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The Simple Reminder That Helped Me Through a Chronic Pain Setback

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Recently I had been doing fairly well managing my chronic pain. I was feeling a certain balance between rest and activity, and even had just taken up swimming again. Then last week on a short walk, I slipped and
fell on ice. I damaged my “good” knee. This was distressing – I so regretted losing the relative stability I’d achieved with my pain level and health. I grieved what was lost, and dreaded the months of recovery ahead and the likelihood of having triggered a new source of chronic pain.

So the past few days have been hard. I’ve been depressed and anxious. But it occurs to me that this is all the result of comparison. I am comparing how I felt before falling to now. I am comparing the future of relative stability I had anticipated with a suddenly less promising outlook.

Comparison can cause a lot of suffering. We compare our current state with what we had before, when health was better. We compare ourselves to our healthier peers. We compare a hypothetical future that might have been, absent our afflictions, with what we fear will be our reality.

Perhaps it’s natural to compare, perhaps we can’t avoid it. But I read some advice recently which returns to me now: “Always compare down, not up.” This means compare your current situation to something worse, not better. So I have been doing my best to practice this today.

Instead of comparing my knee before the mishap to its current injured state, I imagine how much worse it could have been. My knee hurts when bent, but I’m still able to stand and walk on level surfaces. What if it were unable to bear weight? What if I’d broken the kneecap? What if I’d fallen in another manner and broken my hip or had a concussion? And all this, of course, would be in addition to my chronic hip pain and fibromyalgia. This speculation floods me with gratitude that I actually have only a relatively minor injury to address.

To hear “Cheer up, it could have been worse” from a friend or family member can be hard to take; it sounds dismissive or invalidating. But having read “Compare down, not up,” although it is essentially the same advice, was helpful to me. Perhaps because it wasn’t addressed to me personally, I didn’t feel defensive. Perhaps having it phrased as a simple, practical exercise to employ rather than as a platitude made the difference. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I was open to the message. Often the advice others give us is good basic wisdom, but we have to come to it in our own way.

So I will continue to compare down. I will do my best not to wish I hadn’t fallen on the ice (comparing up). That is over and done with. I will do my best to be grateful I can still walk and function more or less as before. I will do my best to be grateful that my knee will heal with time. This life with chronic pain is not easy. But no matter how hard it gets, I’m here for it. And if it gets easier, I’m here for that, too. So I’m grateful that it is only as bad as it is. And looking at it in this manner helps me see that this life of mine is also – to my surprise – often very good.

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Getty Image by nicoletaionescu

Originally published: January 30, 2018
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