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The Language We Speak as People With Chronic Pain

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I sit at a diner having lunch with a friend. It has been a while since I have seen her. She does most of the talking and I only let her because my pain makes it hard to speak. Nothing about our stories seems the same, but we both have scars. Suddenly every emotion she speaks I understand. We are talking about different things entirely, but it is in the same language. She talks about feeling stuck. I get it, I tell her. She talks about medical bills that overwhelm her. I get that, too. She worries about it coming back. Now, our “its” are very different. But I have the same fear.

I do my best not to compete or one-up or compare.

Because I hate it when people do that to me. Although, I must admit to occasionally doing it in my head.
So I just say, “It’s not just you” instead.

She doesn’t usually talk about this, she says while grabbing another forkful of cake. “It’s OK,” I tell her, even though I am desperate to talk about anything else. This has been happening a lot lately, which is not the norm for a girl who is usually the one telling ridiculous stories instead of listening. When the time is right, I change the topic and make sure we laugh a little before we push in our chairs.

Someone I’ve only met recently met pulls me aside at a party. She hesitates a little, like she is working up the nerve to confess a terrible secret. She tells me that most people don’t know, but that she has chronic pain issues, too. I tell her it sucks, waiting for her to elaborate. She says she has had to give up her morning workouts. I want to yell at her. Somedays I have to give up talking and chewing and kissing my husband… but I’m sorry you miss your burpees so much. But I don’t say that. I just tell her that I miss running. “That used to be how I cleared my head and felt strong. Finding a new way is a struggle,” I continue. “I’m still trying to find it. It’s not just you.

I don’t know if she wants me to help or if she is trying to help me. She breathes deep, somehow satisfied, and slips back into the crowd.

Another friend appears most days on Facebook to be “kicking cancer’s ass.” She takes smiling photos of her bald head and each chemo and radiation treatment. I don’t know her well, but last summer she kept checking in on me after my brain surgery and I remember thinking, Why are you checking on me? You have cancer. I like her photos because that is what you do, but one day I drop something off at her house and she answers the door crying. She starts to apologize then just looks at me and says, “Well, you get it.” I don’t think I do. Day after day she posts happy photos of her doing fun things and sends me text after text of how she is really doing. Sometimes I tell her when my days are hard. “It’s not just you,” she tells me.

Yesterday a message shows up on my screen. Someone I haven’t talked to in over 20 years. Someone I graduated high school with and am not sure if I would even recognize her if I saw her today. I start to wonder if the message is even for me. “Tell me about your surgery,” she says. She talks about debilitating pain and the surgical option she is choosing. Fearfully. “I know nothing about your kind of surgery,” I respond back. “I can’t give you any insights into expectations or recovery, but I know all about pain. I know all about missing out. I know all about fear.” The conversation goes on. I am certain this is the most real conversation we have ever had with each other. Somehow now we have a language. One that neither of us wants but both speak fluently. It is one I wish I had never learned, but occasionally, I am glad to understand in someone else’s tired eyes. Glad it gives me more to offer when most days I am so much less.

All these people want to tell me about their pain. I’m not sure if I am supposed to hear them, or let them hear me. It is a dialogue I am still stumbling through, but I suspect it is both.

Originally published: August 15, 2016
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