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‘Fight the pain’: A personal story of chronic pain, depression and, finally, relief

Debilitating physical pain can have a similarly devastating mental impact


Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than six months. In addition to the physical pain, many people with chronic pain also experience depression, and depression impacts many of our behaviors.

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I recently had back surgery. This was neurosurgery, not orthopedic surgery. The neurosurgeon successfully relieved the tension on the nerves at the L1/L2 and L4/L5 level.

The shooting pain I had in my legs before surgery was gone when I woke up. I was up walking within about three hours of surgery. This was relief unlike any other.

I realize that I am not the first person to have back pain. My point in sharing my experience here, with you, is to highlight the mental impact of chronic pain and steps to overcome it.

‘They would not listen’

I have been in the fire service for more than 50 years. The decades of firefighting work took their toll on my body, and I began struggling with severe back pain approximately three years ago.

My pain originated in the spinal cord. I had two orthopedic surgeries that I classified as successful, but the pain came back very quickly. The orthopedic surgeon who performed the two surgeries insisted that the hardware was still in place and solid. He would not listen to my description of the pain and the location.

I went to physical therapy, and they would not listen to me about the pain they were causing during the sessions. One session was so bad that the pain became worse every day thereafter.

I was mentally paralyzed by the pain. I had to force myself to get up in the morning because I knew when I moved, the pain would be excruciating. Walking was painful. Standing was painful. Sitting was painless at first but became painful as time went by. I was becoming more and more depressed each and every day because I knew that the pain might never go away.

‘I thought about suicide’

Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than six months. In addition to the physical pain, many people with chronic pain also experience depression, and depression impacts many of our behaviors. The degree to which this occurs depends on many factors, including social interaction and support from family and friends. I did not realize how low I had become mentally before the surgery until I asked myself the question: Do I want to live the rest of my life if this pain does not go away?

I thought about suicide. I thought about it over a significant period. I thought about it every night when I was by myself. It is the darkness that brought the most despair thinking to me. I did not tell anyone. I did not know who to tell. I did not know what to say. I was better during the day when my mind was occupied.

‘Depression can be debilitating’

The depression can be debilitating. Many people refuse to accept their own sadness. But ignorance and denial are not cures. If you can’t accept that you are depressed, it will progressively get worse, kicking you around a lot harder than when the depression first started affecting you.

What are some signs you might be experiencing depression? While certainly not an all-encompassing list, these are some of the symptoms that most impacted me:

  1. Conflicts with family and friends become fights where someone gets hurt, most often emotionally, not physically. But the conflicts can become physical.
  2. Feelings of numbness, like when you see someone who is hurt or joyful for whatever reason, and you feel nothing.
  3. Inability to concentrate. This was a big one for me. My mind was wandering all the time.
  4. Work changes. For example, you work less and are unable to complete work projects on time or at all. I did very little actual work. I had projects that went undone because I simply did not want to do them. I knew I was letting down friends and business partners. I would only do things that had hard deadlines set by someone else. If I set the deadline, I could keep putting it off.

It was during this time of chronic pain and depression that I determined that I also had post-traumatic stress following a couple firefighter active-duty deaths. Such crises take a toll on both mental and physical health.

‘Don’t give up’

It was a combination of factors that helped me break out of the depression. It was my desire to live and contribute. It was acknowledging that I am human who gets hurt – but not letting that hurt go. It was counseling.

The counseling was remote, as this was during the time of COVID in-person restrictions. The counselor helped me both process recent events and recognize that there are multiple events from a long time ago that are still impacting my mental health. I now have a better understanding of how the mental pain of these events affected me and how to lessen that impact.

I also thought about my wife, Leslie. I did not want her to have to take care of me. I did not want the grandkids to see grandpa unable to get up or move around.

One night a memory popped into my head from a years-ago encounter with a person at a Dennys around 3 a.m. after a fire. As I walked out, this guy following me says, “Are you John Buckman?” When I responded yes, he shared his name. This man and I grew up on the same street for the first 10 years of our lives.

My first thought was that his father died by suicide. That was my first thought some 55 years later. As we walked back into Denny’s to catch up on our lives, I knew that I would not leave my youngest granddaughter at 9 years old the lasting memory that grandpa died by suicide.

It was the love of my family that guided me: Dont give up. Fight the pain. Fight the depression. Hang out with friends. Fill your brain with positive thoughts. Raise hell with the doctors until you find someone that will listen.

‘A totally new outlook on life’

I found that doctor – a neurosurgeon who on my first visit to his office came into the observation room and told me where my pain was. He did not ask me, he told me. He looked at my MRI and could see the root of the problem. “I can fix that,” he said. I was elated. I walked out of that office with a surgery date and a totally new outlook on life. And the surgery was successful.

I did not realize that not only do I have to rebuild the muscles in my back, I also have to work on my entire body to get it back in shape to live a fairly normal physical life.

The other thing I learned is that the pain is constructed entirely in the brain. This doesnt mean pain is any less real, but in cases of chronic pain, your brain helps perpetuate the problem. The brain begins to anticipate pain when you do certain things. For me, even after surgery, my brain anticipated pain. I am having to retrain my brain to not anticipate pain when I move. Just like any other habit, it takes time to create positive thoughts, and I continue to work on it today. Old habits are hard to break. Creating new habits take time and persistence – it may take months before a new habit becomes automatic.

Additionally, positive emotions can significantly lessen pain. C.W. Metcalf, author of the book “Lighten Up,” first made me aware of the power of positivity and the impact of endorphins when he presented at Fire-Rescue International in the 1990s. Our bodies release endorphins, often called “feel good chemicals,” to cope with pain or stress.” Further, Denis Waitley, author of “The Psychology of Winning,” writes extensively about the power of positivity. I met both Metcalf and Waitley many years ago, and they have had a very strong impact on my life as I adopted their approaches to positivity to help me through my back pain and depression.

‘Fight the pain’

Managing pain is an all-encompassing activity. If you know someone who is experiencing significant pain, offer help. Don’t ignore their pain. The pain is real. As if you’re in pain, recognize that the pain will impact the quality of your life and those who love you. Fight the pain.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.