I don’t remember the GP, or her exact words, nor do I remember why I’d made the appointment. Perhaps I needed a referral, a health plan, another batch of test results or maybe I was just there out of desperation. But I do clearly remember her telling me that Chronic Pain can be incredibly difficult to live with. And I remember how this statement made me feel. My eyes welled up with tears. I remember thinking “I don’t have chronic pain. Chronic pain is more painful than what I’ve got. Chronic pain means you’re stuck in bed and you can’t get up. Chronic pain is for really sick people who deserve more sympathy than me.” I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve this sympathy. But damn, it felt good to have someone recognise my struggle. I held back the tears, shuffled home and turned to Google. According to Wikipedia, Chronic Pain is simply 3 – 6 months of persistent pain. That’s it. Some say maybe 12 months. Either way, my four plus years was absolutely long enough to be classified as chronic. It was settled. Maybe I did deserve some of that sympathy. Maybe?
Suffering from a silent, invisible, mostly manageable condition can be emotionally challenging, mostly because it feels like you’re making things up. People look at me and see a normal, functioning, healthy woman. What could I have to complain about? I have a wonderful husband, gorgeous kids, fulfilling, well-paid work, a lovely home. I take holidays, have dinner parties, laugh often, enjoy time with my family. If I complain I’m obviously ungrateful and a bit self centred.
Feeling guilty about chronic pain is my special way of doubling the suffering. Yeh sure, I have chronic pain, but it’s not debilitating. It’s just an ache, or a few aches. A sore hip, a stiff neck, an achey lower back. I never feel 100% good, but I never feel 100% bad either. I mean, I know people with debilitating auto-immune conditions. People are dying of melanoma. I supported my own husband through cancer treatment. These little aches and pains are simply not in the same ballpark. Yes, sometimes I get emotional because I’m just completely over it, but that’s just because I’m a bit pathetic. Some people are actually sick. Some people are in real pain. So I tell myself to get over it and stop complaining.
Accepting a ‘diagnosis’ (for what it’s worth) of Chronic Pain was liberating for me. There certainly isn’t any other kind of diagnosis on the horizon, so it will have to do. After years of blood tests, x-rays, bone scans, MRIs, osteopaths, physiotherapists, chiropractors, rheumatologists, kinesiologists, chinese doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists and witch doctors I was pretty much out of options. As a diagnosis it is comforting. My pain is a ‘thing’ now. I get special medicare concessions for treatment. I’m eligible for a mental health plan. I have a ready excuse for turning down invitations to see live music (ugh those hours of standing up in a crowd). Even so, my situation remains unsatisfyingly inconclusive. Chronic pain doesn’t have a cure. It’s not a disease with a known treatment plan or course of medicine. In fact, chronic pain is one of those great mysteries of the modern world. Who on earth known what causes it??
What might cause pain in the body when all known physiological factors have been eliminated? I keep coming back to stress. Could stress be causing my chronic pain? I know that stress can be a huge factor in physical and mental health. A while ago I discovered the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which was created to measure the amount of stress a person is dealing with, and the extent to which it effects their health. It’s a list of life events like divorce, illness, losing a job, buying a house, becoming pregnant or changing residence. Every life event has a score and you add up the scores for every life event you experience in a 12 month period. I chose a particularly hairy year from the last five and used this online tool to calculate the likelihood that health issues would have developed during that year. I blew the top off the chart and scored a ridiculously high risk of developing serious mental and physical health issues.
That was a few years back and life is pretty cruisey these days, but I think there’s a case for residual stress buildup. My kinesiologist once told me that we have a kind of stress bank account. Stress is healthy, even good for you in moderation, as long as you balance it with equal amounts of relaxation. As long as stress-in equals stress-out we’re OK. But if you bank a shitload of stress all at once, you can get into a stress debt situation. When that happens, eventually something has to give. The way I see it, I may have banked a bunch of stress onto my body, and it’s just hanging there waiting to be let go.
Tim Kreider was onto something when he wrote in his article ‘The Busy Trap” in the New York Times :
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
Indispensible to the brain, yes. But what about the body? Could it be that without idleness we might also suffer a physical affliction as disfiguring as rickets, if not rickets itself? If therapy and western medicine can’t cure me of my chronic pain, then perhaps a little idleness will do the trick?
I am only half serious. Or half kidding. But I do believe there must be something more to my chronic pain than meets the eye. I’m certainly done with physical therapy and done with western medicine. It has been exhausting, expensive and demoralising.
We’ve been on this path to a simpler, slower life for a while now. Inner exploration is not foreign to me, but there’s always more I could do. I feel it’s time to dig deeper and explore the possibilities. Throwing money at the problem got me nowhere, so why not spend a few months meditating, taking naps, repeating affirmations, thinking positive, letting go of the past and living in the moment? It certainly can’t do any harm, and can only add value to my life, even if it ends up doing nothing for the pain.