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A Portrait of Chronic Pain

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If I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “but you don’t look like you’re in pain,” I would be rich. Literally. For some reason, we all have this conceived notion of what pain or illness is supposed to look like, and we don’t understand that pain is so much more than what’s on the surface. In fact, a great deal of pain – whether physical or emotional – is hidden far beneath the surface.

Pain is a narrative, and often we don’t see that entire story play out. People experience pain every day and rather than show it to the world, we hide it. We cry in our empty houses in the middle of the night, and we throw things at the wall in the midst of frustration. We snap at the people we love, and we look in the mirror only to see a face that looks barely recognizable. This is pain – it’s not always pretty or glamorous. It’s real, and raw, and vulnerable.

I’ve learned that pain isn’t consistent. Sometimes pain is hidden by a bright smile and a fancy outfit. Other times, pain is more visible through
pajamas, no makeup and bedhead. Pain is sitting in solitude for endless hours and feeling so numb that it’s hard to breathe. But pain is also having the courage to roll out of bed and keep fighting. Pain is deliberating and challenging, but at the end of the day, I think it saves us too. It changes us, but it doesn’t define us. If anything, pain helps us discover the people we are. We are not the things that break us, and tear us down. We are the many reasons why we choose to stand back up.

When people find out about my condition, they’re often quite shocked at how well I manage. My point of view has always been this: the rest of the world doesn’t stop just because I’m in pain. Time doesn’t stand still
and deadlines don’t disappear. Things don’t just magically get done and people don’t cut me any slack. Pain happens whether we want it to or not. The pain is going to take you down, it’s going to defeat you every once in awhile. But you have to stand back up. You have to choose to keep fighting every single day, and to me, that is the most accurate portrait of pain there is.

If I had to sum up pain in one image, in one idea, it is this: it isn’t always courage and strength. Sometimes it’s admitting that you’re weak and heavily burdened. But pain in its real and raw form is standing back up in the midst of tears, cursing at the sky a few times, and then taking a single step forward.

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Photo via MishaBeliy on Getty Images

Originally published: December 15, 2017
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