Most of my blogs involve fun family stories or happy memories. They are meant to be light-hearted and entertaining. This one, however, is a bit different. It is about living with chronic physical pain. I share it mainly to give readers some practical suggestions on the ways that they can help and understand those they know who also live with chronic physical pain.
Now, I am one of the lucky ones. My pain is predominantly back pain and it is minor in comparison to the pain of some of my relatives and friends. My hat goes off, and my heart goes out, to those I love who suffer (or have suffered in the past) debilitating pain and yet have accomplished everything from creating magnificent gardens to writing novels. Those people are my heroes and I have the upmost respect and admiration for them. I will not name them here, but they know who they are.
Most of the time, you will not know that someone is suffering chronic physical pain. It simply isn’t something that we announce. Part of the reason for this silence is privacy and personal choice, but part of it is that we do not want pity. Pity is, or can be, a very negative response to human life as it is actually lived—which is generally fully and with complete involvement, even when pain is a constant part of it. Sympathy, on the other hand, can be, at its most positive, a welcome response from others—particularly when it takes the form of a helping hand, a driver when needed, a chore accomplished by someone else, or merely a kind word.
For example, after asking a couple of my students to lift my book bag up onto the table for me, I was literally forbidden by them to ever do it myself again. And they asked, whenever I gestured wildly or did some kind of physical demonstration in class, whether I should actually be doing that. And of course, the answer was always “no.” They did not pity me in the least, but they offered help as needed. I can’t express how much it meant to me to have them remember, for an entire semester, that I was doing everything that I was doing in pain. No quarter asked and no quarter given. Just simple human kindness and thoughtfulness.
I also give credit to all of my friends and family who understand that a negative response to an invitation, or a last-minute cancellation, or the inability to make plans well in advance, or even the inability to take phone calls after the early evening is not some kind of negative reflection on them. It is simply the reality of my life. Yes, I have numerous medical conditions to deal with, but the thing that stops me the most from attending every event is pain. I am missing a dinner at PLU tonight, for example, because I simply cannot sit in a chair for that many hours.
My deepest appreciation, though, is to my husband, Eric. He cooks the meals, lifts the boxes, does most of the driving, and has even taken over the laundry temporarily to give my back the chance to improve. And he does all of this without complaint, even though he is also in chronic pain. So, given the chance, offer a word of sympathy, but also pitch in. You can drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, carry in some grocery bags, mow a lawn, or simply send an understanding response when your invitation is politely declined. The worst thing that you can do is resent the person. Remember that s/he would change the situation in a heartbeat if it was his/her choice. I don’t know how many times I have said to myself and to Eric, “I am SO done with this.”
Far more people than we generally imagine live with chronic pain. Some of them we know about, but most of them we do not. And this says a great deal about the stubborn tenacity of human beings. We will live our lives to the fullest, no matter what. But, be aware and be sensitive to the movements and actions of others. Do not let their comments about pain go by unanswered. Do not let their lives become an inconvenience to you because they cannot live up to your expectations. Never let someone else’s pain become about you. Trust me, it isn’t.