“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
– Helen Keller
No person is immune from pain, no matter how incredible their life may seem on the outside. Experiencing pain is simply a part of life, it is to be human. We see pain come in many forms. For one it may emerge as a physical ailment, such as an injury or a medical diagnosis. For another it may be a type of “invisible” pain, such as a mental health diagnosis, a heartbreak or grief after loss. Regardless of the kind of pain we encounter, we are all faced with one question. Will I let this get the best of me?
My Pain Story
Three years ago I was in a car accident shortly after I gave birth to my daughter. At the time my body was not strong, I was in the early postpartum months and healing was slow. Since the accident, I have been living with unexplained muscle and nerve pain. I have engaged in countless interventions, some of which included visits with doctor’s, MRIs, chiropractic work, year-long physical therapies, acupuncture, nutritional supplements and bloodwork, yet we still have no answers. Well-meaning practitioner’s promises of “this will get better!” and new approaches that should “definitely improve this!” can only take someone so far until they stop believing it. The pain and loss of comfortable mobility has pushed me to places that I never thought I would experience in my mind. Places that other people experience but not me. I have been angry, downright outraged by my pain. I have also been to the place of incredible sadness, the type of sadness that leads to depression and losing hope. I have seen grief and even today, I still grieve the limitations of my body. Like many who have experienced pain without answers, I have been through the range of emotions and tried numerous interventions only to continue to hit brick walls.
The physical pain has been hard to manage, I have had to change the way I sleep, the activities I engage in, the physical exercise I can do, the way I hold my children, and so on. However, even though my condition is physical, it is truly the mental pain that has been the most difficult dragon to slay. I have questioned:
Am I making this up? Is all of this in my head?
Why can’t anyone figure out what is wrong with me?
Who am I in this life if I am a person who lives with pain?
I am doing everything I can, why is it not improving?
Then the questions that really hurt:
What about my husband? Does he really still love me now? He didn’t sign up for this. Will he be able to sustain the lack of answers and flare ups in pain that I encounter without giving up on me?
What about my kids? I cannot always keep up. If I can’t do all the things I wanted to do as a mom, will my children still love me?
I have faced painful questions that have pushed me to some dark edges of my mind. Like many people who live with chronic pain, I don’t often share the day to day reality of how it impacts me in fear of pity, lack of understanding or the dreadful obligation others feel to check in on me. People who live with pain often do not want to talk about it all the time.
So why now, why share this?
I share this as a vulnerable platform to normalize pain, to share in my humanness with you. Most importantly I share this to provide hope and a way forward, even though I am still riding the rollercoaster that chronic pain has forced upon me.
There are days that I feel better. Sometimes I am “nearly” pain free. I feel light, capable and strong. There are days where my body feels “normal-ish” and it is incredible…it gives me hope. On these days, I believe I feel better primarily due to my health plan (step four noted below). I get to decide how I will perceive my pain and what I will do to manage it. We all have the choice to reframe our pain and work with it rather than wallow in the perceived loss that we have experienced. There are four areas that we all can work on in order to help make living with pain more bearable.
Four Steps to Handling Pain
It is healthy to first acknowledge the pain we are facing. Pain needs to be seen, it needs to breathe and be given adequate space so we can process it. Dr. Edith Eger, an incredible woman, Auschwitz survivor, psychiatrist and author says, “We can’t heal what we won’t feel.” Feeling our pain is an important part of the healing process. Some healthy ways to acknowledge the pain we encounter include journaling, going to therapy, reading about it, attending a support group and/or sharing our story with a few trusted friends.
Allow yourself the space to hurt. Cry, grieve, get angry, feel the emotions that come with the pain you are facing and let them flow through you. In this space, we do not want any suppression of emotions, nor do we want to grab onto the feelings and identify with them forever. We simply are allowing the emotions to come and pass. This phase may occur more than once. Healing is not linear, but when we allow ourselves the space to feel the emotions we are better equipped to work with them.
After grief we are all allotted a beautiful opportunity. We have the choice to regroup or wallow. The decision to wallow will keep us on the hamster wheel of pain: pain, grief, pain, grief, rinse, wash, repeat. Wallowing leads to more hurt and no answers. However, with the decision to regroup we can take a moment of pause and make the choice to focus on the areas we CAN control. We may not be able to control the medical diagnosis, the drug addiction of a loved one, or the loss of a job, but we absolutely can control our mindset.
This is the part where we get to decide how we are going to manage the pain. There are two areas in a health plan that are essential to address, “aspects within my control” and “external support.” When we are creating a health plan, it is important to highlight both areas because we want to develop a holistic approach to navigating our pain going forward. We need a plan that is multi-pronged and sustainable.
Some of the things on my personal health plan that are within my control include gratitude, prayer, yoga, maintaining an optimistic mindset, learning about alternative ways to heal the body and engaging in activities that make me feel good within the limitations of my pain on any given day (gardening, cycling, home projects, being in nature etc). In the external support category some aspects I have included are mental health therapy, acupuncture, massage, and working with my doctor and physiatrist.
In the time that I have lived with this pain I have experienced some good too. I have learned about the invaluable work of developing self-compassion and I have broken through some of my own mental blocks that needed tending to. For this I am grateful and I will stay the course.
One of my favorite quotes right now is from Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard. She writes,
“In the end, I am the only one who can give my children a happy mother who loves life.”
This is the benchmark that I want to live up to, even on the days where I am struggling. This concept applies to being a wife as well. It takes the pain I encounter out of the equation and brings the ownership back to me. I do not know how long I will have this pain or if this will be my life forever. But I do know I have a choice, the choice to reclaim my life and unlock the gates to the prison I have created in my mind about being a victim of chronic pain.
-Written by Emily De La Torre, Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Vancouver, WA