What does it mean to accept living with chronic pain? And forever? How do people do that? Should they?
I struggled with these questions for years as doctors constantly told me that I needed to accept living in chronic pain. How could someone have the audacity to label me as “a hopeless case” and define my future, my life? Did this mean relinquishing hope of getting better? Did it mean I needed to stop trying? I could not, would not, accept living in pain forever.
As much as I had been rejecting pain, I had been also rejecting my body. I was attached to something that no longer existed. I idolized and clung to my “perfect” body and my “perfect” life before my injuries. Before my back injuries and pain, I was fully living life, not merely existing. I did not want this “new” body. I felt unsafe in this body of pain and had lost control over it. Because of pain and physical limitations, I lost my health, my home, my job, financial stability. But, over time, I began to realize that my body did not do this to me. It was suffering too, and trying to heal.
I began nurturing my body as I would a beloved child or a sick family member. I began listening and responding to its needs. Through exercising, Feldenkrais work, Pilates, yoga, eating more healthfully, and gaining understanding of my activity tolerance so I did not overwork my body and cause more pain flair-ups – I began accepting and respecting my body.
Chronic pain is as much a mental disease as it is a physical disease.
I needed to learn to accept my body and my self. Chronic pain creates not just physical trauma, but a disconnection from one’s self. Grief is not just for those who have died, but for a loss of ones’s sense of self, including one’s belief system and how one once defined his or her self. Within my grief dwelled so many dimensions of loss – loss of abilities, companionships, independence, and how I defined my place in the world. I felt unlovable and inadequate – unworthy. Beliefs swirled in mind, such as: I had no value in society anymore. No one would ever want to date me. I could not go for long walks, or even walk on sand; no one would ever want to spend time with me. I could not be financially independent. I was worthless. All I had is my personality, but society defines people by their career and money. I had nothing to offer. How could I exist in society with pain and disabilities?
How could I heal from such catastrophic losses? By increasing my physical functioning, I thought. I changed my exercise goals, bought a stationary bike, and started biking for one minute intervals throughout the day, trying to rebuild my strength, thinking things would get better if I focused more on my body. Weeks passed and I realized that my new bike and goals were not healing grief.
To move forward in my grief, I needed to let go of my false beliefs and misperceptions about myself – how I defined myself. Beliefs are stronger than thoughts, for they are thoughts embedded with feeling. We do not just think we are unworthy, we feel it to our depths. Often these beliefs start in childhood and are strengthened by other experiences, such as physical pain and trauma, because we define everything in relation to these beliefs.
Healing from grief and its psychological consequences due to trauma, is a process, a journey and a birthing of the self. I needed to open my heart to myself, without judgment. With compassionate awareness, I embraced the experience of my self. I acknowledged, experienced, and detached from my emotional pain, the negative self-perceptions and the stories that I had created. Underneath, deep down, I found resilience, wisdom, and self-love. Then, I began to accept the true value of my self, limitations and all.
From self-discovery evolved self-acceptance, and ultimately, self-love.
When I began to accept and love myself, I began to accept my life. Through my inner journey, a new freedom impressed itself upon me. I had nothing – no roles, labels, or judgments to hide behind. I am what I am. And I love myself for this.
I still look for treatments that will improve my well-being and decrease pain, but I no longer allow myself to be consumed by pain. I perceive it as separate from myself. Pain is a part of my life for the moment, maybe forever, but it is not who I am.
Is it pain or loss that we need to accept?
People have told me that once they accepted pain, they felt a huge weight lift from their shoulders. They could finally refocus from trying to find a fix to living life again. If you ask me today, “Do you accept living in chronic pain?” I will probably say no, but I accept myself and my life, because I, not pain, define who I am and the course of my life.
Perhaps, instead of patients being told they need to accept living with pain, which usually causes a defensive reaction, maybe they can be asked, “What problems are you having related to pain?” and, “How can we work together to mourn your losses and reclaim your sense of self, feeling even more self-compassion, self-reliance, and self-empowerment in your life right now?” After all, don’t we all need this, whether we will live in pain forever or not?