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Trying to Explain to Healthy Friends What Doing Too Much Can 'Cost'

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The easiest way of explaining the impact of chronic pain, I find, is with the analogy of the petrol tank. It has made my personal petrol tank a lot smaller. I can still do most of what I used to do, just a great deal less of it, and I need to stop for refills. Obviously it is really an energy tank and it is refilled with rest, sometimes with the help of strong painkillers, but the image of a tank in a car seems to come easily to everyone. It works for explaining flare-ups too: the car is not in great condition, so sometimes something will go wrong with it unexpectedly, and I will have to cancel until it is fixed.

The analogy falls down, however, when it comes to looking at the aftermath of a busy few hours. My petrol tank can run on empty for a bit, but it won’t be possible to fill it up the next day, sometimes even for several days. The better analogy might be that of a bank account: I can decide to do something that will put me in overdraft, but it will take time to pay it back.

Why do I do things that will put me over my limit? I think that is easy to explain. It is because otherwise my life would be even more restricted than it is, and I want to have some fun in it, and I want to have it with those I love. It would be nice if opportunities cropped up at tidy intervals, and if everyone I’m fond of lived on my doorstep, but that’s not how it is.

Then why do I want to share that aftermath? That is a more difficult question. Sometimes somebody will wonder why I look so wiped out. Sometimes I need to explain why I need a day or days of very little before I can be active again. Often I worry that people will assume I’m lazy now that both kids are at school and my work is very part-time. Frequently people will see me out looking completely normal, as my pain is in my back and there is no visible sign of it, and I want them to understand why I am turning down something else they have asked me to do. I want them to know it isn’t personal.

However, sometimes, if I were pushed, I could do the thing that has been suggested, but am choosing not to. Generally not – after six years of chronic pain I am not swamped with offers of work or to socialize! But sometimes I don’t want to go because, although I will manage, I will pay for it afterwards. And, more often that not, my family will be affected, because I will find it impossible to do anything domestic and will also have an even shorter fuse than usual. So a short commitment can, effectively, take over a whole day.

I know this happens to healthy people too, all the time. We all get offered things we don’t really want to do, and we have limited time, and we must prioritize. The difference is I have had to become more ruthless. The things I have to do, like getting my younger child to school, take precedence. Things I might have once done, like going to a meeting even if it involves a bit of a drive, or trying out a film I haven’t heard much about, are rarely worth the risk.

There aren’t many advantages to living a life that is much smaller than the one you wanted. However, I have had to become less of a people-pleaser, and be clearer about what and whom I want in my life. That, at least, has been valuable. It sounds ridiculously self-important to say that “You can be duly grateful I’ve turned up!” but I think you will understand what I mean.

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Thinkstock photo via Kerkez.

Originally published: November 1, 2017
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