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When 'Resting Pain Face' Is Part of Daily Life

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I have been chronically ill for as long as I can remember. It is simply a fact of life that pain is a constant companion for me. I have often wondered though, whether I should have come labeled? So often in life we lean back into those first impressions we make of other people, with no knowledge of what might be sitting behind the face in front of us. The old adage that we should just “be nice” because we have no idea what someone is dealing with in their personal life really does ring true. How easy is that to apply though, as we stumble through life?

If the letters that came after my name were not the ones I earned (bachelor of science, or BSc, and bachelor of laws, or LLB,) rather the ones I live with (aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease, or AERD, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and osteoarthritis, or OA) would you interpret my “resting pain face” with more understanding? Over the years I have been constantly asked why I look so worried, tired, sad or grumpy, when really the answer is simply that my body is in pain. And sometimes I cannot keep that pain from shining out of my face at you.

More recently, I have been carrying with me an overt representation of some of the pain inside of me — the osteoarthritis in my knee has progressed to the point where I sometimes need a cane to walk. That has moved me from the sphere of invisible chronic illness (you cannot see from the outside that my lungs are diseased, that the nerves are damaged in my face from so many sinus operations or that my stomach ties itself up in knots) into a place where people openly express sympathy, and will defer to my pain by moving out of my way on the footpath, or holding open doors for me.

It’s such a bizarre feeling, seeing my pain recognized and acknowledged in that way. For most of my life I have tried to conceal the pain I feel, (like migraines or stabbing pains in my lungs, or  cramping in my belly) or justify my illness (I’ve had 12 operations, a failed aspirin desensitization trial damaged my lungs, long-term use of steroids has suppressed my adrenals); to be able to openly acknowledge that I’m hurting.  The fact that is OK to do that, just feels weird.

Somehow my “resting pain face” now makes sense? If I have to walk with a stick and I’m allergic to anti-inflammatory medications, then you can relate to the pain I must be experiencing, so that snap judgment you make is likely to be more favorable?

What if my “resting pain face” wasn’t about that cane though? What if my worried, or tired, or sad, or grumpy face was reflecting mental angst and not just physical pain? If my anxiety was making me isolate myself, or the sadness of grief had dipped me into the dark pool of depression, or my worrisome overthinking was making me flustered…what then? Would my resting “life-is-too-hard-right-now” face garner sympathy? Or would you reflect back frustration or annoyance or confusion?

If I had to choose a label for myself, it wouldn’t be the letters I earned (BSc, LLB), or the letters the doctors tag me with (AERD, IBS, OA). I much prefer to be labeled with that old adage “just be nice.” I will try not to apologize for my “resting pain face” (or feel guilty about it), and will do the very best that I can every day to also reflect my resting “happy-friendly-content” face.

Photo credit: m-imagephotography/Getty Images

Originally published: June 23, 2019
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