“Despite My Diagnosis…” Stigma Story by CCM Faculty Advisor Russ Crespolini

The Youngtown Edition (the school newspaper of the County College of Morris) is working with two other CCM clubs this semester, Active Minds and Writers Club, on a series about students in the process of recovery. This series is called “Despite My Diagnosis.” Read one of these stories, by CCM Faculty Advisor Russ Crespolini:

Russ CrespoliniTwo decades ago I underwent surgery to repair two ruptured discs at the base of my spine that had robbed me of motor control in my left leg and caused me considerable pain for almost six  months.

At the time I was a junior and an undergraduate and ended up missing a large portion of the academic year. I had just started seriously dating someone and I did not know whether this new relationship could weather the ups and downs of this serious physical infirmity. Epidural and steroid injections, limited mobility and chronic pain had become a steady part of my life. I wish I could tell you that the surgery fixed everything and twenty years later as adjunct professor and faculty advisor to the Youngtown Edition I face each day pain-free.

But I would be lying.

Because it was after my surgery I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. The doctor’s told me that this narrowing of my spinal canal was something I was born with and eventually it the passage would narrow enough to constrain the nerves and put me in a wheelchair.

This was going to be exacerbated by the scar tissue left over by my surgery. Less space in the canal for the nerves to move freely, after all. I was also going to deal with varying levels of pain for the rest of my life. I wish I could tell you that I began exercising and dieting in earnest and did everything I could better my odds.

That would also be a lie.

After surgery, I went back to campus, cane in hand and got special permission to take 25 credits a semester to graduate on time and continue on my path to graduate school. I also ate my way to 400 pounds and dealt with the grinding of chronic pain with prescription anti-inflammatory and pain medication.

Dealing with chronic pain is something that so many people experience but never talk about. The way it may take you ten minutes to get out of bed in the morning when others take ten seconds.  The way it gnaws at your attention span when you are trying to focus on work or school. The way the pain activates your adrenal gland and wears you out. Chronic pain makes you so very very tired. It also makes you jealous. You are jealous of the people around you who aren’t suffering as you do. Not because you would wish this on them, but because they take for granted what they have. That physical normalcy you have been denied.

I wrote this, not because this is a pity party for me, but because I was so inspired and humbled by the previous Despite My Diagnosis columns written by brave authors who shared their stories with Youngtown.

And because I know that so many people deal with varying levels of chronic pain and choose to suffer in silence or be isolated because they are afraid they might snap or be quick-tempered with someone. But chronic pain can also do something unexpectedly beautiful.

It can make you appreciate what you do have.

On the days when your pain is more manageable, you appreciate being able to walk freely, to transition from a seated position to standing without wincing. You appreciate being able to mow your lawn, or walk through a store or take a day trip to the beach. You appreciate the friends and family who love you and care about you and support you. And that builds a reserve of strength you can draw on in your darker days.

But you have to do your part. I did change my lifestyle. I exercise daily to keep myself mobile (it takes a lot of work to look this mediocre) and I did lose over 100 pounds I needed to lose. I no longer take prescription medication for pain management. I take the occasional Aleve.

And I also sought counseling and help.

So for those of you out there with chronic pain, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Do not suffer in silence. Don’t be afraid to explain to people what is happening with you and ask for their patience and support. It is ok to have bad days. It is ok to feel depressed and to feel your lot in life is unfair. It is not ok to let those feelings overwhelm you. Lean on those relationships that provide you comfort.

I made it because I had people who believed in me. I had an undergraduate advisor who put herself out there for me and supported me and guided me and set the template for how I treat my own students. I still text her daily. I had family and friends who were there when I woke up in the hospital and continued to be a presence in my daily life. Those relationships that are meant to be will strengthen. That girl I was in the new relationship with 20 years ago when I had my surgery is my wife of 13 years.

For those of you who know someone with chronic pain, do your best to be patient. Celebrate the days they feel well and listen to them when they are feeling down. I still have my bad days, when the pain and weakness creeps down my leg. Usually when the weather changes.

So despite my diagnosis, I am a journalist, father, husband, educator, advisor, improv-artist, video-game enthusiast, Union President, and adjunct professor. But because of my diagnosis, I appreciate, and enjoy, those opportunities more than I will ever be able to express.

Editor’s note: Russ Crespolini is a working journalist and adjunct professor at County College of Morris and The College of Saint Elizabeth where he advises both campus newspapers. He wrote this column in the hopes other faculty, staff and administrators would share their story.