How WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley smiles through his chronic pain

Flashback: Undertaker throws Mankind off the cell (0:44)

On June 28, 1998, at King of the Ring, Undertaker tossed Mankind off the top of the cell and onto the announcers' table during their Hell in a Cell match. (0:44)

THE TOUGHEST MAN in wrestling history is sitting in his Christmas room. Yes, Mick Foley -- the WWE Hall of Famer and first-ever "Hardcore Champion" -- has a room dedicated year-round to his favorite holiday, and that's where he settles in for this conversation about how he deals with chronic pain.

Foley, 55, sits in a chair in the middle of the room, flanked by a beautiful artificial Fraser fir tree, decorated primarily with ornaments that wrestling fans have given him over the years. He's surrounded by pictures of Christmas, including a bunch of photos of Foley himself dressed up as Saint Nick.

"I play a pretty good Santa," he says.

It makes a certain kind of sense. Mick Foley is best known for two things: being wrestling's GOAT at taking bumps, and a jovial personality that made him beloved by fans. It's entirely possible that if such a poll existed, Foley would have a higher approval rating than Santa himself. The man is beloved. Wrestling fans winced when Foley would get choke-slammed through the top of the cage -- because it looked like it hurt, but mostly because it hurt Mick Foley. His pain was our pain.

Now, when his body hurts, which is often, he loves to come to this room, admire the old photos and the tree, and fire up some Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. He's discussing his general appreciation for the genre when he interrupts himself midsentence. "Can I get a plug in?" he asks. "Look up the actress Jessica Lowndes. She is a wonderful actress, but she wrote and starred in a movie I really enjoyed the other day, 'Over the Moon in Love.'" After watching it, he immediately went on Amazon and ordered two other movies of hers, "Christmas at Pemberley Manor" and "A December Bride." He sounds a lot like one of the many wrestling fanboys who've mobbed him over the years.

This is Foley's safe place, a man cave overflowing with tinsel and holiday cheer that pours calm over him every day. Recent hip and knee replacements have him feeling better than he has in a long time, but his shoulders are both shot, his wrists are creaky after multiple breaks, his back constantly flares up. This is where he goes to escape the pain, even for short amounts of time. The Centers for Disease Control says 50 million American adults suffer chronic pain. Foley and I are among that total. I called Foley specifically because he considers himself to be someone who doesn't "suffer from" or "manage" chronic pain: He thrives despite it. I want to know what he knows.

So I tell him my story. How when I was in college, I contracted bacterial meningitis, a disease that can kill you in less than a day. How I survived, but barely -- I spent a week in a coma, and my feet, as a result of the disease, were destroyed. How I ultimately had the ends of both feet (all 10 toes) amputated. How I went from a size 12 foot to a size 4. And how I've spent the past 15 years trying to get to the contented place where he seems to be.

As I talk to Foley -- with him nestled all snug in his Christmas room and me in my house in suburban Connecticut -- we discover that we've both been struggling in quarantine, each of us missing the powerful connection that leaving the house and being around other people can provide. Sometimes, for me, one positive interaction with another human being can be like plugging my feet into an outlet and charging them up. Pain is something that screams at you to stop, to go lie down with the lights off, to go get better by yourself. It's like having a terrible toxic friend you care about but who makes every situation a little worse with his presence. Now imagine being locked in the house 24 hours a day for three months with that toxic friend.

I tell Foley that when I first learned we'd be self-quarantined for a while, I felt like it might be a welcome breather for my feet. I could give them long periods of rest like never before. But the formula isn't as simple as less pain equals more happiness. There is a thin line between rest and lethargy, and I desperately miss taking my kids to a trampoline park, where my pain would quadruple but I would feel alive, could grimace but believe that my feet would not own me. Binge-watching "Ozark" on the couch is fun for a week, but it isn't long until the internal rot rolls in.

Foley tells me he gets that. He runs through an arsenal of tools he's been using -- like me, he's had to get creative about finding the right mix of activity and pain levels, with minimal human interaction. Lately, Foley has spent much of his time at his Long Island house, alone since his family put it on the market, while his wife has settled in at their new home in Florida. He tells me he'll be moving down there as soon as the house sells. For now, he spends as much time as he can doing some light exercising ("I did 10 pushups the other day and I'm not kidding, it felt like I had been in a car accident"), finding a body of water to sit near and spending time in his Christmas room. He stays in touch with the outside world through social media and by doing cameos for fans. He recently hung a bird feeder outside the Christmas room window and loves watching the birds come and go. "Goldfinches seem to have decided the Foley house is the place to be," he says.

Eventually, I ask Foley the question that must be asked: "What about painkillers?"

He tells me he tried opioids after some surgeries over the years, but he didn't like what they did to him. "I know the consequences of painkillers," he says. "I can understand the trap that they present because it's a good feeling to have the pain taken away. But I made the conscious decision that painkillers were a dead-end street for me."

My eyes well as he says that. I nod along because painkillers were a dead-end street for me too -- one that I parked my car on for 10 years.

WHEN I WOKE up from my final amputation procedure, in 2004, my toes were gone and the ends of my feet were stapled back together. The jagged skin on the stumps looked like a shark had flossed its teeth with me. The best way to describe the pain is to tell you to think back to the last time you had an ugly experience at the dentist, the kind where you squeeze the chair so hard your arms ache afterward and the only way you make it through is by knowing it will have to end soon. It was just like that.

Only for four months straight.

At one point in the hospital, I had a pump that injected morphine into my body whenever I wanted. Doctors tried everything to minimize the pain -- pumps, painkillers, nerve blockers, sleeping pills, antidepressants, you name it -- but they were all honest with me that with such a significant wound to the body, I was going to have stretches where the pain was un-minimizable. For a full year, when I had a problem, I reached for a pill solution. But as it does for so many addicts, the solution became the problem. I started to take three pills instead of two, then four instead of three. Pretty soon, I was eating 15 pills at a time. The best description I've ever heard of the addict mindset certainly applied to me: "One is too many, and 1,000 is never enough."

By 2008, I was married with two kids and was a full-blown addict. I was taking about 50 painkillers per day, Ambien and beer at night for sleep, and a slew of other medications aimed at my pain.

Then came Oct. 12, 2008, the day of my oldest daughter's 3rd birthday party. I took 40 Vicodin in three hours, and after I swallowed the last 10, I staggered into the bathroom to vomit. I didn't even get to the toilet before my breakfast and the last 10 pills splashed into the sink. I looked at myself in the mirror and then the mostly undigested pills in the sink ... and picked them up and took them again. I looked in the mirror again and said to myself that this absolutely, positively had to stop, that I couldn't live like that anymore.

Then I drank and drugged for another month. I'd convinced myself for the thousandth time that maybe I could manage my pain and my addiction better this go-round. When I went to rehab that November, I began to understand that the most seductive voice I've ever heard is my own.

And my voice still tells me bad things about my feet. That even though I am not doing as much right now they still hurt, and that I'm missing the physical community of my sober network. What could I do to make the pain go away?

Foley hears those voices too. His internal voice doesn't whisper to him about opioids; his tells him that the cost of all those bumps wasn't worth it. The body slams, swallowing his own teeth during a match, getting tangled up in the ropes so badly that most of his ear was ripped off. In just one match -- his legendary Hell in a Cell clash with the Undertaker in 1998 -- Foley suffered a concussion, a dislocated left shoulder, bruised ribs, internal bleeding, a dislocated jaw, multiple punctures and several damaged teeth. His new knee and hip have helped. But his back gives him bouts of agony these days. When he went to the Magic Kingdom with his family in 2015 but couldn't leave the hotel room for two days, it broke his heart. Foley knows he shouldn't listen to what the pain whispers to him: that he knew the risks he was taking, that he wanted to take them, that he's glad he did. But you know how inner voices can be. For those of us in chronic pain, the voice whispers the very worst. It's that toxic friend dragging us down.

Foley and I talk. We trade more notes. We learn we both bound out of bed the same way every day, usually optimistic about what lies ahead -- and that's when we walk into the headwind that is our pain. When his feet hit the floor, Foley usually hears a loud creaking that isn't coming from the floor. He jokes about a time a few years ago when he tried to do some stretching with his four kids -- Dewey (28), Noelle (26), Mickey (19) and Hughie (17) -- and made a cracking sound so loud that his terrified son sprinted out of the room. Another time, he was asked to toss T-shirts at an NHL game, but his banged-up shoulder hurt so badly that he couldn't throw them overhand. So he tossed about 25 doing only behind-the-back throws ... and hurt his other shoulder because he did it too violently. "Every day can be a struggle," he says. "Negativity is all around us, including from within. The choice I try to make every day is to go find the positive stuff. Go find it and be alive."

For Foley, being alive means overdoing it physically sometimes. He relished taking his kids to amusement parks when they were younger and felt pangs of pain, physical and emotional, when one day about 10 years ago he realized he shouldn't be on the big rides anymore. Roller coasters left him doubled over like he'd been in another Hell in a Cell match, and he wrestled with a trade-off that chronic pain sufferers deal with every day: Feel alive doing something that hurts? Or have less physical pain while enduring the emotional sting of slowing down? Foley eventually made the tough decision to retire from the big-kid rides. "It's OK, though," he says. "I'm a big choo-choo train guy now."

TOWARD THE END of our call, I shift gears and ask Foley about something I struggle with all the time: whether to use my blue accessible parking placard.

I tell him I usually don't hang it up. I keep it on the floor of my car for extreme days of pain, or when there are no other spots within walking distance for someone who can't make it a football field without hitting a pain wall. I often catch myself thinking that someone else might come along who needs the spot more than I do. But the reality is that I don't want to be 42 years old and feel like a 92-year-old. I just don't. I don't want people to stare at me disapprovingly when I get out of the car and look like somebody who doesn't need a special parking spot. To put it more bluntly: I don't want to accept my disability. "Oh man, I know exactly what you mean," Foley says. "Have you ever gotten out of the car and people are around and you really emphasize your limp so you don't get that stink eye from them?"

I let out a belly laugh because I do that almost every time. It helps to know that Mick Foley, a man who has crashed through enough tables to stockpile an IKEA and been body-slammed on enough thumbtacks to fill a Staples delivery truck, is scared of that too.

"But I think it's telling of your character that you have that voice in your head that contemplates whether someone else might need that spot more than you," Foley says. "I think that's an indicator that you're a good person. And hey, you lost body parts. Take the spot."

Before we hang up, he says I should call his kids sometime and see how they would answer the questions about how he managed pain, whether he was able to stay present, whether his pain became their pain in any way. I tell him thank you, and say that the fact that he's wondering about those questions indicates he was probably a damn good dad.

A little later that night, I'm still thinking about our conversation when my 5-year-old, the youngest of my three girls, asks to go for a bike ride. She just learned to ride without training wheels, and she wants to take me around the neighborhood. My feet already are barking at me after a long day, but who could say no to a kid in a T-shirt that has a picture of Chewbacca and the words "Wookiee hair don't care"?

The first five minutes are amazing. I trail behind in a half-jog, admiring how good she's gotten in a short amount of time. I marvel at her bruised and battered little legs, which broadcast the many falls it took to get to this point. But she's doing it -- I'm watching a seminal moment of her young life as she powers through the neighborhood on a formerly insurmountable two-wheeled bike emblazoned with the word "Giggles," her parents unable to keep up.

After 10 minutes of hustling like this, my feet are beginning to collapse underneath me. When I get to this point, my kids like to goof on me because I turn into a wobbly mess. My posture gets crooked, my hips flare out, my body trying to scratch out a few more steps any way possible. I look like a dad-bod Gisele flailing down the runway.

By the 15-minute mark, my wife and daughter are back at our driveway and I'm limping well behind. They wait by our cars for me to arrive, the kind of pause in life that's become so commonplace they just factor it into the schedule.

I go inside and crash-land on the couch, barely able to stand. My feet throb as I'm flipping through the TV channels. My eyes drift away from the TV and into the front yard, where my wife and 5-year-old are admiring their work. They'd recently weeded the front beds and planted flowers, and I watch them from my perch on the couch. It's a beautiful scene, a poignant everyday moment. I am as present as I can be as my pain blinks red in my head. "Stop the Wedding" is coming on the Hallmark Channel, which Jessica Lowndes appears to have had nothing to do with, and there are no goldfinches flying by the window. But for right now, I am a damn proud card-carrying member of the Choo-Choo Train Guy club, all the same.

Go to SAMHSA.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP [4357] for free, confidential help. You're worth it.