Growing up, Gail Muller was an active child. She enjoyed roaming the Cornish countryside where she lived, and was a keen cross country runner and a competitive swimmer. But when she was 14, she noticed her feet were turning inwards and she was starting to develop a wonky gait. Although she wasn’t in any pain, Muller travelled to London to visit a specialist who delivered some devastating news: by the time she turned 40, she was going to be in a wheelchair and potentially unable to walk again.
“Instead of telling my mum, who was waiting outside the consultation room, I internalised what the doctor had said. The idea that my mobility would come to an end found its way inside me. Later, when things started getting bad, I remember his words returning in my head like a ghost. I would lie awake thinking, ‘Is this the beginning of the doctor’s prognosis coming true?’,” she says.
Over the next two decades, Muller, 43, battled with agonising chronic musculoskeletal pain, mainly centred in her back and pelvis. She was often too embarrassed to visit a doctor, so she managed the pain with just paracetamol. Her struggles with an invisible illness, and how she overcame them to walk 2,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail in the US, are central themes of Muller’s new book, Unlost: A journey of self-discovery and the healing power of the wild outdoors. “On days when the pain was unbearable, I always held a little candle of hope that better things were round the corner,” says Muller.
It wasn’t an easy road, though. As Muller’s pain got worse throughout her twenties, she started making excuses to “dip out” of the sporting activities she previously enjoyed and turned down social events. She drifted away from her friends and found it difficult to maintain having a partner, because her chronic pain “always felt like a third person” in the relationship.
“That’s where the masking began; I felt embarrassed to admit that someone popular and sporty could also be struggling with physical pain,” she says. On the occasions she did seek help, she was prescribed opiate medication that made her drowsy or offered scans on which nothing showed up. “It was the first time I ever understood that you can have a condition which there is no clear answer for. Chronic pain wasn’t well understood back then and I spent many years feeling side-lined by medicine, as if I wasn’t important enough to receive a diagnosis,” she says.
As a coping mechanism, Muller threw herself into her teaching career and continued to socialise as best as she could. Often, she found herself having to “justify” her pain to her friends and colleagues, and felt ashamed to tell them the full extent of what she was going through. “The way people respond to an invisible illness, like chronic pain, is so different to when they can confer sympathy from a scar, or wound,” she says. “I would either soldier on to the point where I had to drag myself by my arms out of the shower and into bed, or cancel everything in my diary.”
In the years that followed, Muller spent hundreds of pounds pursuing different treatments: countless medications, exercise regimes, fasting in the Thai jungle and even transcendental meditation. Muller’s frustration with medical appointments culminated in a trip to a private pain clinic when she was 32. There, the doctor told Muller to stop striving for a cure and accept her fate, before suggesting that she should apply for a disability badge on her car. “I gave them back the pills and said: ‘You can have hope.’ Even now, it’s my firm belief that you can accept where you are, even if it’s bad, and maintain hope that it will get better,” she says.
While in a period of depression, Muller recalls how she hit rock bottom while on secondment in Italy as a representative of excellence in British teaching. Her pain was causing her to vomit almost daily and she was “cramming herself” with a cocktail of painkillers just to get through each day. “I sat in the middle of the night on my balcony and considered throwing myself off into the forest below,” she says.
In tears, Muller called a local chiropractor in Lake Como, who was recommended by her doctor at home. That month, she received – for the first time in her life – a diagnosis. The condyle joint in her jaw wasn’t functioning properly, putting her body into torsion and causing muscle spasms. “My body was at war with itself. At the time, I was so grateful to receive a diagnosis that the severity of my condition didn’t have much of an impact,” she says.
Over the next three years, a team of dentists and chiropractors worked to realign Muller’s jaw, which reduced her pain by around 80 per cent. “Physically, I was able to start clawing back, but getting myself out of the depression and malaise took a bit longer,” she says.