“Few people with chronic pain and illness can be expected to totally overcome these forms of suffering” (Strong, 1997, p. 55). In my experience, coming to that realization happens at just about the same time people start to feel completely out-of-control. By this, I mean certain words begin to percolate like: incurable, hopeless, and a whole whack of other things. I know, not a very inspiring way to start this blog, but stick with me.
While we may not be able to CURE all that ails us, what we CAN do is change the kind of RELATIONSHIP we have with it. Sound confusing? Good, let me explain.
I’d like you to think for just a moment, if I asked you, “What kind of relationship do you have with your pain or illness?” What would you say? If some of you said that I’m a weirdo from Mars, you’re not far off, but try it again. Think about what words you would use to begin describing it. Here are a few to get you started: nagging, demanding, relentless, overwhelming, etc. From my experience, both personally and in working with others, these words readily come to mind.
A year and a half ago I suffered a brain injury. Although I’ve lived with it now for a relatively short period of time, the above question holds much relevance to me. So in the process of writing this I took some time to consider it for myself. Funny enough, a most unsuspecting thought popped into my head. What kind of relationship do I have with it? Well, it kinda feels like that of an ‘old friend:’ an old friend being someone who probably has your best interest at heart, but also may be someone with whom you frequently find yourself getting into a lot of trouble.
Just like an old friend, there are times when the symptoms – referred to here as, the expressions of pain or illness – are more present. Then there are other times when we’re simply aware of one another (right!? we know they’re still there), but maybe have less to say at that moment.
This got me interested in reflecting a bit further, “When my ‘old friend’ comes around for a visit how do I greet it?” Ask yourself the same question about your pain or illness – especially when it shows up unexpectedly. Do we greet it with a smile and open arms? If you’re like me the answer is probably, “Heck no!” But why not? After all, if it was an old friend, as in my example, and perhaps not completely malevolent, then that’s not exactly how I’d want to greet it.
Nevertheless, I’d come to greet my old friend with WORRY. Actually, it’s more like an, “Uh oh, what am I in for now!?” Sound familiar? I dread those visits. And rightly so; when my ‘old friend’ comes around I never know how long he’s gonna stay! I panic. My thoughts start firing so fast they’re almost automatic: “How long is this gonna last?” Or, “How is this going to affect my day, my week, etc.” I can imagine it whispering into my ear, something like, “You’re never gonna get rid of me.” Pretty bleak stuff, yet I’m sure many of you reading this right now can relate.
One of the things that can make chronic pain and illness so challenging, and so distressing, is that we don’t know when we’re gonna get better. For that matter, we don’t know if we’re gonna get better. For many people, this NOT knowing, and the fear that comes with this infinite uncertainty, can open the door to other unwanted guests; inviting the likes of depression and despair into an already crowded house. So now we’ve got fear, depression, and pain all mingling together. This is what I call a chronic pain party! You can serve the cake now all the guests have arrived!
Okay, question time again, and it’s okay to have some fun with these:
What are some of your initial/automatic thoughts when pain or illness rears its head?
What does it try to talk you into believing?
Now speculate for just a moment, what would it be like if these thoughts weren’t so present? What if the chatter, that running dialogue, were not so loud or persuasive? What would be different?
What if we replaced these thoughts, or rather, INCLUDED thoughts that were more compassionate, more kindhearted, and dare I say more hopeful? These types of thoughts would surely take into account the vast wisdom and knowledge we've gained BECAUSE of our pain and illness. What if we allowed room for these kinds of thoughts to exist simultaneously? What difference would that make then? What sorts of things might you be thinking instead?
If we are what we think, then how do our reactions, our way of thinking, affect the way we experience our pain or illness? How much does it relate to the amount we suffer? Well, in truth a great deal. For some people the expressions of chronic pain and illness may not be negotiable, but the amount of suffering can be. “This relationship, therefore, is not something you try to get rid of, overpower, or ignore. Instead you must find some way to relate in this ‘relationship’ that allows you to co-exist with the minimum amount of suffering” (Strong, 1997, p. 56).
Strong (1997) likens chronic pain and illness to that of a neighbour who won’t move, or a houseguest that overstays their welcome. Thinking of our pain or illness in a personified way helps to elucidate and uncover its effects on our lives (often the ones that go unnoticed). Moreover, by casting it in a new light, it allows us to better understand the relationship we have with it, and ultimately the relationship we CAN have with it.
So, up until now, whose terms have your relationship been on? And who’s been dictating these terms? Many people come to the realization that the balance has been pretty lopsided. Characterizing or personifying our pain and illness in such a fashion exposes our pre-existing relationship, rendering it more visible, and thus, allowing a more accurate evaluation of its presence in our life.
I don’t profess this to be the solution, and I definitely don’t have all the answers. Not many people do. But I would argue that all of us have some of the answers. Our experience gives us invaluable knowledge and wisdom; unfortunately many people (myself included) have become separated from this at times. Understandably so, in our society this type of knowledge is susceptible to being devalued, discredited, or disqualified altogether.
Engaging in this type of reflection can offer a starting point to renegotiating our relationship with chronic pain and illness. It’s a step toward taking back some control of our lives, reconfiguring the balance of our relationship, and perhaps most importantly creating room for new possibilities.
*The following article was highly influential and most inspiring in writing this blog post:
Strong, T. (1997). Conversations about conversations on chronic pain and illness: Some assumptions and questions for a one-day workshop. Gecko: A Journal of Deconstruction and Narrative Ideas in Therapeutic Practice, 2(1), 45-63.