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It's OK If You Don't Understand My Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain is something that can make it difficult to hold down good friendships, so when we are able to do it, it’s such a relief. It should help us feel less alone, less isolated, safer knowing we have people who love us and who we can confide in. Having people around us who love us, support us, who see what we go through day in and day out should really help us get by, and most of the time it does. Most of the time. Then sometimes, as we describe our pain and pour our heart out explaining our experience and how we feel, they say the dreaded phrase no one with chronic pain wants to hear from an abled healthy loved one: “I understand.” The words run in our head and suddenly all of that support and love, it all goes away.

“I understand” is a well-intended sweet sentiment, but much like similar statements like, “Get well soon,” “I get sick sometimes too” and “We all have bad days,” instead of helping it invalidates us. It tells us that even with us opening up to you constantly, even though we share our most raw vulnerable self with you, you still don’t get it. It’s ironic how the phrase “I understand” just shows us how much you don’t understand what we are experiencing. When this phrase comes from someone this close, it takes away the feeling of comfort and support we felt from you. It takes away the feeling of being understood, of being validated by you. It takes all of this away and plummets us into a deep feeling of loneliness.

This phrase is meant well, but how do we explain that you can’t understand what it is to be in pain 24/7 for years? How can we explain everything we’ve lost, everything we’ve fought for, everything that has gone wrong and will never get right. Yes you see our pain, you hear about our struggle, but it’s not the same. You don’t get it until you get it. The best way to describe it, I have found, is that this is like a father saying he understands the pain of childbirth. Yes, he can be his partner’s cheerleader as she gives birth, he can hold her hand, he can wipe away her tears and her sweat, he can even help her fight doctors to help keep her safe. He can empathize, he feels for her so, so deeply and he even has his own completely valid experience of this event. He is a vital part of this situation. He can be the best, most supportive partner in the world. But he doesn’t understand how much it hurts. He can’t. Even if he wants to, even if he loves her so much he would happily trade places, he can’t do it. And it’s OK to not understand.

I can’t understand what it’s like for my loved ones to see me in pain every day. I can’t understand what it’s like to see someone you love be healthy and with you one minute and then be in horrific pain and disabled the next. We can’t fully understand each other’s lives, but that doesn’t mean we love each other any less. We can love and support each other, but please understand that you don’t understand what it’s like. And that’s OK.

Header image via Leon Biss/Unsplash.

Originally published: February 16, 2019
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