Published by The Outline

When she was 42 years old, Gwenn Herman was in a car accident that left her with excruciating pain in her head, neck, and shoulders. She underwent a succession of treatments from surgery to acupuncture and was prescribed a range of medications, including opioids and antidepressants. There were complications from the surgeries; side effects from the medications gave her headaches and stomach pains and made her break out in hives all over her body.

The accident changed every aspect of her life. She was in so much pain she had to temporarily stop seeing clients in her private practice as a social worker in Potomac, Maryland. She couldn’t do activities with her kids like she used to and felt constant guilt as a result. She couldn’t drive. She couldn’t pick up a gallon of milk or slice a carrot. She felt lonely and isolated, and like nobody could understand what she was going through. “You lose yourself almost, because it feels like you’re not the same person that you were before,” Herman said. “I had suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t that I wanted to, or was going to, kill myself, but it was the only way I could see the pain ending.”

Then, Herman says, she “learned to change the messages” in her mind. It happened gradually as she moved through the stages of grief over the loss of her former identity and the intense physical pain that had become part of her daily life. She went from denial to anger to depression until finally she arrived at acceptance, a process that took about four years. Attending support groups also helped her come to terms with the fact that her pain wasn’t going away. “For me, acceptance was realizing that there had been a trauma that had fundamentally changed my body and I had to change with it,” she said. “With the body that you have now, you need to create a new life for yourself. You have to let go of the past and live as you are now.”