is too hard for me. So I guess, I have to find out!

I made a video about this

If you’re interested, you can also listen to my story in this video here: I share all that I can remember and that I think is important to what I experienced. If this helps just one single person, it served its purpose!

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