I’m proud to be the founder of a leading national pain advocacy organization, the U.S. Pain Foundation.
But first I consider myself to be a person living with pain.
My journey goes back to 2003, when I was 30 years old. At the time, I was one of the top chefs and caterers in Connecticut and New York. I’d worked in the food business since I was 13, starting out as a dishwasher and eventually owning my own businesses: a gourmet food store, a catering company, and a small eat-in restaurant. I always identified myself as a cook — mostly of Italian and French food — and I loved what I did.
But one day at work, I was injured while lifting a very light box. I twisted my body as I lifted, my spine broke, and I severed my sciatic nerve. From that moment on, everything changed for me. I went from being a highly sought-after chef to a pain patient.
I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, failed back surgery syndrome, nerve entrapment and damage, as well as complex regional pain syndrome. I began grueling physical therapy, and underwent multiple failed back surgeries and various pain management treatments. I was seeing a number of healthcare providers, including a pain management specialist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, and a psychologist.
Even vibrations, noise, and light affected my pain.
At my worst, I was taking more than 20 pills a day — but those brought only slight relief. I was taking a whole host of pain meds, antidepressants, and others. And while they allowed me to function, they also caused many awful side effects, including headaches, an upset stomach, drowsiness, and opioid-induced constipation and nausea.
From Terrible Pain to Social Isolation
My life seemed to be in shambles.
I was married at the time, and the injury ruined my marriage. My wife at the time did not want to have kids with me, and we ended up getting divorced.
I also became paranoid that my family members and friends would get tired of me talking about pain, or think I was “better” because I was able to go out with them.
My situation put a huge strain on my marriage and my relationships with my six brothers and sisters. In fact, I went through a period of not speaking to any of them because I was so angry.
I began to isolate myself.
Chronic Pain Took My Livelihood, But Gave Me a New ‘Job’
The pain made it difficult for me to rest or be comfortable in any position for an extended amount of time. My ability to sleep was, and still is, greatly impacted. I believe I average about three to four hours of sleep a night.
One of the hardest moments in my life was when I had to accept that my pain was chronic. I sold my businesses and fell into a deep depression. For my whole life, I had identified my worth by what I did: I was a chef. Without my passion, I didn’t know who I was anymore. It was a very scary time.
Thankfully, I discovered I had a new calling in life, which was helping other chronic-pain warriors like myself. I wanted to create an organization focused on the patient perspective. As a person with pain, I envisioned patients helping patients, as well as programs that led to action and empowerment.
From there, the U.S. Pain Foundation was born. Our mission is simple: to connect, inform, empower, and advocate on behalf of the pain community. What started as a small grassroots group five years ago has become nationally recognized as a true patient-advocacy organization ensuring that people with pain are heard and validated. U.S. Pain is a lifeline for many with pain – a resource that offers support and hope, community, and strength.
As I look back on the last decade, I see how much I’ve grown. I’ve redefined who I am, and have created a new purpose.
I’ve learned a lot about the need to be proactive and informed. I now see how important it is to communicate effectively — with friends, family, and healthcare providers. I recognize the power behind my voice and how I can advocate for others and myself. I have learned to ask questions, and I stay current on the issues plaguing pain care in America today.
Opioids: One Small Part of the Pain Puzzle
As we all know, pain medications — and opioids, in particular — have recently been prominent in the media. This is why my foundation shares reliable information about opioid safety with our members, and shows people that pain medications are just one small piece of the bigger picture of living life with pain.
I wish I’d had the foundation’s resources and tools early on in my journey. I like to share them with others because I want people to learn how to safely use prescription opioids.
I can’t stress enough the importance of discussing benefits and risks of all medications with your loved ones and doctors. I want people with pain to know that there are new technologies, such as abuse-deterrent drug formulations, that make pain drugs safer.
Also, it’s critical for everyone involved in a pain patient’s care to know how to identify overdose symptoms, and what do if the situation arises: Call 911, and ask about emergency treatments such as naloxone.
The Pain’s Still There, But So Is Hope
There was a time when I had no hope. I now aim to help people get out of the darkness much faster than I was able to. I want people with pain to have hope, and to know they can have fulfilling lives even with pain.
A question I am often asked is whether I still have pain. My answer is simple: yes.
My physical pain has not changed; instead, the way I approach it has changed. I now see the difference between suffering and pain, which has changed how I react and how I choose to live. I believe all of us living with pain are strong warriors, and I hope my story validates your experiences and motivates you to become your own advocate.