Sierra’s Style: Reconnecting with her Body Through CRPS

“I’m so grateful for all the things my body does for me. I spent many years pushing my body beyond its limits, yet it has still been
so forgiving and willing to heal.” SONY DSC

From a young age, Sierra struggled with perfectionism and navigated anxiety – both of which she didn’t have the skills to manage or understand. As she neared the end of high school, these compounding experiences led her to develop an eating disorder called anorexia:

“Anorexia is an eating disorder often characterized by an irrational fear of weight gain, a distorted body image, and an obsessive need to control and restrict food. Despite physical symptoms, it truly is a mental illness. For me, anorexia was a coping mechanism for my feelings of never being good enough. It was a way to gain control in a time of life where I was highly anxious.”

Sierra explained that her eating disorder was tremendously isolating. For a while, her obsession with food and weight drove her to alienate herself from her friends and family.

“My rigid need to restrict food also caused a lot of damage to my body. In the years that followed, I worked a lot on recovery from my eating disorder and came to a bit more of a balanced place. However, while I was on an international university exchange program in Australia last year, I stepped off of a curb and sprained my ankle.”

What was supposed to be an 8-week recovery turned into 4 months, which turned into one year.

SONY DSC“The injury didn’t heal – it actually got worse. I developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), which is a chronic pain condition that involves the central and peripheral nervous system. With CRPS, the pain persists (and often spreads) long after an injury should have healed. Essentially, the stress of being injured in a foreign country, and the anxiety from not being able to do the physical activities I love, had me so distressed that my nervous system never relaxed enough for my ankle to get better.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Sierra can clearly see the “perfect storm” that contributed to her health problems:

“While my relationship with food and my body had improved since high school, I was still not tuned into my body; in fact, I was so disconnected from my body and pushed my limits through over exercising and over committing to different activities. It felt like my body was screaming to get me to listen. I can now see that the CRPS was a huge wake up call that things were not right, and that I needed to seriously slow down.” 

Within the past 6 months, Sierra committed to “re-learn” her body and discover ways to manage her chronic pain and reoccurring anxiety.

Today, Sierra is wrapping up her university degree in Sociology and Gender Studies, and she finds balance in her life by practicing yoga, making time to travel, exploring the outdoors, and connecting with people in meaningful ways.

“I’ve had to look at every area of my life, including my relationships, my diet, and even my wardrobe, to figure out how these areas may contribute to my pain and where I might need to make changes. It’s still a work in progress, but I feel a lot more hopeful these days.”

Sierra’s health journey has had a massive impact on her relationship to clothing and style.

“When I was really struggling with anorexia in high school and early university, I used to avoid buying new clothes because I had this (totally irrational) fear that I might gain weight and that they would no longer fit. Then, when I developed CRPS, I had to become more conscious of what I wore. I’ve become more creative with a lot of things because of my symptoms, such as skin sensitivity and nerve pain.”

For Sierra, paying attention to clothing details allows her to feel more comfortable, especially during CRPS flare ups. Her top learning lessons include:

  • Looking for loosely fitted pieces: “I’ve really gotten into looser trousers and long dresses that don’t rub against my sensitive skin,” she shared.
  • Opting for a backpack: “I went through a phase where I could not carry a shoulder bag due to my chronic pain, so I switched to using a stylish backpack. Even though this was initially a decision made from necessity, it’s now my first choice!”
  • Finding versatile pieces: “My style always changes. I dress differently every day. Sometimes, I’ll wear a fancy jumpsuit and leather jacket. Other times, there might be a whole week where I’m feeling sporty and choose to wear tights and cozy sweaters. I think playing with different looks and not limiting myself to one way of presenting myself is one of  the best parts about fashion.”

Together, these simple changes have inspired Sierra to curate a wardrobe that inspires her to feel confident and to connect with her friends, even on days where she may not be feeling her best.

Quick Questions with Sierra

What advice would you offer to others who are going through similar health challenges to yours? What has helped you emotionally along this journey?

If I met someone with CRPS, I would tell them not to give up hope! There is a lot of misinformation and negativity on the Internet and even in certain medical environments. I remember when I was first diagnosed. I felt doomed. It was as if my life was going to be over. But, this was so untrue. Things really, truly can get better with time. I’ve seen it with myself, as well as with other people I know who are dealing with chronic pain.

Until I trusted my body and its ability to recover, I wasn’t able to successfully improve my symptoms. The mind-body connection might sound insignificant, but it is a huge component of recovering from or managing chronic pain. So don’t give up on the possibility that you can feel better in your body.

In terms of people struggling with eating disorders – you are never alone, and you are never “not sick enough” to be worthy of recovery. Your illness is never small enough to not get help. If your body image and your relationship with food affect you negatively in some way, you deserve to reach out for support.

Where do people stumble with their language or understanding about CRPS? What changes would you like to see?

Having an invisible illness can be a challenge. I don’t think people fully understand the degree to which I have to pace myself. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes in order for me to be able to go to school, to work, and to keep my symptoms quiet. I will often look at my week ahead and have to pick and choose the activities that matter most. Because the CRPS causes fatigue, by the time I’ve cooked, exercised, and commuted, I might not have much energy left.

SONY DSCThere’s such a culture of busy-ness, especially amongst young women, that I often feel like I can’t match the pace of my peers. More societal understanding of how pain disorders affect peoples’ energy would be great. However, above all, I hope that there can be a cultural shift away from the glorification of busy-ness and more appreciation for ‘being’ instead of ‘doing.’

What are you grateful for in this moment?

I’m so appreciative of my family and how supportive they have been in the past year. It’s not been particularly easy going through this all together, but they have been so patient. When I tried changing my diet to see how it affected my symptoms, they all got on board and were so understanding; when I feel discouraged, they remind me of how far I’ve come. They’ve been so solid in their support.

In consideration of the challenges you have faced, what are you most proud of?SONY DSC

I am most proud of how much I’ve healed myself in the past 6 months. It’s likely been one of the hardest things I’ve done. I hit a point last year where my pain was so flared up that I couldn’t fully participate in the things I love (hiking, yoga, going to school, seeing my friends). I had to take a huge step back and slow down. I did a massive overhaul on my approach to life, from changing my diet, to pacing my activity, to prioritizing sleep.

My idea of what a successful day looks like got turned on its head. I used to judge myself by how much I “did” in a day, whereas now I focus on how well I feel. If at the end of the day I got outside, spent time with people I care about, and didn’t have too much pain, those things in themselves are a success. The amazing thing is that while I’m not pain free, my symptoms have improved a lot, and if I pay attention to self-care I’m able to do most of those activities I love again.

Thank you to Sierra for sharing her story with us so courageously!