When a Nurse Asked Me How I Was Doing

Why do they ask? They call your name and as you stand you wipe away the tears that you don’t expect to actually hide. The nurse smiles, “Hi! How are you?” I cringe at the false cheerfulness. I’d prefer it if they weren’t polite. I’m here, at a hospital, with tear stains down my cheek. How am I supposed to answer that?

People don’t seem to understand that it’s not about not wanting to be polite. It’s not about wanting to be honest. It’s about the pain that is caused by uttering those false words. The pain that comes from wanting to curl up on the floor and pretend the pain doesn’t exist. Pretend the walking for miles through hospital construction does not have every muscle seizing in protest. Pretend it wasn’t a panic attack when you realized you couldn’t just hand a human being your insurance cards (that they already have on file anyway), but had to stand at a kiosk trying to juggle cards and IDs and bags of medicine they insist you bring.

The people who fill the other seats in the waiting room seem perfectly content with doing so. They had someone sitting next to them today. Someone to talk to, to smile at. My person would be there if he could. But for now, I find a single seat, out of the way as I start to feel the tears well. It was such a trial to get here; it will be a trial like this every day from here on out.

Chronic pain hits me in different ways. But it’s always a package deal. There is the pain that limits my activity. But many times there are tasks that there is no way of avoiding. Like maneuvering construction in the hospital that I did not expect. I would have requested a wheelchair to get me from the parking lot to my appointment, but what is usually a manageable trek was surprisingly unreasonable today. So by the time I made it to the office, I was in excruciating pain.

That pain was made worse with the new check-in process wherein the patient stands at a cold kiosk trying to juggle belongings and insurance cards while pressing the right buttons and interpreting an impersonal computer interaction. By the time I was able to sit down tears were silently pouring down my cheek. Simply standing in one place for too long causes me pain. I begin to rock back and forth, shifting my weight from right foot to left, both to alleviate and distract from the ache building in my lower back.

Pain also embarrasses me as I sit down with tears silently flowing. I am whispering, “Please don’t look at me; please don’t notice me,” inaudibly to those sitting in the area. Just let me be and let me cope with what I have to.

And as I am greeted by a nurse, simply doing her job, I am forced to smile and lie with a strained, “I’m OK. Been better, been worse.” I hate to lie and always make an effort to be cheerful and put my best foot forward, but when I’m hurting and trying to hide that hurt, the lie is salt I am rubbing in my own wound – for the ease of a stranger.

People deal with pain in different ways. But for everyone who experiences chronic pain, there are days when it seems impossible to cope. Impossible tasks get done anyway, but if an outsider is observant enough they can see the cracks pushing through, the cracks that seem like deep chasms to the person trying to hide them. We don’t want to be a burden and we don’t want to be a constant receiver of sympathy that we feel responsible to be thankful for. But we do need support and sometimes we just need space and time to lick our wounds. When it is hard for us to be around people, this is why. This is why we cancel plans, and this is why we avoid the social arena sometimes. Sometimes it is too hard and too exhausting to put on the brave face we try so hard to keep up. Sometimes it’s just that it hurts too much when the brave face falters and we break our own hearts.

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Getty image by Sam Edwards

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