I have chronic pain, (due to a hereditary degenerative disease in my spine–many of my discs are damaged, herniated or fused.) I also do a lot of public speaking, professionally. Recently, someone asked me how I juggle the two.
To be honest, it isn’t always easy.
When I get a request to speak, I need to screen for things that might be a red flag for my pain…
- Compensation: When I speak for free, I’m paying for it in pain on my end so it’s gotta be a gig that’s easy to get to, a topic I’m passionate about, an organization I love, or a career opportunity I simply can’t pass up. If it’s none of those things, the cost to me is too great. Even if I’m getting paid, I won’t necessarily always say yes to every opportunity. If I’m in a bad place pain-wise, I’ll take a pass even if the money is good.
- Length: At the most, I can do 90 minutes of standing up and presenting before it starts to hurt like a mo fo. Lucky for me, no one really wants to listen to anyone drone on for hours at a time (to be honest, most people have trouble concentrating on a presentation that’s only an hour.) So, I’ll often offer to break up potential speaking gigs into smaller chunks or share the day with other speakers, (which often proves to be a better experience for everyone involved.)
- Distance: Lucky for me, I live in the Midwest, so I can tolerate a flight to most of the continental U.S. Sadly though, any place West of the Rocky Mountains is a no-go (unless I take multiple, smaller flights.) Similarly, if the gig requires more than an hour-long drive, I’ll usually pass. If I do decide to do a gig far from home, I generally need to book a hotel room or extend my existing hotel reservation (usually on my own dime) before and maybe after the gig to recuperate before I can travel home.
The Day of the Event
Like many people with an invisible illness, doing a public speaking gig requires a lot of extra preparation (so if you DON’T have one, this is the part of the blog post where you might want to take a moment to be grateful for all of the blessings in your life.)
- Gear: I need to be clear headed when I speak, so I can’t take drugs. Instead, I generally slather on numbing cream that contains a mixture of Ketamine, Gabapentin and Lidocaine in low doses (so, no, you will not be able to get high if you come up and lick me) or I wear a patch with Lidocaine in it. I also need to make sure I have on proper shoes (no heels for this girl) and pants (so that, when I get sore, I can sit or lean on the side of a table without flashing the audience my lady bits.)
- Parking: If it is hard to find parking at the gig, I’ll usually need to Uber to the location (on my own dime.) Also, if the conference planners have not given me much information on the facility, I’ll need to do some advance homework online to chart the easiest route to access the building and the meeting space, (because hauling my laptop around a convention center for a hour trying to find the right place before I speak is not an option.)
- Microphones: If I had to hold a hand held microphone up to my face for an hour I’d be a hot mess afterwards. So, I always request a clip-on lavalier mic in advance of the session. If the conference planner forgets to order me one (which happens more often than it should) I just talk real loud and suck it up.
- Body Usage: I worked with a biofeedback specialist a few years ago to find the best ways to position my body when speaking in order to minimize my pain. (Giving imaginary talks while wired up with sensors was one of crazier, but valuable, things I’ve ever done.) So, while I’m speaking, I try to always be conscious of how I’m using my body and move around during the talk so I don’t do things like using the same arm to gesture to the screen or keeping my neck fixed at the same angle the whole time.
- Post-session: When I’m done speaking my tank is usually on empty and my pain levels are high, so I often cannot stay to network with event attendees, go to other conference sessions or stay for end-of-the-day cocktail parties. This sucks big time because that’s usually when all the fun stuff happens, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.
- Afterwards: On days I speak, I’m usually shot for the remainder of the day, (until it’s time to pick up my kid and shift into mom mode after school.) I can’t do any additional meetings or appointments (sometimes I can’t even log any additional time upright at the computer.) I may also require some deep tissue bodywork and a regime of anti-inflammatory medications.
Right now you may be thinking, “Why go through all this hassle? Why not just stay home instead?”
Well, to begin, I really enjoy public speaking (like, so much, I sometimes do it just for fun.) Yes, on the days when it’s hard to connect with the audience and my body is grumpy, the whole experience can be both literally and metaphorically a pain in my ass. But when it all works, it’s the best feeling in the world.
Secondly, I’m pretty good at public speaking (and I get better every time I do it.) I’d hate to toss all those skills and 20 years of experience into the garbage simply because it’s challenging. (Although, I’ll be honest, there are days when I consider doing just that.)
Lastly, on stage is one of the only times in my life when I’m NOT in pain. Yes, sometimes there is a twinge or a pop that signals an alarm. But for the most part, my adrenaline overrides all of my pain signals. There may be hell to pay afterwards, but for that moment in time, I can just be me.