Pain is an inevitable part of life. In living with a chronic illness or chronic pain, pain is no stranger to us and we are likely to endure more than the average person may endure. Much of the pain that we experience can't be eliminated or treated, so we have no choice but to learn to live with it. In my struggle to learn how to do this and to still find meaning and purpose in life I have learned many things and developed a new relationship with my pain.
As a mental health professional and a person who lives with chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, I deal with a great deal of pain daily. In my own exploration of pain, and in my professional experience, I have found there are several intertwined levels of pain: the physical level, the emotional/psychological and the spiritual level. Severe physical pain is likely to cause emotional distress as one struggles to cope with feelings of loss, grief and anger associated with diminished abilities or changes in lifestyle or identity. In forming a new identity that includes being ill, one may struggle with the spiritual pain of existential aloneness. Questions such as "Why me?" and "What is the purpose of my life now?" may arise.
I endure excruciating pressure, aching and pinching in my muscles, joints, bones, and head and I live with excessive fatigue and weakness. I have chronic headaches, which frequently turn into migraines. I have severe aching and stabbing pains throughout my gastrointestinal system and in my internal organs. I also have a great deal of grief and loss in response to the limits the illness imposes on me.
For example, I have to completely avoid common everyday chemicals such as perfumes, air fresheners, pesticides, scented laundry products, and disinfectants. In avoiding these substances this means that I must also avoid people who may have these odors on their person. A large part of my life is spent alone at home or doing outdoor activities like walking or country rides. Even so, I have to be careful to avoid lawn chemicals or pollutants in the air. It is particularly painful and frustrating to be prevented from participating in life as fully as I would like.
There is no doubt that pain on any level is unpleasant and disrupting. It is only natural that our first response to it is to want to eliminate it as quickly as possible with whatever means are available. But I think there is a problem with how we are taught to view and deal with pain. Our culture teaches that pain is bad, unnecessary and should be quickly eliminated. If we are not successful at eradicating our pain we are viewed as weak or malingering. If we are in pain, then we (or our doctors or medical science in general) have somehow failed. The message in our society is that we should not feel. We are bombarded from advertising, media, medical authorities, etc. That we should never let ourselves feel any pain. The promise of pain relief is everywhere. If we have a headache or stomachache or muscle aches, or if we feel sad, lonely, anxious, depressed or shy we should take a pill that will fix the symptom or feeling. And then we wonder why one of our largest problems in society today is addiction. This attitude actively promotes addiction. We are obsessed in finding and providing quick fixes and quick relief from every little ache, twinge, pain, grief or discomfort.
In the reality of my life, I have found there are no quick fixes and pain generally cannot be completely removed or controlled. Nor should it be. Some pain is necessary and serves a purpose as a messenger. We must often learn to live with pain effectively and listen to it rather than always trying to medicate it away. Although I do not subscribe to the popular New Age belief that everything happens for a reason, I do believe that we can take a very painful experience and make meaning out of it. In spite of the suffering illness may impose on our lives it may also help us to change, grow and learn. My illness has challenged me to redefine my identity, my values and my priorities, which led me to find deeper meaning in life. I have also found a strong connection to nature.
The body is very wise. We need to honor this wisdom because sometimes pain can be a signal that we need to change something in our diet, environment, lifestyle or our relationships. In this way, pain can be a great motivator. If we listen closely to our pain and pay attention to our body and our states of mind, our discoveries may guide us to what we need to do to reduce our pain.
I have found that some of my own muscle and joint pains, as well as depression and anxiety, have been triggered or made worse by food allergies, certain chemicals and by nutritional deficiencies. I eliminated wheat and refined white sugar and became free of the anxiety attacks and severe depression that crippled me since my teenage years. By correcting a magnesium deficiency, I reduced chronic muscle pain by half. My pain has also taught me to become more outspoken and expressive, to get more sleep, to exercise according to my needs and to decrease stress. Pain has taught me to live more consciously within my limits.
Some pain should never be limited or eliminated too quickly, even if it may feel overwhelming. The loss of a relationship or death of a loved one as well as the loss and grief one experiences living with chronic illness should be felt fully and mourned. The pain should run it's natural course, otherwise it may cause difficulties later.
Then there is the insidious kind of pain that seems to have no message or purpose. Or by the time we realize what the message or purpose is, there is already permanent damage done to the body. It is often excruciating, disruptive and untreatable. For this category of pain, I found I must "go into it." What does this mean? I allow myself to acknowledge and fully experience my frustration, resentment, grief and outrage over my suffering. I also allow myself to feel and experience the physical pain in its entirety. I embrace it and become one with it. I surrender to it and I flow along with it and allow it to flow through me. I must come to accept it and learn to function within it. I must make pain my companion rather than my enemy. I have found that if I fully accept, rather than resist, the pain in this way then it no longer has the same power over my life. Initially in my illnesses I did a lot of cure chasing which eventually led me to realize that I was wasting a lot of time, energy and money. I found that I made more progress when I focused on learning how to live with my illness and within my limits.
Learning to live with pain is a difficult process. It is not a recipe that is the same for everyone. It does, however, require a commitment to ourselves and a willingness to confront and challenge our social conditioning. We must give ourselves permission to feel without labels, judgments or time limits. We must let go of societies expectations and listen to our internal wisdom. It is important to support people in their efforts to listen to their internal wisdom and to validate their findings.
At times it may be hard for us to hear the messages carried in our pain or to appreciate them because the pain is too great. There may be setbacks into old thinking patterns and we may not be able to accept, flow and find meaning for a while. We may feel angry at our fate. All of this is part of the natural coping process, too, and it needs to be felt and respected. In no way does the fact that pain carries valuable messages for us minimize the frustration and suffering one endures, but I believe it is possible and necessary to honor both the wisdom received and the suffering.
Cynthia Perkins, M.Ed. is a holistic health counselor specializing in issues of living with chronic illness, chronic pain and disability as well as sexual intimacy. She is also author of the inspirational E-Book "Finding Life Fulfillment when Living with Chronic Illness-A Spiritual Journey." Services, Ebooks and a FREE Newsletter can be found at her website http://www.holistichelp.net or send any email to this address to subscribe to the FREE Newsletter Holistichelpfirstname.lastname@example.org