I’ve been thinking for a while about writing something on chronic pain. It’s a very complicated area, so this has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few months. I think it’s finally ready for your thoughts, though.
To be honest, I have felt that somehow I don’t deserve to write about chronic pain as a topic, but the reality is that I have lived with severe pain in various forms consistently for over a year now. I don’t want to invalidate my experience any longer by telling myself that I’m not ‘allowed’ to write about it. It helps me to talk about it, and my thoughts may even be of value to others. (Gasp!)
Particularly over the past year, I’ve struggled with the idea of ‘positive thinking’ because I’ve seen so much ‘positive’ messaging that is really, really harmful. I’m not the first person to write about this, and I certainly won’t be the most eloquent, comprehensive or wide-reaching, but I’m going to go for it anyway.
Resilience looks very different in different people. Some people bounce back very easily from stressors outside of their control. Others really don’t, and there are infinite reasons for this. If you’re someone who can always push on and find health by “looking at the bright side”, then I’m genuinely glad you’ve found an approach that works well for you! But this doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not due to a lack of effort. This is where positive thinking messages can lead to self-blame:
“All badness in your life comes from your own mind.”
“If you are in pain, it’s because you are choosing it.”
“Bad things happen to you because you attract them.” (Talk about toxic mindsets! That is one of the worst. As if anyone deserves to be hurt because they are already hurting.)
If you haven’t run into these messages before, trust me, they are out there– even as explicitly as I have phrased them here.
I recognize that some people are of the religious or secular conviction that all suffering can be alleviated or even ended by mindfulness techniques. I can respect that, and am sure that it can be true. I don’t think it’s an expectation that should be placed on everybody, however. When we aren’t careful with those ideas, they can do a lot of harm.
People are shaped by different experiences, and their bodies are doing different things. You cannot prescribe a positive-thinking cure to everyone you meet. That is not compassionate. You will only hurt them more by insulting how very hard they are trying.
It does help me to come up with ways to avoid mentally rehearsing all the awful things that I carry with me at this point in my life. “Positive”-ish thoughts sometimes help to interrupt that loop of awfulness.
But often there are times when ‘positive thinking’ feels like a sparkly band-aid to cover up festering anger, worry, and hurt. Those are legitimate feelings that I need to sit with – and it will help me in the long run to process them.
Because the mainstream “positive thinking” narrative does not really resonate with me, I prefer to take a different slant. I try to consider what I am learning about myself. That does not have the sun-shiney, ‘everything-will-be-ok’ connotations that can lead to positive victim-blaming. When I feel ready to, I can look for lessons.
But I don’t always have to be looking for lessons– sometimes I need to just focus on getting through the day in some other way. That’s ok too.
* * *
For over a year now I’ve been experiencing chronic pain for reasons that took way too long to diagnose. I’ve been very angry: I knew that whatever my injury is, that it is fixable, and that there is no good reason why I should stay in pain for so long. I’ve been angry at inefficient doctors, health insurance, and medical care in the US in general.
I’m angry that I’ve had to put my life on hold, setting me back so soon after finishing college. I’m angry that I’ve had to experience months of almost constant physical pain and awful depressive downswings. I’m angry that at least half of my income and most of my savings have been flushed down the toilet, and that I struggle to keep a part-time job that I would otherwise enjoy very easily. I’m angry that one problem always seem to lead to another, and another, and another, until I spend whole days just trying one pain-relieving technique after another, sometimes to no avail.
I’m also aware that I am privileged, too. This has not been my entire life, and I don’t expect it to be. I am slowly regaining the abilities I used to have, and I seem to have finally found a network of helpful medical support, and developed my own routines that are helping me to recover. I am not starving. I have a home. Sometimes I even feel ashamed to have these things, as though I’m not allowed to feel like any of this is hard because there are people who have it worse than I do. Now that’s a mindset that really helps everyone! (Read sarcasm.)
But back to the lesson-finding: I have learned a lot from my year of chronic pain. Some of these things are ways of coping that I will carry with me into future hardships.
1) I’ve learned that meditation can be a really great tool for managing stress and can really help to alleviate the physical experience of pain. Meditation can help to supplement treatments that are working, and also carry me forward at times when I’m not getting the right help.
Meditation can have some overlap with “positive thinking” in the sense that you are using thoughts to try and create some comfort, but to me it does not have that same self-blaming tone. In meditation, you are free to feel whatever you are experiencing, and simply try to observe it and let it be. It can help you to feel grounded compassion for yourself, which is a step towards peace.
There are lots of different meditative techniques to try. Some I like a lot, and some I give up on a few minutes in. You can find tons of guided meditations easily for free on sites like YouTube or free Podcasts. (I happen to like a lot of the mediations on the Podcast ‘Meditation Oasis’.)
3) I’ve developed a better relationship with my body. Yes, I get angry at it sometimes. I’ve also learned to listen to my body and to what it needs. I’ve learned to love it for trying, even when it does not feel very good. I’ve learned to treat myself like a friend who is struggling. (I don’t berate my friends for being in pain, so why would that serve me?) I’ve also learned to celebrate small victories, like going for a short walk, getting through a day of work, or going out to meet a friend for lunch.
4) I think I’ve acquired a bit of a sense for what aging will feel like. I expect to go through all these struggles again as I get older. I feel somewhat better equipped to go through this again, emotionally and physically. My therapist said to me, “You’re going to be all set when middle-age comes along.” (I’m in my mid-twenties.)
I have so much more to say on this topic, but for today I will wrap it up here. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! I’m looking forward to your thoughts and I’d love to have some thoughtful conversations with you about different ways of healing.