How I as a mountain biker live and love my life with chronic pain

"Your spine looks like a 65-year old's. Your discs are degenerating one by one, two of them are already really bad. It is never going to heal."

Words by: Helena Shill Werner
Photos by: Kiwa Photography, Lewis Gregory Photography, Helena and Jason Shill Werner

When the specialist surgeon said these words to me I was 23 years old, living a very active lifestyle, mostly in the mountains and I had just graduated from the Police Academy. Walking into the surgeon’s office I had almost no information on why my back had been hurting since my teens. He gave me a lot of information, but I was in shock and couldn’t take it in. There was no room for anything else in my mind but the phrase “It is never going to heal” and it felt like I couldn’t absorb what he said. All my dreams were shattered. 

15 years have passed since that appointment and I have had minor to severe back pain on and off since then. I have written an article before about how to mentally deal with injuries. But in this article, I will focus on what my chronic injury has taught me. Maybe you are suffering from an illness or long-term injury, or fear it happening in the future. Keep reading for some more insight.

Set a healthy goal

My first goal was to be pain free. I spent so much time, money and energy trying to find the right thing that could fix it all. I didn’t know much about goals or mental training at that time, and even though my intentions were good it was not a healthy goal for me at that time. Everything I tried felt like a failure because I was still in some kind of pain. After a while I had some professional help to mentally manage my pain. I changed my goal into something more achievable. Doing that did not mean that I gave up on wanting a pain free life, but it helped me to feel better and happier. My goal now is to take care of myself, listen to my body and try to provide it and myself with what it needs.

The power of the pain

“Where would you rate your pain on a scale from 1-10?”. Have you ever received that question from a doctor or physio? I have, many times. But have you ever measured how happy you are in life on a scale from 1-10? I was asked to do both for a couple of days in a row and I noticed that if my pain scored high my happiness did not. And if my pain was low I was happier. 

Not only did my back hurt and restrict me physically, I had given it power to control my happiness! My math was simple: Pain = bad day, low pain = good day. 

To take back the power, I started working on how I could be happy with the pain. I was really good at it in short moments. But looking into the future, I honestly could not see myself happy unless the pain stopped. 

I shifted focus from my “pain scale” to my “life scale” and focused more on what kind of feeling makes me happy. If I wanted to go for a big bike ride, I shifted my focus to being very grateful for the bike ride that I managed that day and how it made me feel. I focused on the company, the surroundings and the other sensations the ride gave me. 

Maintaining this mindset is like weightlifting for our brain, it is hard work and it was easier at first to be sad and feel like crap about not being able to do the big ride. But ask yourself; why go for a bike ride to begin with? Because it makes me happy!

“If you are reading this and thinking “I can’t even go for a bike ride” then don’t waste your precious time thinking about what you can’t do and spend that time doing what you actually can do.”

Dealing with the fear of injuries or pain

I´ve had two surgeries on my spine, the first one actually made it worse and the second one was a success and decreased my pain massively. It was a huge relief, but after some time it also came with a fear of the old pain levels returning. If being injured means that life sucks, hurting yourself is going to be something you dread. One thing that I do to deal with problems is to look back at what I have overcome before. Honestly, I don’t want to go through that again, but looking back, I know I can and I will do it again if needed. If you have a fear of something, try to look back at something that you have overcome, and ask yourself; how did you do it? Fuel up with the power from that moment and start using it now. 

One of my “go to’s” to fuel up when things are hard is that I look back at moments that I know when times were hard. I do this to remind myself that I was happy and present in that moment, loving it even if I was injured and in pain. This gives me strength to do the same in tougher moments. Here are a few of those moments: 

I have written an article about how to face fears, so if you want to read more about that check it out: Face your fears

Give yourself time to heal and allow yourself to be sad

When something is broken, your body will do everything to fix and protect it. This is a stressful mode, because your body declares war against the pain. A war that is ongoing with full force until either you rest, or it is healed. Recovery was personal and for me in the beginning. I wasted a lot of energy fighting some of my emotions and kept a brave face. I needed to let go of a lot of anger, frustration, jealousy and grief.

Sometimes I give myself an hour or two just to let everything suck for a bit and then let it go.

If I don’t let myself feel all the lows it makes it harder for me to also truly feel all highs. 

How not to be an injured or ill person

“How is your back today?” “I’ll lift that for you!” “I know this really good physio, she/he can fix you!”

I know that people usually say these things to help but hearing this every day actually turned me in to “Helena with the back pain.” I decided to tell my friends and coworkers how they could help me. For example, I told them that I will ask for help when I need it and that I would prefer that they ask me how I’m doing than how my back is. The result of not having conversations about my back in my everyday life helped me to be just Helena and not Helena with the bad back.

The most important thing for me is accepting that pain and hard times is a part of life and it is up to me to make the best of the situation I am in. We are all going to have highs and lows and it is easier having a great time when things are good than when things are hard. But it is not impossible!

“Life is like mountains; if you want to reach the summit you need to deal with the whole mountain. But if you are out of other options, I promise you that you can enjoy the summit from a distance too.”

About Helena

Helena is a mountain biking life and sports coach that loves going up and down mountains. She has been working with stress management and how to perform under pressure within the police for more than 10 years and also coaches athletes and sports enthusiasts how to reach their goals.

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