Why Am I So Ashamed of Chronic Pain?
I have never liked the term “chronic pain.” Or at least I never used to identify with it.
To me, chronic pain was something hashtagged online for those who don’t know why their body is hurting or how to “handle it.” Chronic pain is for people who get reiki and sing mantras every morning instead of taking their pills, or who don’t know how to manage a boo-boo if no one is there to kiss it, or who are misunderstood by medicine in general.
“That’s not me,” I foolishly and faultily thought. “I know what’s wrong, so eventually, this will go away.”
Currently, we live in a culture that is terrified to admit when it’s wrong. Everywhere I look someone is digging their heels into the social media sand, fact-checking fiction or predicting the unpredictable. Between viral viruses and political tirades, sometimes it feels like we are all more scared of being wrong than not knowing what’s right.
So here I am to say: I was wrong. I am wrong. And I know this won’t be the last time.
According to Unarine Ramaru, “Apology is not about saying I’m sorry, but it is the meaning you put behind the apology and admitting that you are the wrong part.” So what was so wrong with me and my false assumptions about the term “chronic pain”?
For starters, I believed my pain was caused by something bigger than my body. Sure, I was experiencing pain “chronically,” as in one surgery after the next after the next. But does that really make it chronic or just connected?
At the start of social distancing months ago, I was extremely determined to emerge on the other side a super-fit butterfly. I began working on my dance technique and muscle weaknesses nearly every day. I created beautiful programs from years’ worth of research, stretching the right things, toning other things, doing nothing “wrong.” (Science, I have to say, would have been super proud.)
But I found myself getting worse and worse. Despite blasts of prednisone, anti-inflammatories, orthopedist brain power, physical therapy, and rest, it has been a steady decline. Now, four months later, even driving a car hurts. This is not how I imagined my butterfly life to be. All of that hard work and #Science, and I’m stuck like the Hangry Hangry Caterpillar.
“I am so used to being all or nothing,” I told my new therapist. (Yes, telehealth appointments have brought the gift of therapy, too). “I’m either rebuilding for dance or hurting from health, and I don’t know what to do when stuck between.”
What if there isn’t a fix on the other side? What if this is the new me? What if I was really meant to be a sassy foxy caterpillar all along, and just didn’t know it?
“How much life do you miss by never stopping and experiencing what’s between all and nothing?” she asked.
“Most of it,” I replied. I knew almost instantly that this has to change.
One of my favorite quotes about marriage comes from Christopher Guest, or maybe Jamie Lee Curtis, or maybe both (they’ve been married for 35 years, so same difference). They said that staying in a relationship is a lot like “staying on a bus, even though there is new scenery every day.” You can’t predict where you’ll wake up or what change you’ll see ahead, but you can keep riding and experience the wondrous shifts in view along the way.
“I’m not sure why this quote changed my life so much,” I told my shrink (because now I’m a person who can say “my shrink”). “I’m waiting to achieve that pinnacle stasis, the moment of relaxation because I finally made it, it’s finally easy. No one ever told me that never really happens. The work never ends.”
“You just have to stay on the bus,” she repeated. And she’s right.
Maybe living with chronic pain is the same? We don’t always get to predict who we will wake up as or how we will feel. We don’t get to be all or nothing all the time. And we certainly don’t get to judge others in situations we couldn’t possibly understand (like that jerk I was four months ago).
I was wrong about chronic pain. I was scared of using the hashtag for myself because I thought knowing why I hurt and not knowing why made a difference. Now I know it doesn’t.
Hurt is hurt, pain is pain, and it doesn’t matter who diagnoses it.
We all have the right to feel it.
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