How do you live without pain if it’s all you’ve ever known?

When you’ve lived with something for so long, it’s hard to live without it. It becomes a part of your identity, like a tattoo or a scar. When that thing is pain, the relationship becomes more complicated.

For years, I’ve dealt with moderate lower back pain. At times, it is debilitating, usually after a workout or basketball game if I didn’t stretch enough. My back tightens up and I lose all stability in my core, causing me to walk like I was constipated. The discomfort just lingers but I’ve become so used to it. I always thought I could just “walk it off.”

Last month, late one night after a seemingly normal Sunday, my entire body started to tense up. This wasn’t my back tightening. This was different. Anxiety was not foreign to me, but the physical manifestation of stress at that level was alien. Have you ever had an anxiety attack? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfamiliar sensations begin to slowly creep through you. Because you’re not accustomed to them, you think the worst. Your breathing gets shorter.

Am I going to pass out?

You try to distract yourself: classical music, Super Smash Bros., push-ups, just to get all the excess energy out of your system. Lying still doesn’t work either. After none of the remedies take, your thoughts get darker.

Am I sick?

I go to the gym. I eat well. I’m still a young man! How could this happen to me?

You sink to the bottom.

Am I going to die?

I finally got to sleep, if you could even call it that, around 3 am. If it weren’t for the fact that my body still felt like it was being squeezed by a boa constrictor, I would’ve said I dreamt the whole thing. Day after day, I lived and relived that traumatic experience. It stayed with me, manifesting itself everywhere: at home, out with friends, at the gym; places I normally feel comfortable, at peace.

A few days went by. I finally cracked. On Eliza’s steady shoulder, I wept and wept. My body was purging all the toxic energy it had crawling through its system.

On the other side of all this, I started to realize that something else had been released from my body: my back pain. Granted, I was stretching more, trying to be mindful of my body’s communication, but I was surprised how flexible I felt. Movements that normally triggered sharp pain we’re now things I could do without much thought.

My back pain had been signaling to my body for years. “Justin, you’re stressed. You need to let this go.” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I just dealt with the pain, in my back, in my mind, because it was all I’d ever known. It was a part of my identity, like a tattoo or a scar. To live without pain was to be a different person completely. Is that why I was holding onto it?

My body still feels off most days. It’s not like it was before. Just a weird headache or stomach pain here and there. What I’ve found odd is that I expect those things to be there now. If I feel 100 percent, I ask myself, “Is something wrong? Why doesn’t my head hurt?” It’s been so long since my body has been at peace that I can’t remember what it feels like. Living with pain is who I am.

Amputees often deal with a symptom called phantom limb. “A sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached.” I wonder how they overcome that feeling and adjust to their new normal? Will I carry this pain with me always, even if it’s all just a ghost inside my head?

If you’ve gotten this far, I wish there were a triumphant, redemptive conclusion I was about to share with you to make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, this anxiety is something that I, and I’m sure many of you, are working through every day.

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”

Onto step number two.