If you’ve ever been seriously ill or injured or have needed to recover from surgery, you might identify with Pat Friedrichs, a 61-year-old retired high-tech industry executive. As a result of several car accidents, Pat had severe back and neck pain.
The trouble was, as she put it, she didn’t look sick. "I’m 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall, and I look like a tall blond All-American girl," Pat explained. "People think of me as this healthy jock. When someone looks at me, they have no clue [about my pain.]"
So it came as a surprise to some of her friends when, for instance, she wasn’t up for a hike. She might look fine to others, but Pat has a hidden trauma, as she calls it. It doesn’t show like a stitched-up wound, but could cause enough problems that she might need to cancel everything if her pain flares up.
Situations like this can double the already heavy pressure to "snap back" after an illness or injury. You may want to do a lot, but the best thing you can do is rest. You may look fine, but find the after-effects of chemotherapy have taken a huge toll on your energy or that the incision site still hurts long after you seem to have recovered from surgery.
Deborah Bowes, PhD, a physical therapist and co-owner of the San Francisco Feldenkrais Center, reports that many of her students say things like "I don’t want to be a lazy faker." But in Bowes’ 23 years of practice, this comment usually comes from someone who is neither lazy nor faking.
"I hear it from someone who is recovering from an injury or surgery and needs to take it easy for a while," Bowes says. "I hear it from people who are working full-time while dealing with some kind of disability or pain condition. Sometimes the person is pushing themselves beyond their abilities and interfering with the natural healing process."
Our society prizes productivity—often at the expense of health (and common sense). Athletes are praised for playing hurt, even though that could lead to lifelong pain and disability later. "It seems as if we feel guilty for needing to take care of ourselves," Bowes maintained.
Pat Friedrichs found that the hardest part for her was needing to ask for help. After having a successful career and being accustomed to independence, she says, "It’s difficult to see yourself in a limited role." She had been one of the first women to work in the high-tech arena. "You become this armored Amazon woman to survive. You’re not allowed to have weaknesses." That armor later created problems, as she notes: "I kept going when I needed to rest."
Deborah Bowes believes we need to appreciate the value of a convalescence period and taking care of yourself: "Convalescence is the gradual recovery of health and strength after an illness or injury. It takes time, patience and compassion toward oneself."