Not too long ago I had a conversation with a good friend who has been battling breast cancer for the last year. As we talked, and since this past year has been a painful one on a number of levels for both of us, we concluded that while we may not have the “whys” of pain (whatever form it takes), we realize now it keeps us dependent upon God. Which in itself is not a bad thing.
Both my friend and I discussed how feeling poorly physically keeps us running back to Christ for comfort, strength, and grace. Again, this is not a bad response. We also admitted that when we’re feeling strong, we tend to grow independent and forget our need of a loving Savior who desires our closeness as much as we need him on our good days as well as our bad. Admittedly, no one wants to hurt, but I believe there are some lessons we only learn when what we value most -- our health -- gets upended.
If you are a chronic pain sufferer or know someone who is, let’s take a closer look at what people who are suffering feel inside but might not say out loud.
The word hurts to say it, write it, and even think about it. So consider what it means to feel it -- all the time, every day, every night. Unending pain, whether it's minor (like stubbing your toe or banging your elbow against a sharp table's edge) or major (smashing a finger in slammed door or enduring a stubborn kidney stone on the move), physical pain is something to which we can all relate.
Even if we've avoided the majors --- cancer, broken bones, depression, and a host of other similarly shudder-invoking illnesses and diseases -- everyone's endured the minors, such as colds, flu viruses, and the like. But what about those of us who weather the minors and the majors continually?
Living with pain that feels like your second skin is pretty much indescribable unless you've experienced it.
My own story is a painfully simple one. Sadly, it's a similarly all too common one as well. To look at me, a person would assume I'm fit and healthy and perhaps more significantly, pain-free. Yes to the first two observations, but an absolute negative to the third one.
My problem, my particular pain, falls upon my shoulders ... inside my shoulders to be exact. I have a relatively common disorder called Multi-Directional Instability (MDI), which my children think is hilariously funny (and appropriate) for a variety of reasons totally unrelated to my physical health.
What MDI translates to me is that the problem in my shoulders causes the tissues to become too elastic and that means my shoulders are so unstable they feel as though they could pop out. Working, playing, driving, even sleeping, is affected by this condition and there's no cure except to have a surgeon tighten the tissues when it becomes too painful for me to live with and too loose for comfort.
Living with shoulders that intermittently grow lax and cause pain continually has changed my life from the inside out. I now routinely eye activities I once enjoyed with suspect. Certain leisure sports such as snow skiing are out of the question because of the falling risk. Others take more deliberation and debate as I weigh the value of a few pleasurable moments with the pain I'm sure to experience for hours (sometimes days) following an activity. There is always a measure of uncertainty as I try to anticipate what will trigger or worsen my condition. This mental exercise alone can be wearing.
It takes energy to hurt. It also takes energy (mental) to deal with the ongoing physical pain from an emotional standpoint. I try to not think about how much pain I'm in, to not allow it to consume my thoughts or distract me from whatever I'm doing (or whomever I'm with). Some days I do better than others. Truly, pain is multi-dimensional in its overlap into every area of a person's life.
Just as my particular condition and how it affects me is specific to me, other conditions (and those who suffer from them) vary as well. One 40-year-old woman who suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome, which she jokingly terms Restless Body Syndrome, has dealt with this illness since her twenties. After undergoing a hysterectomy in 2007 from which she was put under a general anesthesia, her symptoms have greatly increased. Every day (and night), this woman is in pain throughout her body and while she copes with the physical pain as well as can be expected, she admits to battling chronic fear as well. She is afraid she won't be able to meet her obligations to her business, her friends and her family. She fears that her condition will eventually make her a burden on those she loves.
Another local woman who suffers from ongoing back and hip problems (among other physical challenges) works hard to not allow her condition to steal her life by consuming her attitude toward it. She shares that battling pain cannot be her only goal because it (the pain) might be relentless at times. However, countering the negative attitudes that pain can bring must be a focused battle because that is something she does have control over -- her attitude. Also, she recognizes that battling pain takes a lot of physical energy, so during those times when she is experiencing increased pain, her expectations to achieve a lot must be adjusted.
Chronic pain will never go away for some people, but understanding the toll it takes on a person's physical, emotional and mental energy levels is essential. As stated above, for the chronic pain sufferer, a realistic (but positive) attitude is vital and a flexible approach to life (as it now is) is just as important.
Life is what we make of it and, in some ways, those who suffer from pain see and appreciate the small blessings others miss. A rare pain-free afternoon is something to celebrate. A night when you're only awakened a few times rather than a dozen is a true gift. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect to pain is that the sufferer recognizes it in others and moves swiftly to offer a word of encouragement and warm hand of support (and that's a very good thing).
How to love someone suffering from chronic pain:
* Never assume by their outward appearance they're feeling fine. Most individuals, who suffer from ongoing pain try not to talk about it. It's bad enough they have to live with it, let alone continually discuss it with everyone around them.
* Always remember that their pain will limit what they "should" do, but they may choose to participate anyway and pay the price later on. Let them decide for themselves; it is their body, their life.
* Remember that people in pain don't like to ask for help. They are already keenly aware of their limitations and work with and around them every day, at home and at work. So, take the kind initiative and offer to lift that heavy box, carry those bags of groceries, or bend down and pick up that load of laundry.
* Understand that sometimes one additional "minor" ailment can send chronic pain sufferers over the edge. They already deal with ongoing, daily hurt ... and they cope with that. But when illness upon illness piles on, even a simple bout with the flu virus can seem like too much, so be sensitive to their threshold of feeling overwhelmed and lighten their loads when possible during these times.
* Never define a chronic pain sufferer by their condition. People who live with ongoing pain don't want to be characterized as the person who's always hurting, limited, needy, whining or weak. It's part of what they live with, not who they are.
What NOT to say to someone suffering from chronic pain -- and what they might be thinking if you do:
* "Well, you look fine." (Look closer...can you see how tense I am, how carefully I'm moving ...)
* "I can't believe the doctors haven't figured out how to help you yet!" (Thanks for the positive reminder ...)
* "At least you're not dying." (No, but sometimes it feels that way ...)
* "When are you going to be able to (fill in the blank) again?" (Possibly, more than likely ... never ... so let's not talk about it, please ...)
* "Don't you miss being able to (fill in the blank) anymore? (More than you know, so again, please stop reminding me, it hurts ... this is my life now ...)