My Spondylitis Life Part 3: What Would You Trade the Pain For?
I ended the last post with a kind of bold statement, that is often met with confused looks when I tell people in real life.
I fully believe that my spondylitis is one of the best things to ever happen to me.
So now seems like as good a time as any to address that.
“Nature prescribed illness for him […] ordered, so as to further his recovery” - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.8
Before the spondylitis started, I was like most teenage boys. I only did what was easy and I mostly thought about myself. My priorities in life were having fun with friends and being cool.
The pain took that away from me, along with so much else. I couldn’t do the things that were fun outside. I couldn’t do the cool frisbee moves, and eventually I couldn’t even run.
I wasn’t equipped to deal with this and gave up at the slightest obstacle. I remember once in college, I tried to get back in shape starting with running. The local high school’s soccer field was right behind our apartment, so I went out there. I got halfway down the field before I collapsed in pain.
I didn’t try again for months after that.
I distracted myself with video games and junk food. And when those failed, I was left in pain, confusion, and anger. I began browsing the internet hours on end to pacify me. I was doomscrolling years before we had a term for it.
Of course, none of that helped. As I continued to lose ability, I lost myself, lost my identity.
My body was failing. But I didn’t realize that as I fell apart, my spirit was going to be rebuilt. Brick by painful brick.
Life is pain.
I know, it seems bleak. But it’s true, there is no Life that doesn’t involve Pain. And there is no Pain without a Life to feel it.
It took years for me to accept that. To stop trying to ignore and numb it. 1
And it was only once I accepted that pain was part of my life that I could move on.
Pain may be mandatory. But suffering is optional.
As conscious beings, we always have a choice. I’d learned just how much pain I could endure, but I was done being miserable. I still had to feel the pain, but I realized I could let go of the feelings I had towards it. I could let go of the suffering. Of the desire for a life without pain.
At the lowest point of the Dark Times, this gave me a light I could cling to. My body was stiff and painful. My mind was stressed and foggy. But I could bear these things without suffering from them. I could be something other than a vessel for pain.
I could keep my spirits high by helping others. I supported my girlfriend through some hard times. I began baking cookies for my overworked coworkers. I slowly stopped prioritizing my own selfish interests over others.
And then, I came across a book that would create a stable foundation.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way, becomes the way. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20
I had learned how to still be a human, and have an identity and even good times while in pain. But things were still getting worse, and quickly.
The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday not only introduced me to philosophy and one of my favorite authors, it reframed everything.
At this point, I still had never heard of ankylosing spondylitis, but it was clear that my body was the obstacle. So I decided to make it the way, and thus began The Battle.
I’d unknowingly stumbled upon one of the smartest moves I could’ve made. Inactivity advances the symptoms of spondylitis, while increased activity directly combats the causes. I started parking at the furthest spot at work and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. I started seeking out the hardest and most strenuous ways to do everyday activities. Something the old me never would’ve done.
I learned how to eat, how to work out, and how to push myself. I learned my limits, and that they were much higher than I thought. I learned just what I was capable of if I put my mind to it.
Change is not only possible, but inevitable.
Now that I’d begun down this path, I realized there were no more excuses.
Time marches on, and we all change. So I might as well intentionally change for the better.
Ever since this realization, I have constantly devoted some time to making myself better. Whether it’s my mind, my body, or my soul. Whereas the previous bricks each took years, from here I started seeking them out.
The point of this post is not to say how awesome and perfect I am. To the contrary, I still have lots of work to go and even the things I just claimed to have learned are things I struggle with daily. But I am better than I was, especially before the illness.
When Kayla first suggested ankylosing spondylitis as a possible diagnosis, I rejected it. It was partially fear, partially hubris, and partially because I was used to the way things were. However, after just a few days reflection, I realized she was right, and told her as much.
And then, while processing, I did one of the things I’m most proud of. In my journal, I wrote “I will become the best possible version of myself because of AS, not in spite of it”. And a few days later: “I’ve been given the best kind of diagnosis”.
In “Love From The Other Side”, Fall Out Boy poses a rhetorical question: “What would you trade the pain for?”
My answer: Nothing.
This pain is a part of me. Not my entire identity, but an important part of me nonetheless. Almost every aspect of myself that I’m proud of came from the pain.
Or maybe it was already there, and the pain just helped me express it.
Yes, it wasn’t a pleasant journey. I had to get broken down and brought low before I could rebuild.
But that was what was prescribed to me by nature.
Next time, we’ll talk about how I manage the symptoms from last post, including medication, lifestyle changes, and strategies.
As always, thank you so much for reading and please reach out if you have any questions or anything interesting! firstname.lastname@example.org
Luckily, I never turned to drugs and alcohol. I don’t know if I could’ve come back from that.↩︎