If I were new to chronic pain, I don’t think I could have written this post. As I’m a Veteran Survivor, however, I figured I’d give a stab at answering some of the questions I and other have asked over the years from my own experience. 🙂 Everyone is different, so my answers may not ultimately be your answers, and that’s ok. Keep the bath water, throw out the baby…oh wait, pain brain…reverse that…you know what I mean!! Google tells me it’s supposed to be “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” and that’s what I intended to say.
Do you experience all the stages of the grief process?
Yes, I’ve experienced all five stages of grief many times over, but I tend to experience each one for different lengths of time and in no prescribed fashion or order.
The Five Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance
The stages have evolved since their introduction and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief ‘s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. – http://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/
Is it possible to adjust to living with chronic pain?
You do adjust to a “new normal” and likely will adjust to MANY “new normals” in the next few years, and that makes life tolerable. Really does. You regroup, restructure, reorganize your life and your dreams/goals/desires/hopes. In order to stay sane and emotionally healthy, there are things I must be willing to give up rather continuing to grasp after in desperation. Conversely, giving up on all dreams/goals/desires/hopes without discrimination can lead to a terrible sense of hopelessness and loss, so there’s a balance to be found what goes and what stays. Hoarders may be as miserable as natural disaster-forced minimalists.
There are times when, much like grieving the death of a loved one, you think you’ve already “grieved your way through that” and then WHAM! it comes back out of the blue and you’ve got to walk through it again. But that is OK.
It can be a very bumpy road, but sometimes you will find smooth spots and you’ll be grateful for them (especially when the next bump comes along!).
I’ve heard people say “this is just a season”. What does that mean?
I’m sure this means something different for each person, but I was just thinking today about how my own life has its seasons. There are times when I literally am going to specialist doctor appointments every weekday for several weeks in a row and it couldn’t be more physically/mentally/emotionally exhausting. During this time I may also have therapy for this or that (biofeedback for pelvic floor issues; physical therapy for CRPS; DBT to learn coping skills; psychological counseling and/or biofeedback for CRPS, etc). This may last for several months to a year long. During these times I am simply in “survival mode” and just trying to make it minute to minute much less day to day. It’s never pretty, but I try to remember it’s only a season. I hunker down, bunker down (sometimes I just don’t have the resources to invest/engage in relationships though I’d like to; other times I don’t want to see another human being anyways…even when it might be the very best thing for me), and commit to doing as best I can to meet goals I establish along the way. (This is the season I’m in right now.)
Then, I eventually get some answers to my medical problems and finish with some of my therapy, which leads to a new season where things calm down a little while I work on managing and tweaking my “new normal” with my new responsibilities and finding as healthy a balance as I can. This calmer season gives me a bit of time to process all that has happened, decompress my stress, and begin to heal up emotionally and physically. Sometimes I get to dream again and think about the more existential questions in life such as “what do I want to be when I grow up?” (I still haven’t figured that one out). I enjoy the little things – a day with less pain, the smell of spring flowers, sunshine, having more energy to get the grocery shopping done…. Occasionally I get to express my creative self through music or other means, since I have the mental capacity to use my creativity and problem solving skills on something fun rather than something necessary. I get to focus more outwardly on other people rather than being consumed with daily survival. As energy allows, I work on establishing new friendships, getting in touch with old friends, and pouring any resources I have into ministering to others. This fuels me personally, makes me happy, and sets me up to have relationships that endure even when life gets crazy-hard again (and I’m NOT in the best of moods).
Then another piano falls – another health crisis ensues. Sorry if that sounds fatalistic, but I’m just going to come out and say it because that’s just the way it seems to go for me. Then I’m back to the crazy season.
Knowing a calmer season will eventually come along, even if it only lasts a few months, gives me something to look forward to and I really HAVE learned not to take such things for granted. I’ve become a more grateful person, and because I am more grateful I can give hope to others who are struggling or who cannot see the good in life. You could call it a “bruising of a blessing”.
I had what I’d call a lightbulb moment today when talking with Dr. OE, my GI psychologist (a psychologist with a specialty in working with patients who have chronic gastrointestinal disorders). I had expressed frustration at so many dreams flying out the window due to new diagnoses in the past few months and that I wanted to get back to dreaming and making goals and plans. Since I already had a mental picture of this hapening, she asked who was throwing my dreams out the window. I said, with an element of dry humor, “I’m not sure but I think it’s life!” She said I was in survival mode, which I already knew.
Then, remembering the seasons concept, I said out loud, “Maybe I need to stop seeing survival mode as a bad thing and just accept that it is what it is for now. I remember that mantra from DBT – “wise mind accepts”. Now might be a good time to use it.” She said that was a very good insight, and I’m going to take that to the bank this week. It’s okay for me to be in survival mode right now, and I’ll know myself when it’s time to leave that mode and enter a new season, and I will gladly do so.
This lifts a significant emotional burden of guilt off my shoulders for focusing on daily survival rather than on others or on answering those more existential questions in life. I told her that sometimes I feel like being a natural thinker works against me. She smiled. I don’t need to have a bunch of answers right now; when the season of increased rest and others-focus comes, I’ll be able to sort some of this out…that season just isn’t now.
What do you think about “becoming friends with your pain”?
I’m sure this works for someone out there, but for me? I think it’s just kinda stupid. So if it works for you, knock yourself out! (No, seriously…please do…perhaps you’ll feel even more friendly towards your pain when you wake up….) 🙂
Joking aside, I associate with my pain by validating it, respecting/cooperating with it, and noting the positive things it brings into my life.
Validating Pain: My pain is real and really painful. It’s not fake, it’s not imagined, it’s not minimal nor is it something I can always push through with finesse. I dislike my pain. But I still accept it and choose not to constantly “fight” its existence. We cohabitate like two roommates – my pain does a lot of talking and “me”? I do a lot of ignoring in the “conversation”, yet I don’t ignore pain’s existence.
Respecting/Cooperating with Pain: I try to constructively recognize what I and cannot safely do because of my pain and physical limitations. I respect pain’s ability to make me feel like trash and have learned that if I want to do an activity (insert “sitting”, “walking”, “thinking”, “concentrating”, “being sociable” and so on) that will require physical/mental/emotional resources, it’s going to use up those resources both immediately and possibly for the next few days following. I don’t give into a victim mentality however; I’m the one making the choice, not my pain, about whether or not I will engage in an activity and therefore accept the consequences. When payback comes, I don’t usually say “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that!” because I knew it was gonna hit me like a Mack® truck later, so I plan my calendar accordingly. I could do better at scheduling more periods of rest. Sometimes it does hit me significantly harder than planned, and it’s another opportunity for me to thank God for the times when I feel better or the repercussions are more predictable…and to test my problem solving skills on a higher level.
Noting the Positive: This has taken years of practice and I’m sure I’ll need still more practice to become especially skilled in this area, but the root that grounds it all, for me, is gratitude to God for even the little things. You know all those things you find out you were taking for granted when chronic pain or illness strikes? I now try to be grateful for all those things BEFORE I have to lose them in order to become genuinely grateful for them. Call it preemptive gratitude, if you will. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already familiar with the negative changes and challenges pain and illness bring into our lives…but are you aware of the positives? Nope, I don’t mean negating, denying, dismissing, or invalidating the hard stuff. I just mean being, ideally, as aware of the positives as we are of the negatives. In the past I’ve written out a list of some of the negative things that have happened, then I challenged myself to write an equal number of positive things on the other side of the paper. My penmanship in the “good things” column became a little lager, it’s say; it IS really hard! But what a good exercise!
I have this little “thankfulness journal” which I don’t keep up with daily (usually it’s something I have energy to do in the fairer-weathered seasons of my life), and I write down something – anything (I’ve often thanked God for air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter!…and those little frogs that like to stick to my windows in the evening to catch bugs near my porch lights) – I’m grateful for. When life seems full of FAIL, I dig out my little thankfulness journal and read a few entries, then give at least a well-intentioned half-smile.
So…becoming friends with pain? I think not, at least not in my situation. I’d like to be rid of it, and one day I fully expect I will be when God gives me a new body/mind/heart. In the meantime, we cohabitate…sometimes more peacefully than others.
What does chronic pain look like?
I saw this picture on Facebook today which described chronic pain. I thought this pictoral description would be even more accurate if the moth had a separate rock for pain related to 1) Emotional (which I think tends to be worse than the) 2) Physical 3) Mental 4) Spiritual (challenges to trust God…though actually sometimes this area flourishes while the others seem to languish) and 4) Wear-and-Tear (related to the chronic unrelenting nature of the distress in other categories). That, or the moth should be tied to a boulder the size of a mountain. LOLOL! It might visually look absurd, but so is the reality lived day to day by survivors of chronic pain.
If you are a Survivor, know you aren’t alone and God can be the lifter of your head.
Psalm 3:3 – But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.