Out of the Darkness
One woman’s journey turning pain into power
Often, we get to choose how we shape our lives and the world around us. Sometimes though, our lives are thrust into unfamiliar scenarios that we have no control over and how we respond in these moments is a true test of our character. It’s a real inspiration when you meet people who have not just overcome their own challenges in life, but are using their journey to help others facing similar mountains to climb.
Natalie’s world turned upside down at the age of seventeen, and for someone who was young and very active what happened rocked her life to the core. “When you’re young, you think that you’re completely indestructible, and you don’t really worry about your health.” She says, “I played football, I was a keen swimmer, I loved to dance and was really into performing arts and was generally quite happy.”
Describing the moment when her life changed, she says, “It was a simple thing really. I was just getting changed at home and stood up straight. I suddenly felt this shock go right through my body. I couldn’t stand up straight without being in agony.”
She went to see the doctor. “To begin with they just thought it was a sporting injury, that I’d hurt myself at some point without realising it and told me it would get better in a couple of weeks kind of thing… yeah, it never did.” she recalls.
In the following months she describes what life was like. “I could barely walk, sit or sleep without being in a lot of pain. To suddenly go from being a seventeen year old in the prime of my life to having all this pain, it was a real shock to the system. I had to give up all the things I enjoyed. I just thought this isn’t normal for a seventeen year old, I should have healed by now.”
It took two years for Natalie to get a diagnosis. An MRI revealed that vertebrae in her spine were degenerating and she had several bulging discs. “It’s basically like chronic back pain and fibromyalgia,” she says, “I remember the shock of it being downplayed as a temporary sporting injury, to something that was now going to affect the rest of my life. The level of pain changes week to week, so there’s a lot of uncertainty which can be hard.”
She describes a sense of relief at knowing what was wrong, mixed with fear and uncertainty around her future. “Because it’s my spine it affects literally everything to do with mobility. I had to face things like: Am I going to be able to have kids? Am I going to be able to hold down a full time job? Am I even going to be able to look after myself?” She opens up with honesty, “You sort of give up on your future because you think If I’m this bad now, how am I going to be in the next ten, twenty years.”
Now twenty six years old, Natalie has lived with her chronic pain for seven years and credits an enthusiastic back pain specialist with her current perspective on life. “I shared with her that I was weighed down by the pain and wasn’t going to succeed in what I wanted in life. I told her about my darkest times when I just felt like ending it. The doctor understood my concerns and she was the first person who really listened to me and made me feel like my experiences were valid. That I was normal. She spoke to me as an adult, not a child.”
The next thing the specialist said to Natalie was transformational. “She told me that I was trapped in a cycle of only seeing the negative. She understood why, but told me that I didn’t need to stay trapped in my own body, that I could still lead a very happy, healthy and successful life as a woman even with my condition. It was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Natalie explains the shift in her mindset since this was spoken to her; a reminder of the power of our words. “I think it’s good to not get too caught up in what might be and focus on what you can do in the present. I just take each day as it comes and try to manage what I can, without going back to the place where I felt isolated and defeated.”
Natalie currently works part-time for Made in Manningham which helps people set up community businesses. When she started working there her colleagues and management weren’t aware of her chronic pain but thankfully, through a culture of openness, she’s been able to share her experiences. She says, “Our conversations have made work life much easier for me and I think more organisations should follow suit to create a more accessible and flexible working environment.”
For Natalie, chronic pain has similarities to mental health because it’s not obvious externally what someone is dealing with internally. As a society we’re not really educated about it, and she explains how people fall into this grey area, often unable to perform many basic tasks but not disabled enough to be registered as disabled.
“People will say ‘you look really well’ and think I’m okay without realising that I’m just putting a brave face on it. It puts you in a difficult place in society where your disability/health condition needs to be seen to be accommodated. I want to be involved in creating an open conversation, so that those living chronic pain can be met with compassion, support and society will become more inclusive.”
Natalie is learning that change is possible for both individuals suffering with chronic pain and empathy towards them from wider society. It’s something that she’s been exploring during the pandemic after setting up a project called ‘Pain into Power’ with her sister, an online peer support group for women living with chronic pain in her city of Bradford.
She explains her thoughts behind it. “We wanted to create a safe and accessible platform where women could share experiences, advice and support each other. When someone finds out they’re not alone in their experiences and feelings it’s really helpful, ‘It’s not about saying ‘ just think positively’, it’s about accepting who we are and learning how to thrive despite life’s setbacks.”
The demand took the sisters by surprise and the project is continuing to evolve. “It’s inspiring because you realise you’re not just in your own bubble anymore, and it helps you out of the darkness.” Recently she’s been collaborating with Bradford-based creatives to put on workshops for members. “It’s easy to lose your ability to express yourself when you suffer with chronic pain, because everything is focused on your pain. I know for me though, that painting was my biggest escape when I started suffering.” She continues, “We’re exploring how creativity can be used as a tool for improving wellbeing. Doing something creative such as crafting, doodling or listening to music can help you express and process emotions which benefits your mental and physical health.”
Her experiences with her work and in developing the peer support project have given Natalie a fresh appreciation for her city. “Bradford gets a bad rap when you speak to people who don’t actually live here, but I love how it’s full of people from so many different backgrounds and a lot of people are coming forward to make a positive impact in this city.”
She often gets to travel across the UK with her work but always misses Bradford. “It’s hard to put your finger on it but I think folk are friendlier up north. There’s a rawness and vibrancy to the people of Bradford who just want to help people and make a positive difference.”
Chronic pain can easily isolate and cause an individual’s life to close down, yet Natalie has found a way to overcome this by seeing the positive, and by having honest and open conversations. The ripple effect of those words spoken by the back specialist are now reaching more and more people. “It’s kind of like an exploration and a journey together, the beauty of this project is that we’re learning together what works and what doesn’t. It’s been like a key to unlocking my own power and hope.”
She continues, “The mental or physical suffering doesn’t have to define you and it doesn’t have to imprison you. It’s about finding people’s potential and their inner power, because that’s what’s important.” It’s powerful lived experience and advice like this that could help many people.
When asked about how her view of success has changed in the last seven years Natalie concludes, “Success used to be getting a degree, getting a good job, earning lots of money and having a happy life – and that’s it. Now if I died tomorrow, and I could say that I’d made some kind of positive impact on someone else’s life or made a positive impact in society, then I could die happy. That is success for me now.”
You can find out more about the ‘Pain into Power’ project here
Story and Images by Tom Harmer