My childhood was fairly typical of a privileged conservationist; I grew up surrounded by nature and had the opportunity to pursue my passion with a supportive family and access to a good education. But at seventeen my life changed.
I developed chronic pain.
My pain started, for some unknown reason, just before my final year of high school, universally considered the most important and most stressful year. The strain of that year on my nerves and muscles caused constant arm pain doing simple tasks like writing or holding a book open. Some days I couldn’t even brush my teeth or button up my shirt without searing pain racing through my arms. Yet every doctor said it would naturally heal because I was so young.
One of the hardest parts was feeling that I had lost myself. Everything I once loved – studying, drawing, reading, making music – I could no longer do without pain. If I could not work with my arms, then did I have any value? How could I even pursue my conservation dreams?
Although I prepared myself for a terrible university entrance mark, I ended up receiving the exact mark I needed to gain entrance into my first choice. Over the moon, I thought I could finally do what all those doctors had been advising me to do – rest! But instead of healing my pain, the long period of rest just deconditioned my muscles. I started university with muscles that could not weather the strain of study and a nervous system that was wired to fire pain signals.
The University Years
My first year of university was pretty brutal. I would spend the first four weeks of semester in pain, the middle five finally coping and the final four again in agony. By exam time, I could not type or write out study notes as I had to save my strength for the actual exams. Instead, I would just read over my lecture notes and create mnemonics to help remember the content. In second year zoology I even created a mind-palace to help memorise key facts about all 36 animal phyla!
Despite the obvious disruption the pain was causing in my life, I struggled to find a sympathetic doctor. During my first two and a half years of chronic pain, I saw a total of ten different medical and allied health professionals. I would end up crying to each new health professional in fear of being dismissed again. Finally though, I found a sympathetic GP who sent me to the local pain clinic, a specialist upper-limb physiotherapist who put me on track to strengthen my arms, and an amazing osteopath who relieved muscular tension. I also found a psychologist at the university counselling centre that had worked in a chronic pain clinic. He introduced me to the fantastic book by Norman Doidge ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ which has a chapter on pain psychology (and was later expanded upon in his next book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing’). And finally I had my parents, a constant source of support – I honestly could not be where I am today without them.
The Conservationist in Training
For my honours research year I had two main goals, learn more experimental design and develop my fieldwork skills. And I’m so proud of what I achieved that year: I completed three field experiments, learned to kayak and drive a boat, learned basic R coding, wrote a 60 page thesis (not including figures and references) and endured a sting from the famous Australian giant stinging tree! Thankfully I was also able to work for my honours supervisor as a research assistant for 10 months.
The next difficult step was finding a job, a subject that has been thoroughly discussed in Lonely Conservationists! I would like to add two perspectives of mine on this topic.
One of the difficulties in having chronic pain is that it rules out some early career conservation jobs. I have to be careful to not cause a flare up with strenuous physical labour, ruling out a common stepping-stone job for conservationists in Australia (field officer). Repeated movements can also cause a flare up and it’s stressful to tell colleagues when I need to rest. Last year during my conservation internship, I had the opportunity to assist in potoroo trapping in a beautiful part of southern Australia. About half way through the set-up day, my pain was flaring up from carrying the traps. Thankfully, my friend and fellow intern noticed I was struggling and knew that I wouldn’t ask for help for fear of letting the team down. It meant the world to me when she quietly took some of my traps and carried a heavier load.
It’s also really scary telling a new employer about my chronic pain. One of the first interviews I had after finishing university was for a graduate position at an ecological consultancy. I was so excited until I read the pre-interview questionnaire. In it the company asked if I had any medical conditions that might affect my work. They also stipulated that if a successful applicant was dishonest in the questionnaire, they could terminate employment. In fear of retribution I wrote down my chronic pain and it was obviously brought up in the interview. Afterwards I learned that in Australia there is no legal requirement for me to tell a potential employer about my condition. And if I don’t inform them, the worst outcome is that I might not be able take workers’ compensation if my condition worsens due to the job. Although I know I’m not defined by what I can do, sometimes I feel like I’m just damaged goods and that interview definitely made me feel like that.
I’ve never wanted to be defined by my chronic pain. Even though it effects my ability in life, it doesn’t seem like a real disability. Chronic pain is such a nebulous concept, an ill-understood condition. If it was more definable, maybe I would be more deserving of assistance. One in five people experience a chronic pain condition and yet it was only added to the medical diagnostic Bible, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), in 2019 for the ICD-11. My pain is here to stay and I have learned to pace myself; to manage it rather than fight it.
Chronic pain taught me to listen to my body, conservation taught me to listen to the earth.
Beautifully written, Annabel. Thank you for sharing your story x