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The Pain Companion

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  • Sarah Anne Shockley
  • January 23, 2016 11:40:55 AM
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Insights, wisdom, and practical tips for living better while living with chronic pain

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Saying "Yes" to Life When Pain Says "No"

This post is the second excerpt from my interview with Jan Black on Nobody Told Me! Podcast Jan: How important is it to not isolate yourself if you're dealing with chronic pain, even if you don't really feel like going out?  Sarah: Boy, I'd say that it's paramount. It's extremely easy to do the opposite, to pull in and of course, that's our first response. We pull ourselves back in from life because we feel bad. We do that naturally as an initial response when we...

This post is the second excerpt from my interview with Jan Black on Nobody Told Me! Podcast
Jan: How important is it to not isolate yourself if you're dealing with chronic pain, even if you don't really feel like going out? 
 
Sarah: Boy, I'd say that it's paramount. It's extremely easy to do the opposite, to pull in and of course, that's our first response. We pull ourselves back in from life because we feel bad. We do that naturally as an initial response when we meet pain. That can be fine at first because we need to pull away a bit, we need to have our quiet time, we need to heal. But when pain becomes chronic and is just not getting better we can tend to stay in that mode of pulling away to heal and lick our wounds almost too much.
 
We can get into that place where we're waiting for the pain to leave before we re-enter life and when that goes on for years, we can become extremely isolated waiting for when it's okay to be part of life again. For those of us that have to live with pain on an ongoing basis, that's the time we need to start to look at that because it can become extremely lonely, very difficult and it's not really healthy to be isolated all the time, I don't believe.
 
One of the things we have to learn when we are living with pain is how to reach out again even while we're still feeling the pain. How do we re-enter life even if the pain has to come with us? That's a choice we make. How can I be in life? Maybe I have to be in life in smaller ways, maybe I have to think about if I'm going out to meet friends, I can only go out for half an hour, not the whole evening. But begin to find ways to re-enter life again because it's part of our healing process too, to find ways to re-engage with life even if the pain has to come with us.
 
Jan: You also encourage people suffering from pain to express their pain, explain more about that. 
 
Sarah: I certainly found it personally true and I think it's true for a lot of people that we think we're not supposed to talk about our pain. We're not supposed to show it, we're in a culture that says, "No, no, this isn't supposed to happen." So, we tend to hide it, we hide it sometimes even from ourselves, it's considered a burden if we tell other people about it, but I really feel that it's extremely important to express what's going on. Express how you feel about it, what is it doing to you, how it is affecting your life.
 
I think it's extremely important to have some kind of outlet for that, whether it is using artistic expression, drawing, painting, dancing if you can, writing. Any way of finding a way to express what's going on for you is extremely helpful and it may not sound like it would be, it may sound like a small thing, but I feel it was the first major step in healing for me. 
 
Part of what I feel keeps pain in place is that we feel like we have to hide it, we feel like we have to cover it up, we aren't allowed to in our culture to express it much, that to me helps lock it in place, which is not healthy.

So, when we begin to express how we feel about it, when we begin to express what it means to us and maybe begin to ask those questions, well, if pain were doing this painting, if pain were going to do some little writing, what would pain look like? What would pain have to say, what would pain paint? Let your pain begin to express too through whatever these creative mediums are and that begins to loosen it up and let it begin to flow and it starts to have a healing effect. 

Jan: You say that pain brings with it many unforeseen and unacknowledged gifts, like what?
 
Sarah: Well, it's hard to accept them at first but when you ask yourself how have I had to change? What has pain asked me to do here? What have I had to do to be able to get through this? You come to find out that wow, okay, I had to learn to slow down, which is for a lot of us, healthier, we're in this very go, go, go culture where we just keep going, keep going, keep going. Sometimes I think pain comes into our lives to point out that maybe it's time to stop being so push, push, push, go, go, go. Maybe it's not the way we would prefer it to show us that message but maybe that message has been trying to come through for a while and we haven't been listening.
 
So, pain in a sense is a very hard taskmaster, it's a very hard mentor to have in life but it does bring some lessons that are really valuable, that you can keep with you even after you move beyond the worst of the pain or move beyond pain entirely. Certainly, pain has taught me what my priorities are or should be, it really focuses life down to a couple of things. You might be able to do one or two things in a day when you're in a lot of pain and you have to decide what those one or two things are going to be. You begin to realize, to really appreciate your relationships with your children, with your family, with people that you love, and you can weed out the ones that aren't helpful or working for you. So, it brings your life into sharper focus, even though again, it's not necessarily the way we'd want to have to go through this.
 
We do learn to appreciate when we have a day that is less painful, you begin to appreciate your body, you begin to appreciate that you can breathe. You can begin to appreciate that you can move, and all the things that you've done in life, that you enjoyed so much, that you took for granted like even just mundane things like brushing your teeth. So, you can turn that around instead of making that about loss and how awful that I don't have that anymore, you turn it around and you say, "Okay, what can I still enjoy, what is still here? How can I look for these little things that I used to take for granted and actually revel in them and go, yeah, this tastes so good!  Or this moment with my son is so precious to me because I'm still here on the planet even though I'm in pain, I'm still here and he's still here and we're together and we love each other." So, for me, it just brings everything much more richly into the present moment and teaches you to appreciate and to be here and to enjoy the life that you do have.

You can listen to the full Nobody Told Me! podcast and more radio and podcast interviews with Sarah  HERE


What Nobody Told Me About Chronic Pain

This post contains highlights from a recent interview I had with Jan Black of Nobody Told Me! Podcast Jan: You write that we may feel there is something wrong with us for continuing to experience pain, explain more about that.Sarah: Our culture is very pain averse I'd say, I mean nobody likes pain, nobody wants to go towards it, but we tend to have a way of thinking about pain as intrinsically wrong and bad and that we should never have it. Those of us that have had to live in pain for...

This post contains highlights from a recent interview I had with Jan Black of Nobody Told Me! Podcast
Jan: You write that we may feel there is something wrong with us for continuing to experience pain, explain more about that.

Sarah: Our culture is very pain averse I'd say, I mean nobody likes pain, nobody wants to go towards it, but we tend to have a way of thinking about pain as intrinsically wrong and bad and that we should never have it. Those of us that have had to live in pain for a while, often we get this reflected back to us quite overtly by doctors and by others around us: Why are you still in pain? How can you be in pain that long? Aren't you trying hard enough, haven't you tried this? Why aren't you doing that? Are you trying to just get attention? You must want to still be in pain.

We get all of this negative feedback towards us because our culture says pain isn't supposed to happen. So, if we're still in it something must be wrong with us, we must have done something wrong, we must have failed somewhere and that's really difficult to carry. Another reason why I've written about this is to say to people, you're not wrong, it's not a mistake, sometimes we meet pain  - all of us are going to meet pain at some point on our path in life. Sometimes it doesn't leave that easily but that doesn't mean there's something wrong with us, it's some kind of journey that's trying to work itself out. I feel ultimately there is a positive purpose to it even though sometimes it's hard to see.

Jan: How do you get yourself into that mindset where you see that there might be a positive purpose or that at least you could turn it around and look at it a little bit differently?

Sarah: Well, that's in a sense, it's almost a discipline of will, you really do have to work on that, it's not easy. Particularly if you're having a really difficult day and you're in a lot of pain it's really hard to see that there might be something positive to it. So, it does take working through that in your own mind and one of the ways we work through that is we usually start out fighting against pain. When we meet it, the first thing we do is we want to end it and sometimes that works really well and it's over but sometimes it stays around, which is what we're talking about here. We can get in that battle mode with pain where we're fighting, fighting, fighting to end it and for a lot of us, it just becomes exhausting, this ongoing battle every day, every day. 

So, you have to get to that point within yourself where you say, 'okay, that's not working for me, that's not ending it and I'm exhausted and I'm frustrated. Actually, it's making it worse because I'm tense, I'm contracted, I'm feeling that anger and that enmity against it.' So, for me, what I did was look at well, here it is, pain is already here, I can't get rid of it, I want to, but I can't, so how can I be with it differently? It's not something I want to be with but how can I make this be a different experience? So, for me, it was trying to see how I can look at pain differently, how I can be with it differently instead of this face-off with pain or pushing, pushing, pushing against it. Well, okay, what if it has a positive purpose? So, it's starting to ask different kinds of questions, like what if it's meant to show me something. I mean it is a signal from the body, it is, in a sense, an alarm signal, hello, I need some attention here! 

So, the kind of attention I'm paying to it, is it the kind of attention that's really helping and healing or is it that angry kind of push? So, starting to ask different questions and beginning to think of pain more as something that is coming along with me rather than something I'm facing off against. What I find works for me is to try to continually shift those perceptions and it's an ongoing daily thing. When I meet pain and it is really spiked, I don't like it either, I have to remind myself, oh, yeah, this is where I need to stop, take a few breaths, start to work with it differently and relax around a little bit more even though that's challenging to do. 

Jan: What lead you to start writing about pain?

Sarah: The pain wasn't going away. After a year, it became clear to me that I wasn't coming out of it. When we first meet things like this and we have a condition or an injury, an accident, an illness, whatever it is, we imagine it's just going to heal. You have the flu and you get better, you break your leg and it heals and so I thought for the first year that this was going away, but it didn't.

Finally, one of my doctors said, "Sarah, you're going to be looking at living with this for the rest of your life and it could even get worse." That sent me spiraling downward, emotionally, as you can imagine and anybody that gets that kind of prognosis has to face the intense emotional responses like, 'wow, what do I do with that? What do I do with that news?'

So, I started very slowly and painfully just writing down how I felt about living with pain, what it had done to me and how I felt it had invaded my life and taken over. A lot of the first writing was very much spewing out those deep feelings of loss and sadness and blame and shame and all of the things that come up when you live with pain for a while. 

I was a single mom, so there was a lot about not being a good enough mother, not being present enough for my son, not being able to do the things I wanted to do with him. I wrote about living with pain and that evolved from me ranting about it into more philosophical thoughts like, ‘how could I be with this differently?'

Jan: I know you said that you wrote The Pain Companion because you wished that somebody else had written this kind of a book that would have helped you. 

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. I felt very alone and isolated in my pain and I think a lot of people that are going through this do. It's hard for people that aren't in pain to understand what it's like. It’s really an intense experience. It’s like you're living with a roommate, well really a body mate, that you didn't ask for. Pain is so intrusive, it's so pervasive, it so dictates what you can and can't do. It's there in everything you do, it's there in all your relationships, it's there when you wake up, it's there when you go to sleep. I looked around and I couldn't find anybody at the time that was talking about that or writing about that. 

When I went to my doctors - and some were wonderful people and very compassionate - but they didn't get it, they had no clue. They were very much focused on the physiological, what's going on with the body physiologically. But there's a whole other world of living with pain around that that has to do with your emotional self, your identity, how it affects the rest of your life which nobody told me about. I think this is true for a lot of people in chronic pain. 



Facing the Reality of Chronic Pain is Hard, But it Can Also Heal

There was a moment when I realized my pain wasn’t leaving because it had morphed into chronic pain. I remember that moment very well. I was driving down the road after a doctor’s appointment where I was told my thoracic outlet syndrome was not getting any better… and I would probably have it for the rest of my life. In fact, it was likely to get progressively worse. The Awful Truth ​I heard the doctor quite clearly, but it didn’t really land until I was...

There was a moment when I realized my pain wasn’t leaving because it had morphed into chronic pain. I remember that moment very well. I was driving down the road after a doctor’s appointment where I was told my thoracic outlet syndrome was not getting any better… and I would probably have it for the rest of my life. In fact, it was likely to get progressively worse.

The Awful Truth

I heard the doctor quite clearly, but it didn’t really land until I was driving home — and then it hit me hard. It felt like a sort of cold, icy feeling in the middle of my chest.

“Oh, I see, this isn’t going away any time soon. Or in the vernacular — I am really screwed.”

And even though I had been living with pain 24/7 for the past year, I had kept telling myself it was about to leave. I had always healed from things in the past, nothing had ever stuck around this long. Any day now it was going to lift and just disappear.

Except it hadn’t… and apparently it wasn’t going to.

And I finally let that in.

I felt depressed, lost, desolate and hopeless for awhile. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that kind of news? There’s only so much positive thinking you can muster up to deal with such an authoritative statement. I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to know it, I didn’t want it to be real.

Accepting What’s True

Part of me wanted to blame the doctor for having ever said it, because saying it somehow made it more true. A doctor’s prognosis carries a lot of weight which influences our ability to keep going, to keep a positive attitude and to believe in ourselves and our ability to heal. But on the other hand, I’m grateful I was told the truth.

I now realize the moment in the car, when I allowed myself to accept the truth of my situation, was probably the first step toward true healing. I had to accept that life had changed. Instead of assuming I was just going to get better by default, because that’s what always happened in the past, I had to come to grips with the fact that I had a condition that didn’t benefit me by pretending it wasn’t all that bad.

I made some lifestyle accommodations so I didn’t keep causing myself more pain by trying to force myself to keep up in ways that really weren’t healthy for me.

I had to learn to simplify, to say “no” and to take care of myself in new ways.

That was hard.

Instead of looking either for a non-existent quick fix or simply trying to ignore the fact that my body was crying out for help, I had to take serious stock. I made decisions about how I was going to live, and heal and ultimately thrive over the long run. Those choices not only had positive effects on my pain levels, but they also enriched my life and taught me a lot about honoring myself and my own path.


Help For Chronic Pain: Loving What Matters Video

One-minute meditation for people living with pain. Remembering to appreciate the small things that matter, even through the pain. [...]

One-minute meditation for people living with pain. Remembering to appreciate the small things that matter, even through the pain.


Losing and Finding Ourselves Again in Pain

(This article also appears on The Mighty) Chronic pain, whether from illness, disability or surgery, can distance us from others and, seemingly, from life itself. We are immersed within, and surrounded by, the experience of pain.Everything other than pain recedes, and feels like it is being experienced from afar because there is always this aura of pain that separates us from others, and from life.It’s not that we’re not in life, obviously we are still alive, but the...

(This article also appears on The Mighty)
Chronic pain, whether from illness, disability or surgery, can distance us from others and, seemingly, from life itself. We are immersed within, and surrounded by, the experience of pain.

Everything other than pain recedes, and feels like it is being experienced from afar because there is always this aura of pain that separates us from others, and from life.

It’s not that we’re not in life, obviously we are still alive, but the quality of life is so different – as if we are looking out at life or up at life from a deeply submerged place.

Living Submerged

Other people exist on another plane. They have access to their bodies and their energy and their abilities while we are living underneath something. It can feel like living in a tank, and we must hear and see everything filtered through a thick glass and cloudy water.

When we live there for some time, it can begin to feel as if we are distanced not only from others and the ongoing stream of normal life, but from ourselves as well.

It is almost as if the field of pain has inserted itself between us and Us.

It’s an eerie and unsettling feeling, kind of like when you have the flu or are terribly jet-lagged and you don’t feel like yourself – there is a sense of fogginess and existing apart from normal life and there isn’t that much of You available.

The Cauldron of the Self

Living with chronic pain kind of feels like that all the time, and many times over. You fear you may have lost yourself in the pain. Or become someone else.

And there is a fear that you may never resurface, may never emerge from pain. And if and when you do, you won’t know that person anymore.

All of this is can be incredibly frightening and depressing and sad, but there is also a strange gift here too.

Living submerged in pain can be like living in a cauldron or a furnace of the Self. It burns away everything that doesn’t matter. It strips the self of everything petty and leaves only the essential Self that continues to shine.

You fear you will lose yourself, and in a way, you do lose yourself, or I should say, you lose the self that used to relate to the world in certain ways.But you don’t lose the inner Self.

Once you get past the fears and find a way to live with what is happening, to accept without giving up or acquiescing, allowing what’s already here to be here as it is, the old you slides away, but you are not left with nothing.

What’s left is the essential Self, what I like to call the You of you.

Polishing the Mirror

None of this happens automatically as far as I can tell. We have a choice. We can become bitter and hardened, or we can choose to allow ourselves to be opened and enriched.

It’s like what the Sufis call “polishing the mirror.” The challenges and hardships of life, if we meet them with awareness and allow them to show us what is essential and what is not, polish the mirror of the heart and allow the dross to drop away and we are left with a clearer knowing of the Self.

And that Self is tender and vulnerable because of what it has been through, yes, but it’s also incredibly strong.

You might call it your soul or spirit. It’s the eternal aspect of you that remains alive and clear and untouched. And, while pain is a very difficult mentor and not one I would ever recommend to anyone, still, it teaches.

It brings us to our knees at times, but it also brings us to ourselves. And that, in its way, is a tremendous awakening and a tremendous gift.


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