What Jigsaw Puzzles Teach Me About Life With Chronic Back Pain


Imagine your life as a jigsaw puzzle…

The information on the puzzle box is incredibly limited. It does not tell you how many pieces are inside. The photo on the outside of the box is just blue sky, scattered with soft-focused clouds. As you look at the photo on the box, you mutter, “This is going to be so difficult to put together.” Every puzzle piece looks identical in color. The theory, in any time you put together a puzzle, is that the puzzle will look exactly like the photo on the outside of the box. Your hands steadily open the box of the puzzle-of-life and remove the lid to see the contents. Much to your surprise, there are pieces of varying colors and of strange images, not all blue sky as you assumed.

My strategy, in putting together a puzzle, is to search out and place all the straight edges and corners to build the framework first. The beautiful blue frame stares back at you with the promise of many days yet to come. Your logical brain knows that life isn’t always going to be blue skies, it is a certainty that there may be clouds, maybe even a storm or two. As you fill in the pieces, you uncover a piece with an image of children. That’s pretty cool – you’re not sure where they fit in, but it makes you smile. As you stir through the pieces, you discover an image of a lovely garden; again, you’re not sure where it fits, but it’s pleasing nonetheless.

As you stir through yet more pieces, turning them right side up, you find a heart. Not just any heart – this one is broken. Oh! If only you knew where it fit, you could possibly prevent it from breaking. The next piece turned over, a hospital bed. You can assume it must fit before the kids; after all, children are born in hospitals. But this piece is not even shaped like any of the other pieces. It is so random. You keep it within eye-line, always in sight, wondering when and where it fits.

You realize you have excruciating back pain, but you pass it off as having been sorting and searching for so long. Some hot packs and Advil will surely take care of it. There is a much bigger task at hand: making sense of this chaos. Hours and days blend together as you piece together the story of your life.

A little piece with a pill comes to sight, and another, and yet another. It seems as though the medications have multiplied and don’t resemble each other. You group them together and push them to the side. You’re surveying the pieces before you. Some are brightly colored and some have dark murky images. A gloomy image of two people sitting across from each other in what looks like an office setting. These people do not look happy. One person with their head in the hands, the other holds a clipboard and pen. Unsure of what this means, you begin a new section of puzzle pieces.

Another shadowy piece is a bottle of poison, or so you think. When you look closer at the label, it appears to have some biohazard-looking image on it. Is it a warning of something dangerous? Off to the side with the other dark pieces…

If only we were able to see all of the pieces of our life laid out in front of us. To see the timing and plan, the purpose of it all. Our sense of control would be so overwhelming, we would manage and manipulate the puzzle to fit our plan. Our way. Had I known that the piece with the broken heart would surface more times than I can count, I would have maybe withdrawn. Not allowed myself to love so ferociously. That would have been the worst – not the broken heart, but the lack of passion in my life.

There is no way to compartmentalize life. There is no way to neatly organize our darkness or create nice, neat edges. The dark image of the people facing off in an office could represent many facets of my life. I’m not exactly sure which piece is which. Perhaps it’s the conversation with a lawyer during my divorce. Perhaps it’s the conversation with a doctor that is just not listening to me or hearing the cry of my body. Perhaps it’s the conversation with a trusted friend that doesn’t understand or believe the abuse of my past. In any scenario, I’m was left feeling defeated and dark.

The dimness of a hospital bed, in this puzzle, served my parents, so many days and nights sitting around a hospital bed praying for better days. Cancer and disease are beasts we try to tame. Days into months of lingering illness and pain. Some never know the victory over the beast. Little did I know that in their death, I would learn about strength.

The “pill pieces” have been present most of my adult life. I’ve battled depression and anxiety to epic proportions. I’ve had seasons of quiet and seasons of mayhem. Those manic seasons come and go, but never completely disappear. It’s in those seasons I’ve craved peace. Sought it out and chased it. Peace is elusive. What you are certain will bring you peace may be the core of chaos. While it is imperative to seek peace, you must seek discernment and wisdom equally.

In your busyness of life, you learn to pass off the little moments of discomfort as nothing more than nuisance. The back pain that stops you in your tracks can be attributed to a zillion things. Your weight, poor posture, an occupation on your feet all day. Never would you assume that your back pain may be the root of a deeper, more invasive disease. Too busy to give it light, you pass it off as that: passing. When putting together the pieces of a puzzle within a puzzle, you discover you have an autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis. It’s when you understand your “biohazard puzzle piece” is not a warning of danger ahead, it is the treatment for the disease that you (and multiple doctors) failed to see. It’s the victory and defeat. You now have a name for the disease, but the treatment is another chapter in illness that you wouldn’t wish upon an enemy.

But in this tabletop view of life, you can see that these dark puzzle pieces are but small segments of a much bigger picture. Yes, they are visible, but they are surrounded by light. Not always sunshine, but light that gives purpose and life. Your life is that: purposeful. Breathe in the moment of right now. Unburden yourself of the chaos and quest for having all of your pieces organized just right. Let go of the pain of a season of dark days. Look for the lessons learned in those moments. Yes, even the darkness has a lesson to be learned. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning to not do that again, or it’s as complex as finding the voice within to stand up for yourself or a loved one in their dark season.

No, sunshine and blue skies would be too boring for this girl. I will lean in and learn about love through the pain. Healing in the brokenness. Learn to slow down when my body tells me to. Life is to be lived, discovered anew. Throw the box away! Throw away the picture in your mind of how it should be. And, if life ever gets too blue sky, take a Sharpie and write cuss words across the pieces. Live life – out loud!

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