The Advantage of Living With Chronic Pain
I swing from periods of relative wellness to periods of fatigue, pain and despair. It usually gets worse with the cold and dampness of these winter months in the Northern hemisphere, as I’m sure it does with a lot of you!
There is so much I’d like to do today.
I never fail to make a to-do list every day, but whether or not I manage to complete it is another story. Still, the list itself gives me a reason to get up and move in the morning; something to look forward to. If I don’t get anything done, I refuse to let my mind get angry and annoyed about it…well, most of the time. Oh for sure it will attempt to complain as it always does, and sometimes it wins as self-beration is a well-worn pattern in my brain. Nevertheless, and thanks to mindfulness, I can catch it when it starts and choose another attitude toward my experience.
Pain forces, or teaches me, to slow down, pause and even to just stop. And I can resentfully resign to doing nothing, dragging my internal self kicking and screaming to the couch or bed, furious at all the things I want to do but can’t. Or I can consciously and gently choose to be with the slowing down, saying an inner “yes” to my reality. I can see it as an opportunity to just do nothing. I can see it as an opportunity to let go of resistance to what is, and go with the flow of life, and that flow is whatever I am able for at that moment. Some days it’s all I can do just to sit or lie in silence. When the pain is intense, it’s the only “noise” my nervous system can handle. Any or other form of information input : music, TV, radio, podcast even washing machine or any other noisy household appliance can be too overwhelming and send me into meltdown mode. So the frenetic, messy, rushing around of modern life that most people take for granted, is something often outside of my capacity. They can always have another coffee to keep going, and then have a beer to calm the nerves and get up the next morning and do it all over again. But I can’t.
Eventually my body says, ”No. No more. I just can’t.”
If I’m exhausted — I’m exhausted and nothing can change that. I have to do nothing. I have to hand over my plans for the day and yield to my reality.
So, what’s another way to describe doing nothing?
Connecting with silence.
Connecting with being.
Sinking into the present moment.
Doing nothing is an opportunity to engage with something most people don’t, can’t or won’t because they are too busy being productive living those hectic, crazy and stressful lives that I undoubtedly often crave and envy. Yet, they rarely get to slow down and just be with the immediacy of life itself. They rarely get a chance to connect with the present moment and reflect or experience that deeper, somewhat more timeless dimension of life, unless they consciously choose a more mindful lifestyle.
That is my privilege as a person who experiences chronic pain. I can spend those “doing nothing” moments in anger, bitterness and resistance (which is actually scientifically proven in the field of pain psychology to add to the intensity of one’s experience of pain through what’s called secondary pain), or I can surrender to what is and just be with the reality of the situation.
I, we, get to slow down and savor the intricate beauty of every little moment of life. I notice more. I get to pear life down to it’s bare-bone essentials and bask in the simplicity of the most important tasks, relationships and engagements in life. Everything becomes much more meaningful, special and alive — if I choose to see it that way. If I choose to let go of the “poor me” and value the experience of just simply being here, being alive.
I have to say that I do, of course, understand and acknowledge that there are differing degrees of pain that we all go through. I know that there can be moments, hours, days, weeks, months and even years of pain so excruciating that it’s hard to be with any moment or savor any ounce of life. God knows I’ve been there and never thought things would get better, but they have, they do and they will and this well patch may subside again at some stage who knows. I’m not suggesting to try mindfulness in those moments of extreme suffering where there is simply too much adrenalin in your system to calm your racing mind down, nor when your mind is actually forced to be quiet because the pain is too “loud” for your mind to even muster anything else. But on those days where the pain is not so intense yet, still aggravating or even better on the kinder days, practice mindfulness as much as you can so that you can start to build that mindfulness muscle against secondary pain. Eventually, you will be able to take the edge off of the harder days. As always, it seems easier said than done and harder sometimes than others, but overall, two of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my journey of life and 23 years of chronic pain are mindfulness and self-compassion practices. Another is how trauma stored in the subconscious can add to one’s overall perception of pain — unbeknownst to the conscious mind — but that’s for another post.
The advantage of living with chronic pain?
Learning about compassion and a deeper appreciation for life itself.
For more information on secondary pain, I highly recommend “Mindfulness for Health” by Vidyamala Burch & Danny Pennman as a valuable resource for anyone living with chronic pain to have. All their information is backed by referenced scientific studies and clinical trials on the psychology of chronic pain. For transparency, I am not an affiliate of the authors nor have been asked or paid to reference their book.
I hope you find the gift in your suffering.
Photo submitted by contributor.