Guest Blog: Chronic Illness & Masculinity: Men In Pain

by Krissy Ward

     My name is Evan Smith and I have fibromyalgia. I do not look like a normal person with a chronic pain disorder and I truly do not want to. I grew up wrestling and playing football, riding dirt bikes, hunting, fishing, and stacking hay bales. I truly grew up with worn out boots and liked to push my physical limits. I could always lift and throw anything I needed to and I was always the go to person when someone needed help with physical labor. I was always more than happy to lend a strong arm. 

     I then joined the US Army and became even more testosterone driven than I had ever been. I came back from boot camp more lean and strong than ever and I knew that whether it was a physical or mental challenge, I could conquer it. Towards the end of my military career which ended at the age of 27, I was retired due to a left knee and left hip injury after three unsuccessful surgeries. I learned to deal with what I then thought was chronic pain. 

     On a day like any other day, my wife and I were heading down the road with our then four-month-old son going through an intersection as a commercial van ran a red light and T-boned us; that truly is the moment that has stuck in my head for so long. Following the accident and an ambulance ride, I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), had to have a neck fusion surgery, and had to have shoulder surgery to put my shoulder back in place after it was driven forward so hard from the impact of the van. Since then I have suffered with extreme muscle and joint pain as well as chronic widespread pain which was diagnosed as fibromyalgia and an inflammatory arthritis condition. 

     I have literally had over $300,000 in physical therapy, doctors appointments, medical procedures, and surgeries. My entire life some days feels like it has been turned upside down. I was the strongest man that I could be, superman to my two young boys, and a big bearded outdoorsman who could fight off bears and make fire with his bare hands; at least that is how good I felt. One of the hardest things that I have had to deal with is being a male, a nontraditional fibromyalgia suffer, and trying to deal with chronic pain with the negative stigma that tells us that men are supposed to be strong and never admit when they are weak. I am here to tell you, people who suffer from my fibromyalgia and continue fighting or nothing less than warriors. 

     When I walk into a room people seem to notice me at 6 foot 2 inches tall, almost 250 pounds with a beard that could keep a grizzly bear warm. However, what you will not see me normally doing is a ton of physical work, staying awake for more than eight hours at a time, or sitting down in my recliner without a heat pad and a handful of medicine. This journey has been so extremely difficult and I believe that part of it has been very difficult because as a strong looking man I hate to admit when I am in pain and I definitely do not want to complain to those people around me and make myself look weak. I believe that this is something that many men suffer from that are diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I am also confident after seeing how hard my wife has worked around the home, and how hard it is to take care of two wild boys, that any woman that is diagnosed with fibromyalgia would have a hard time complaining as well because of the instinct of nature in their maternal strength. I don’t think it is easy for anyone but just as a man cannot stop and ask for directions it may also be very difficult for a man to reach out and say he needs help. 

     I am absolutely invested in the outdoors and you will normally find me out on a hike, in the woods scouting for my favorite wildlife, or taking pictures of songbirds. I like to go camping and I like to be outdoors taking in the beautiful scenery. If you get on to my Instagram page you will most likely see 99% of my pictures are from the outdoors. One thing I do to keep my spirits lifted is that on the days that I can spend outdoors, is to take a lot of pictures so that I have the ability to share those pictures on the six out of seven days that I cannot be in the woods due to my pain. I think that this is also a way for me to cover up the fact that I am in extreme pain 24 hours a day and if I can pretend that I am in the woods or posting pictures of what seems to be today’s activities that makes me feel better and makes me feel more normalized. I know that everyone has struggles and everyone deals with those struggles in a different way, and I think as long as you are doing something to move forward your way is just 

     For me, my way of finding pain relief is usually something that causes me more pain and that sometimes is very hard for other people to understand. When I can I like to be outdoors and I like to go hiking or go spend a little bit a time doing yardwork. The endorphins this releases seems to put me in so much of a better mood and get me a little bit of relief from the struggles that I have been going through even though I know that I will be hurting worse later. 

     I have used my passion for the outdoors to take many veterans and other people with disabilities out into the woods and outdoors to understand what mother nature can offer you. Instead of taking another pain pill or watching another Netflix season, I choose to go outside and get fresh air and enjoy the natural endorphins that I can release in myself. This is one of the only ways that I have truly found to make myself feel better and is one of my biggest passions to share with others. I want people to know that it is okay to hurt and it is okay to ask for help even if you are a 7 foot tall grizzly man, you are still allowed to hurt.  

     The strength that it takes to make it through this pain staking illness is in a magnitude that many other people cannot understand. However, you do understand and you are still here and you keep moving forward. Find yourself a passion, find yourself an outlet, and get yourself out into the woods or into nature whether you live in the city or out in the middle of the mountain. It can be so challenging to see my wife pick up 80% of the household responsibility when I feel like I should have 100% of the work and she should have zero. I truly want to be the man that is chivalrous, that can take care of his wife, that can pick up his kids at the end of the day and throw them around, and then the man that can go get sweaty in the yard and impress his wife. 

     That is what I want in my daily life and I want that without pain. I have worked very hard to communicate well with my wife and express myself to her of the pain that I am going through and the honesty that I need to have with her. I do not like to complain to her every single day, as it feels to me, but she continuously asks how I am feeling and digs into this man’s soul to try and make us do what we don’t like to do which is talk. Do your best to open up to your significant other, be your best self advocate at the doctor, find something that you’re passionate about, and do everything you can to keep your mind off of this excruciating and constant chronic pain.