“Feelings are real and legitimate.” ~Unknown
I’ve been thinking about pain lately.
It’s come up for me more now since my sister, Susie, has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Susie and I are close in age—just 15 months separate us—and close in friendship and love. So I worry about her.
She’s an electrician and needs to be able to use her hands on a daily basis for wiring, splicing, drilling, and all of the other myriad things electricians do.
But, of course, her hands are right where the arthritis has chosen to reside currently.
She told me that some days the pain is so intense that she has to use both hands just to hold her toothbrush.
So I became curious about pain. How do we manage it?
I started to observe my own bouts with pain.
When I’m working out and I’m gasping for breath and my body hurts.
When my cat reaches out her paw lovingly toward me and accidentally scratches me in her attempt to get some chin scratches.
When my hip flexor injury flares up and makes it almost impossible for me to lift my leg to get into the car.
I watched myself and realized something.
I could manage these painful moments because I knew they were going to end.
My workout would end and I’d get my breath back and be able to rest my body.
I could put some ointment on my arm where my cat scratched me.
Taking ibuprofen greatly eased my hip flexor issue.
The Pain That Goes On
But what about pain that doesn’t end?
Like Susie’s arthritis or other ongoing chronic conditions?
And what about emotional pain such as grief, loss, and depression?
My thoughts turn to the families in Newtown, Connecticut who are facing the tremendous grief and pain of losing twenty children and six adults to a mad gunman.
Their pain has just begun and I know that each of those families sees no end in sight to their misery.
I think back to my own searing grief and overwhelming depression that I experienced when I lost my partner to breast cancer. I clearly remember thinking that I would never know what it felt like to live without emotional pain again.
Looking For Relief
We’re hard-wired to avoid pain.
When we were kids and touched a hot stove, we created a rule for ourselves: Stay away from hot stoves at all costs.
This kind of reaction is primitive and very helpful. It prompts us to instinctively get away from painful stimuli to stay safe.
We do the same thing with emotional pain, too.
We jump from it as though it were a hot stove.
We create rules in our minds about what constitutes an emotional hot stove for us so we won’t touch one again.
And we look for ways to relieve the burn where we touched that emotional stove.
We read books and blog posts, searching for something that will ease our pain.
Sometimes we find it, just as we found the Neosporin in the drawer or the ibuprofen in the cabinet to heal our physical wounds.
And sometimes, in spite of great advice from wise people, the pain goes on, unable to be touched by the usual methods of healing.
No Way Out But Through
At this point, I would love nothing more than to be able to say, “But wait, there really is something that works when you’re in devastating emotional pain.”
But I can’t. Because sometimes things just suck. For a long time.
And you just have to get through that time any way you can.
You might remember that terrible tragedy in Oslo, Norway in 2011 where a right-wing extremist killed 77 people, 69 of them teenagers at a youth camp.
In the midst of the shock and sorrow, one minister gently said, “There is no way out of it but just to go through it.”
When I asked my sister how she manages her ongoing physical pain, she told me, “It’s like an athlete training for an extreme event—there’s pain every day that you train and it depends on how much you can tolerate that day.
“But you just keep training.”
A childhood friend of mine, Becky Phillips, lost her mother, father, sister, and close friend in a train crash in 1989.
She thought she would never recover.
But, she says, “What I discovered, after I had spent some time on this path, is that sometimes, life hands you a new normal and expects you to deal with it. Sometimes, you just have to keep moving.”
And what about my own story?
Did I discover any magical healing potions to assuage my grief and heal my gaping emotional wound?
Of course not.
But, after awhile, I did notice something. I was making it.
Somehow, I was getting through each day even though I thought I would not—could not—do it.
It wasn’t pretty.
There were days that were better than others, but there were also days where I cried so much I thought I was going to vomit. Where I ended up on my hands and knees on the floor, sobbing, wondering how I’d gotten there.
There were times I thought, “Just get through the next five minutes.” And at the end of the five minutes, finding myself still there, I would struggle through the next five minutes. Some days were a series of five-minute intervals.
But I made it. And so will you.
Do whatever works without hurting yourself: Cry, laugh, talk with friends, take time for yourself, scream into your pillow at night, shed quiet tears in the bathroom at work, get mad at your higher power, if you believe in one, pray, sleep a lot, stay up at night writing poetry, distract yourself with stupid movies, get lost in a book, help another person, make it through the next five minutes.
Pain isn’t easy and sometimes things just suck.
But you’ll make it, my friend, you’ll make it.
Photo by R_Fazio