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5 Reasons We Should Never Assume Someone Isn't in Pain

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I was sitting in one of those canvas painting classes, waving a paintbrush back and forth in a very amateur attempt to recreate Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies” (spoiler: I’m not an artist and the end result bore little resemblance to the original).

monet painting done on canvas
Christina’s painting.

“You’re lucky you’re young,” casually comments the older woman sitting next to me. “You don’t have to worry about arthritis in your hands.”

I knew it was an innocent comment intended as a lighthearted joke, an attempt to be friendly, or even as a compliment of sorts.

But I also knew the observation, however well-intentioned it may have been, was wrong at best and hurtful at worst. I knew all too well that young does not mean disease-free, worry-free, or especially pain-free. I knew pain could strike at any time, and for me, had begun its assault on my body at the ripe age of 20.

Few would know it to look at me. Certainly the woman in the painting class had no idea about the pain I’ve lived with for the past eight years. So I smiled in response and carried on with my painting, trying my best to ignore the pain and stiffness building up in my arm and hand.

But her comment got me thinking about the assumptions we make about other people. If I could be suffering and still look fine on the outside, what else could other people be silently enduring?

So I’ve compiled these five reasons we should never assume another person isn’t in pain:

1. Many people with chronic illness look totally healthy. Chronic illness doesn’t always come with a walker, a wheelchair, a cane, a cast, a brace, or any other assistive device. Of course, the absence of these items can be both a blessing and a curse. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. 

2. People in pain accomplish tremendous feats. The life of a person with chronic pain can be quite impressive. Many everyday heroes manage to lead fulfilling careers, raise happy, healthy children, or even provide care to sick elders. Others, like Iron Man athlete and multiple sclerosis patient Lyle Anderson, accomplish physical feats that would be impossible for many people, even those unburdened by disease or pain.

3. Chronic pain patients can be good at pretending. Although I never deny that I’m in pain, I don’t enjoy the pity that comes from admitting to everyone I meet that I’m in pain every day. I’m also the mom of a toddler, and I don’t want him to always witness me suffering every day. So when I’m able, I’ve learned to put on a happy face and ignore my pain the best I can. Many other chronic pain patients with all sorts of ailments, especially invisible ones, learn to do the same thing in order to carry on with their normal lives.

4. Disease and pain can strike at any age. Many people, like the woman in my painting class, falsely imagine disease and pain as afflictions confined to old age. Sadly, many diseases affect people of all ages, including children. Over 90 percent of people who have lupus are between the ages of 15 and 45, for instance. Half of people who get migraine headaches have their first one before age 12. And juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is just one example of many diseases that affect children under the age of 17. 

5. Chronic pain patients have good days and bad days. Many diseases and ailments that cause immense pain involve flareups and remissions, including thoracic outlet syndrome. Some days I can almost forget that I have any medical ailments at all. On my good days, when I’m out taking my son for walks in his stroller, chasing after him in the yard, or being a super mom checking chores off the list, you’d find it hard to imagine that there are many days where getting out of bed is a goal I can barely attempt. Just because someone looks good today doesn’t mean they look good every day.

There can be significant consequences involved with assuming things about other people. Back in December, Justine Van Den Borne, who has multiple sclerosis, was shocked to find a note on her windshield asking if she’d “forgotten her wheelchair” after she parked in a handicap spot. Her poignant response to the note went viral and helped to bring awareness to people suffering from invisible illnesses.

Follow this journey on Mothering With Chronic Pain.

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Originally published: May 6, 2016
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