Q&A with Amberly Lago is the author of TRUE GRIT AND GRACE: Turning Tragedy into Triumph

1.In True Grit and Grace, you describe what it was like to recover from a motorcycle accident, endure months in the hospital and 34 surgeries, only to be diagnosed with an incurable nerve disease—Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).  It’s been dubbed “the suicide disease” because the unrelenting pain causes so many to take their own lives.  Do you ever wake up and think, “Why me”?  If so, what do you do about it?

My heart sank the first time I learned I had CRPS.  When I found out I had an incurable disease that would leave me in constant chronic pain, I defaulted to denial; it took me years to accept that I am a woman with a disability.  It wasn’t until I completely accepted that this was my new normal and didn’t fight the pain anymore, but instead, learned to accept the pain being there, that I could begin to heal—not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Instead of waking up and asking, “Why me?”  I focus on what I can do and don’t get caught up in past accomplishments.  I celebrate small victories along the way, whether being able to walk up the stairs on my own, walk on the beach with my family, or just walk period.  I only look back to see how far I have come.  I connect to my higher power and pray every day.  Instead of letting chronic pain detour me from my endeavors, I use it as a tool to connect me with others going through challenges and am reminded that I am not alone on this journey.  I focus on what I am grateful for and don’t leave any room for self-pity.  I make my purpose bigger than my problems.

  1. How has CRPS changed your life?

At first I lived in denial and pretended nothing was wrong.  Behind my smile, I was dying inside from emotional and physical pain.  Everything I read about CRPS left me feeling hopeless, so I stopped reading about it and drew strength from my Texas upbringing.  I was taught that showing vulnerability equaled weakness, so I did my best to “cowgirl up.”  I stuffed it down and worked hard to regain the use of my leg, motivating myself with the athletic mantra, “no pain, no gain.”

This approach only took me so far.  I had to unlearn these attitudes and embrace self-compassion.  Vulnerability doesn’t mean the same as weakness. I learned it just shows that you have the courage and ability to grow.  But arriving at a place of acceptance was a path through darkness and self-doubt.  I have learned to have unconditional love, which includes not only loving others, but learning to love ourselves.  I slowly began to adopt a new outlook on life.  My first step was readjusting my attitude toward my leg and learning to love it again, even though it was scarred, didn’t work properly, and gave me so much pain.  I decided to love my leg until it felt better.  Our bodies converse with us; they whisper, talk, and if ignored, scream. I learned to listen to my body and take care of my health.  I became grateful.  Gratitude turns denial into acceptance, makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates hope for tomorrow.  I celebrate small victories.  If I must stop, that doesn’t mean I can’t, or that I am not successful, it just means I am taking care of myself.

  1. How do you manage the pain? 

Expressing and acknowledging that I had pain gave me relief from the struggle to bury the painful reality of living with CRPS.  I tried every kind of treatment for my pain, including a spinal stimulator, nerve blocks, ketamine infusions, Eastern and Western medicine, and anything that claimed it could bring me relief. I wish I could tell you I found some magic pill or movement that relieves my pain, but the truth is, every day is different, and so are my pain levels. What works some days doesn’t always work the next, so I just keep trying, and doing, and praying.

When I am in pain, I go through my list of helpful tools. There is no particular order.

I practice mindfulness, meaning I do whatever I can to stop thinking about and focusing on my pain. I surround myself with positive people.  No more doggy downers, only puppy uppers!

I count my blessings and practice gratitude.

I give myself permission to rest on a flare day and remember that I am doing exactly what I need to do. I am recovering.

I eat an anti-inflammatory diet.

I am on a sleep schedule.

I am still learning to meditate.

I breathe deep breaths.

I pray.

I do everything I can to be of service to others.  When you focus on the well-being of others, your self-pity disappears as you improve the quality of someone else’s life.

Then I repeat.  Instead of allowing my pain to make me bitter, I do my best to appreciate everything I have, no matter how big or small.  I will focus on the good in my life and let that be my medicine.

Although I listen to my doctors, I have learned to be my own advocate for my health and think outside the box.

  1. Tell us a little about your background growing up in Texas and how sayings like “get ‘er done” and “suck it up” actually prepared you to persevere through the challenging times in your life.

Surviving 34 surgeries was no easy task, to say the least.  Sayings like “get ‘er done” and “suck it up” were my motto and helped me push through the pain.  Call it my stubbornness or my love of a good challenge or being in complete denial, but I wanted, more than anything, to chase after my daughter like a mother should and be free to do the things that make my heart sing, like hiking and exercise. I was willing to do what it took to make that happen.  Just because my body was “broken” on the outside, I was still the determined athlete on the inside. I learned to truly listen to my body and to be the healthiest I could be, despite my circumstances.  We may not get to control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it.  So, getting on with my life was a series of three steps up (to the degree that I could take steps) and six steps back, both physically and emotionally.  Every one of my 34 surgeries I viewed as bumps in the road. I couldn’t think of them as anything but that.  If I had, I would have given up.

Although “suck it up” has pushed through much pain, it only took me so far and that is when I had to develop my emotional and physical “tool box” and learn to truly listen to my body.

  1. No person has a perfect childhood, but I understand you are a survivor of sexual abuse and divorce. What advice can you share with others who may be struggling with the same issues?

I learned from a young age to “cowgirl up” because at the time, there was no alternative.  Dwelling on why reality wasn’t prettier wouldn’t have done a thing for me.  It would have crippled me then, preventing me from achieving everything I wanted to and crippled me years later when I was actually crippled, preventing me from choosing nothing less than recovery.  As weird as it may be to say this, I believe the pain and isolation I felt in those difficult times as a child were an ironic blessing of sorts. When you know from an early age that you’re on your own and can rely only and entirely on yourself, it’s as liberating as it is sad.  But if you can take the sadness and self-pity out of it, then what you’re left with is a liberating sense of freedom—and, when trauma strikes, you don’t waste any time looking for someone to rescue you.

Use whatever pain you may have as fuel to motivate you to succeed.   Reach out to others that are going through similar challenges and offer support.  Building a community is empowering.  I speak to nonprofit organizations such as Dress For Success, Single Mother’s Outreach, and POPS The Club, which transforms the shame and stigma around divorce and abuse.

  1. What inspires you, who are your biggest motivators?

My two daughters inspire me to be my best and my biggest motivator is anyone who tells me I can’t do something.

  1. How did you reinvent yourself and get into motivational speaking? Who do you speak to?

I wanted more than ever to get back to my passion, which is working with people, but I did wonder who would want to train with me.  I felt broken. I trained fitness competitors, boxers, and CHP officers for years—and then I found myself on crutches. I now needed my clients more than they needed me. I needed to get back to work. I needed to give my life purpose above and beyond trying to walk again.  Purpose was what would save me mentally, psychologically, spiritually—and, for that matter, physically.  Purpose was what would get me on my feet and, someday—as I prayed—running again. I did whatever I could to get myself stronger—and then came the miracle.

Business began booming, and did so quickly because people saw me in the gym, in my wheelchair or on crutches, even pushing myself from station to station in a wheelchair. I became the trainer of encouragement who told people, Yes you can! and that was how I trained them.  When people at the gym saw how I trained, they then asked me to speak to their business groups and give them some inspiration.  I went to a public speaking coach who taught me how to put together a speech and as I told her my story, she asked me to speak to her networking group, who happened to be a group of financial advisors, lawyers, and realtors. I was a bit intimated to say the least, but I went out and bought a suit and showed up anyway.  We all go through adversity so whether I speak to youth, business professionals, or rehabs, I enjoy inspiring and giving hope by sharing my story.  Speaking about overcoming obstacles is a way of connecting, and when people connect, magic happens.  I believe we need to lift others up to be better ourselves. 

  1. Why did you write TRUE GRIT AND GRACE?

I wrote True Grit and Grace to share my story and motivate readers to find resilience in their own difficulties and bring hope to all that are in a dark place.  I am also a fierce advocate for others who suffer, like me, from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

  1. What are your top tips for people suffering with chronic pain?

Listen to your body, and learn to rest, not quit.

Easy does it.

One day at a time.

Don’t isolate.

Do call.

Practice ways to love yourself.

Stick around those who feel like sunshine.

Get a third opinion.

Don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

Trust your gut.

Do everything you can to be the healthiest you can be.  I changed my eating and it changed my life.  Everything we eat is either working for us or against us.

10. What do you want people to take away from the book?

 I believe we can have the life we have always imagined, even if our circumstances have narrowed our possibilities.  My sincere wish is that my story will help readers claim their own power and belief in themselves and their dreams, and find their own resilience to move forward and choose a life filled with laughter and love, even when things don’t go as planned. We can’t choose what life throws our way, but we can choose to be happy and live a full life, despite our circumstances.  Through our trials, we can embrace our challenges, connect to our innermost resilience, and change our perspective on life. We are all strong, but together we are unstoppable!