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Finding My Personal Value in the Face of Chronic Pain

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Hope, like faith, is a mental manipulation that attempts to alter the perception of the future rather than address the reality of now.”

Read that again and make sure you understand what I’m saying. It’s important.

I don’t mean to diss either hope or faith, but merely am attempting to define it psychologically. Hope and faith are not external entities we can grab on to when we are learning to live with a chronic illness. They are merely the products of our own minds.

After hoping for success as I tried multiple treatments for my chronic pain and being consistently disappointed, I have tried to become more aware of my expectations so I can dilute the negative emotions I feel when they aren’t met.

Prior to a spinal cord stimulator trial a year ago, the nurse practitioner at my pain clinic asked, “Have you thought about what the first thing is you’ll do once this device is successful?” She didn’t know that false hope is the worst thing anyone with chronic disease needs.

The trial failed and the resulting emotional pain was greater because I allowed myself to attach my mind to the hope of others and have faith in a product that has been successful in 90 percent of other patients. The 10 percent of us who don’t get to experience those rewards must endure not only our own disappointment, but also that of others who ginned up their own hope, albeit for genuine reasons.

After 15+ years of medication, treatments, mindfulness practice and surgery, there is nothing left on the horizon. I almost don’t want to know about the latest medication or implanted device because the inevitable letdown may trigger an emotional equivalent of my physical pain.

So, now, I feel like I just take up space, trying to get from one moment to the next, one hour to the next and from today to tomorrow. Simple survival.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not pity-fishing. I appreciate the genuine attempts of others to inflate my self-esteem by reiterating my value to them, but that seems futile, especially now that I’m single again, my kids are adults and I’m unable to work.

When I had real responsibility for others, the value I might have brought to the table generated happiness for me. Without that prescribed and tangible accountability, the value of my daily existence now seems much more difficult to define.

I’ve crossed that line of taking more than I give in every way I can think of. I need more help than I provide to others, no matter what form that takes (e.g., emotionally, physically). As someone in his mid-50s, that happened much earlier than I thought it would.

So is it my value to others or to myself that’s important?

Both, right?

Without receiving feedback that my contributions have value, is it up to me to spoon-feed myself that narrative as a substitution for that feedback (i.e., self-affirmation), or does that perpetuate the unnecessary need for validation? Or is it really unnecessary? I feel like I’m thinking too much and yet…

Again, what’s more important — the value we bring to others, or our own happiness? When I face that truth about my own pain, fear creeps in because it’s been triggered by my own despair.

Loving and doing for others brings me happiness, but I question whether that sufficiently offsets the price paid in the intervening moments. Those “intervening moments” when I’m fighting overwhelming frustration and the desire to give up might comprise 16 hours a day while, if I’m lucky, five to 10 minutes might involve positive interaction with others, which seems like hardly a good life balance.

Do I have an obligation to keep crawling through this jungle of pain and its consequences to others in order to provide and receive those brief moments of happiness? It’s like a nursing home resident whose life revolves around infrequent family visits and praying that dinner isn’t buttered noodles again.

Then again, what about the idea that I am creating expectations of what “should” be happening in between those so-called moments of value? If I’m not providing anything that I deem valuable to others or myself in those in-between periods of time, who am I to define my existence as useless?

Perhaps it does add value in some way that I’m not seeing. Perhaps my self-judgments and how “the world would be better off without me” are just little dramatic vignettes that are playing on a loop in my mind and need to be broken.

“I must be pain-free to find and provide greater value to others.” That’s not true, right? I can provide value even if it doesn’t measure up to what I’d hope it could be. I just need to figure out what that value can be.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: September 12, 2016
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