This is something I wrote several years ago that was originally part of a larger piece. I am posting it now as a description of the chronic pain that millions of people live with every single day.
This is the invisible truth about our chronic pain.
What is chronic pain? The beginning of chronic pain is torture that occurs at the hands of our own rebelling physical bodies. Our bodies no longer work for us as they should. No, at times, our bodies become our worst enemies. They fight against us, plague us, enslave us, trap us in an unbreakable prison of torment, but unlike at the hands of an enemy, we can never escape our own ceaselessly present bodies.
The physical torture wracks and beats our bodies, willing us into submission, until we find ourselves giving up so much of who we once were. And when we think we can stand it no longer, the physical pain morphs into a monster of emotional agony. Anxiety, loneliness, depression, guilt, anger, irritability, and jealousy become constant companions, intermingling with the physical pain as one feeds the other.
When it comes to chronic pain, the struggle, both physical and emotional, is characterized by unpredictability, with frequent and sometimes significant up and down swings. We think we are getting better, and then we aren’t. Good days come, a tantalizing reminder of the sweetness of life. But this only heightens the weight and crushing blow of sudden downswings back into the excruciating pit of pain.
One moment we are fine, and the next we have a hit a brick wall. Much like a runner who suddenly feels unable to take another step, the wall of chronic pain drops out of nowhere. One day we are walking through the park, and the next day we are unable to leave our homes. One week we are slowly going about our work, and the next we are unsure whether we will ever get out of bed again. And so it continues. Good days intermingle with bad days, with no notice what each day, week, month or year will bring.
Our bodies, too tortured to move as they should, become trapped, unable to walk, move, or sit without pain. And so we watch as the world passes by without us. Suddenly, everything that we have known to be true about progressing through life comes to a halt. Moving through normal stages of life, meeting goals, and accepting opportunities as they arise become vague dreams that never come to fruition, oh-so-real disappointments that must be dealt with on a regular basis. Those in chronic pain live life in slow motion, watching as the rest of the world passes by at regular speed.
The hard, sad truth about chronic pain is that we get left behind partially because of our own limitations, but also because many in life are not willing to go at a slower pace. Pain isolates, and loneliness begins to infiltrate. Some friends leave and don’t come back. Relationships are broken, strained, and torn apart. Some don’t believe our pain. Others believe our pain but move on to more able friends, those capable of keeping up with adventures, social events, and an active lifestyle. Overall, relationships become characterized by misunderstanding, frustration, and confusion, as friends and family struggle to relate to this new person we have become.
Friendships are only the first on a long list of losses. The epitome of chronic pain is a life consumed by losses that come from new and unexpected places on a daily basis. Severe chronic pain affects every nook and cranny of our once carefully protected lives.
For a long time, we seek to hold on to those aspects of life that make us feel normal. We try to maintain our full-time jobs, keep up with our hobbies, continue to exercise, and keep our houses clean. We seek to maintain our independence, confidence, and dignity. We desperately cling to our social life, dreams, and future aspirations. We expect to stay the same person, with the same personality, traits, and qualities that made up who we used to be. Then bit by bit, piece by piece, we are forced to give up every aspect of life as it once was.
And so we begin to lose our identity to this pain that plagues us, and we begin to forget what it ever felt like to be without pain. Every part of us that once was is no longer. And the burden begins to change us in startling ways, transforming us into someone or something that we do not even recognize. For so long we seek to hold on to that person we used to be, that healthy, vibrant, active person. But, deep down, we realize that person may be lost forever.
As I read through what I wrote several years ago, I am struck by a sense of detachment. A detachment from my own pain. A detachment from my personal experience, which led to speaking in generalities and abstractions. But isn’t this one of the things chronic pain does to us? The severity of my pain led me to place my pain outside of me, apart from me. And as I find some healing from my pain – both physically and emotionally – I am more able to speak personally about my pain.
Today, I am more able to find the good intermingled with the bad. I am more able to find God in my pain. I am able to see small bits of purpose in my pain and trust in spite of those places where purpose is unclear. I am more able to grieve and pray and, at times, accept. I am more able to love and laugh, even as this invisible truth about chronic pain still rings true for me. I hope it rings true for you – I hope it gives words for your experience, provides recognition of your pain, and instils peace that you are not alone.