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When Chronic Pain Makes Me Seem Like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'

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We grow up hearing the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a cautionary tale against lying so many times people don’t believe you when it’s true. What they don’t tell you is that even if what you’re telling them is true, people still stop believing you when they hear something often enough. Pain patients experience this with painful, disgusting regularity. I have people in my life who, even if I tell them that I spent the day at the doctor, will insinuate that I’m blowing my pain out of proportion in order to avoid doing work or to get sympathy. Interestingly, they only seem to say it when my pain negatively impacts them, but that’s another story entirely.

While I’m no boy, I do cry “wolf” a lot. I’m not lying, it’s because there are a lot of freaking wolves, and they stalk me with such regularity that I only dare even whisper their name when their fangs are in my throat. I think the more we say something, particularly something like, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t,” the less people hear it and the more they assume, “I can’t,” means “I don’t want to.” While I won’t pretend that there aren’t people in the world who lie, if you know someone is a chronic pain patient, and they say, “I am in too much pain,” it’s more likely that no, there are just a lot of wolves in their forest.

That’s the danger. It’s easy to become complacent around chronic pain. It happens day in, day out, every day and all day. Even if we don’t talk about it, people who have chronic pain conditions are in… well… chronic pain. See where I’m going with this? Many folks with chronic pain eventually decide that talking much about it isn’t worthwhile. We’re constantly in pain, and we don’t want to whine. After all, whining is “crying wolf.” Unfortunately, even when we’re only remarking on our pain on occasion, it seems to others like we’re complaining about it all the time because we talk about it more than pretty much anyone else.

Being close to someone with chronic illness is a challenge. Our plans can change from minute to minute, we often have to cancel plans due to unforeseen complications, or we might have to leave earlier than we planned. We know how inconvenient it is. Really. No, we do. We also feel guilty for making people’s schedules change around us at the drop of the hat — one of the many reasons many of us recuse ourselves from being around people. We don’t like letting you down, and we know we do. Even if you don’t say so.

To return to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — imagine you are the boy, and the woods are full of wolves. You see them, and you call wolf. The pitchforks and torches come out, and people chase the wolves off. But they come back again and again and again. The wolves never seem to stop. You eventually only call if there’s a real problem, but by then the townsfolk no longer come, and you’re left alone in the woods with the wolves circling. You cry out over and over until your throat is hoarse, and the wolves close in. That’s what living in chronic pain is like.

It’s tough living in a forest full of wolves, and it’s easy to feel alone. It’s easier for the loneliness to close in when the townsfolk (our friends and family) grow callous to our cries of “wolf!” and either stop listening or make the assumption that we aren’t telling the truth. Unfortunately, closing our eyes and ignoring the wolves doesn’t make them go away. We wish it did.

Please, don’t leave us alone in the dark.

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Originally published: November 7, 2016
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