The Year I Lost Everything
Three years ago, I lost my ability to type along with almost everything that I had been working for. Here’s how I recovered and what I learned along the way.
In 2011, I injured my wrists by typing too much. Yes, it can happen.
It started in the last few weeks of the fall semester of university. As I was stressing out finishing assignments and preparing for finals, I felt pain in my arms and hands as I typed. I ignored it, and hoped that the pain would go away.
It got worse. It got so bad that by the time I went home for the holidays, all I could do was lie in bed — completely paralyzed by the sharp and dull pains in my forearms and wrists.
Doctors prescribed rest and physiotherapy. I did both. And I waited.
At first I hoped for a quick recovery, but even at this time there was a feeling in the back of my mind that knew this pain was going to stay.
I hate it when I’m right.
Not many people know what chronic pain truly feels like.
The physical pain is actually not that bad. You get used to it day to day. Typing would make things much worse, so I avoided that. That left a constant dull ache that I felt I could tough out indefinitely.
The less bearable part was the uncertainty around my future and livelihood. I was finishing a math degree. I was set on working in tech. Not being able to type would have meant destroying everything that I had worked for in the past few years, plus all the tuition dollars spent on my education. If this pain was permanent, I’d have no future. I’d lose everything.
This made me deathly afraid of accepting the possibility that the pain would never go away. It was a fear that made me feel deeply vulnerable. And it was this fear that stayed with me every single moment of every day.
On top of this, I feared sharing my pain publicly. I didn’t want pity — to be labeled an invalid. I had an ego that I desperately wanted to protect.
I faced judgement in my relationship with my then girlfriend. From her friends and family came harsh words — “Why are you with him?”, “He has no future”, “Give him 6 months for him to get it together or break up with him”.
I felt very alone.
Psychologist, author and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl credited his ability to find meaning in difficult times as a major factor to his surviving the concentration camps.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. — Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Dr. Frankl lost all his freedoms. He was reduced to worrying about whether he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup and whether he would die under the charge of a new brutal foreman. At that moment, he realized the only way he could retain his will to live was to create meaning. In a place where there was very little meaning and much pointless brutality, he looked within himself.
I knew that if I ever recovered from this injury with myself intact, I had to create meaning in my own life, beyond the day to day struggle to recover from my injury.
I could have dropped out of school then to live back home with my parents, hopeful that with time and leisure I would recover. But that would have robbed my life of meaning. Instead I decided to finish my degree.
Because I was so disappointed at my seemingly lost future, I came back very unmotivated in school. I barely scraped by my first semester back. But after a while, I began to let go of my expectations and started to accept my new situation. My grades slowly went back to normal, and I ended up finishing with a Bachelor of Mathematics majoring in Pure Math & Statistics in the Fall of 2012.
After graduation, I still wasn’t healed so I thought about the same option. Move back home, or find some way to make a contribution to society.
I happened to be lucky. One of my friends Lisa was starting a data visualization start-up. She needed someone who was both sociable and who knew the in’s and outs of analytics to run sales and marketing. I fit the profile.
I joined the team and we took Polychart through tens of thousands of dollars in sales and venture funding from a start-up accelerator. I excelled in my role using voice recognition and digital stylus input to send emails and write copy.
But by the fall of 2013, we decided that the idea wasn’t strong enough to pursue further and we wound down the company. I still hadn’t recovered, so once again I was left to find meaning.
I started reading books. The failed start-up had left me with a lot of questions about life and business. I was curious and had time to explore the answers. I first made a list of 100 books that I thought were interesting I could learn from. I ended up reading 170 books over the next 6 months.
The breakthrough in recovering from my injury came at the tail end of my reading project.
By a friend’s recommendation who experienced a similar injury, I read a book on chronic pain called the Mindbody Prescription by Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU. In the book Dr. Sarno talks about how he believes that the body can distract the mind from tremendous amounts of stress by creating physical pain. He believes the initial reasons for many chronic injuries are merely triggers for the psychologically rooted aftermath.
Dr Sarno prescribes two treatments — journaling, and getting back to regular activity and working through the pain. At first I was skeptical and knew that the science behind this was shaky, but by this point I was getting desperate and was willing to give it a shot.
I started by writing in a journal every day. I began with “Today I feel…” and wrote about all the emotions and stress that I was feeling. I also went back to my childhood and wrote vivid recollections about the stressful moments that have happened in my life.
Immediately after journalling, I felt tremendous amounts of stress dissipate. There was even a physical response. My shoulders and back relaxed from being very tense. My body’s reaction surprised me. I didn’t realize that I carried such a huge burden.
At the same time, with great fear of injuring myself, I started typing again. I worked through the extreme pain that followed, telling myself that the pain was just my body trying to distract me from the real issue — the stress that I was neglecting.
On my first try I surprised myself and typed over 500 words. I felt lots of pain after typing and thought about quitting the program. I was afraid that I was re-injuring myself. I pushed through and decided to keep going. The next day I was able to type over 1000 words. The next, over 2000 words.
After one week of typing daily, I felt that around 80% of the constant pain in my arms and hands were gone. I no longer felt my body punishing me with extreme pain after a round of typing. At that moment, I remembered feeling a huge sense of relief and joy. I knew the treatment was working.
I kept this up for a few months. There were flare ups, relapses where I would feel pain like I did before I started the treatment. These would scare me and sometimes would make me feel like I was reinjuring myself all over again. But I had resolve. I read online sources and in Dr. Sarno’s book that relapses were part of the recovery. I was fully commited to the treatment. I pushed forward.
Eventually, I got to a point where I didn’t feel any pain on a day to day basis. Sometimes, when life got stressful and I wasn’t dealing with it well, a bit of the pain would come back. But I would fight back with journaling. Just being aware of the nature of the stress would make everything better — the pain would eventually go away. By this point, I knew that I recovered.
At first I felt tremendous joy every day about my regained ability. I felt relief that my livelihood was safe and I stopped worrying about the future. But life moves on. I got used to it very quickly, and settled into a normal routine soon after.
Looking back, there’s one thing that I wish I could have done differently.
Author and researcher Brené Brown’s life work revolves around her belief that being vulnerable is a requirement in receiving love and acceptance from others.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. — Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
I wish I shared my vulnerability with more people. I turned my back on the love that I could have received from my friends and family by opening up.
I realize now that I’m a perfectionist. I refused to go to others for help when I needed it. I had an idealized view of what my life should be like. And when things didn’t go well, I hid the stress and pretended like everything was fine. But this takes a huge toll on the body and mind, and I paid the price. If I had just accepted and shared more of life’s imperfections, I don’t think my body would have broken down under the weight of repressed stress.
I feel that if I were to be given the choice of going through this again, I would accept in a heartbeat.
Being aware now of the full range of my emotions. Valuing sharing my vulnerabilities with others. Being mindful of my own perfectionist tendencies. Knowing how to overcome adversity by creating my own meaning. These are lessons that I’ll take with me into the future.
I now have the tools now to deal with stress, so I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry again about re-injuring myself like I did before. I feel like I can anything I want. Without fear. Without pain.
Special thanks for Herbert Lui (https://medium.com/@herbertlui) for editing this and helping with direction. You helped me make this post 100x more engaging with your mastery of storytelling.