Though not a subject I speak about very much–if at all–recent conversations with friends and family have gotten me thinking about the role chronic pain plays in my life.
Hi, my name is Sean, and I experience chronic pain.
Notice I said experience, rather than suffer. To me, this is an important distinction that makes dealing with the pain far easier than it might be otherwise. I guess in my mind, experience is something that happens to you–something you have little control over and something that life has bequeathed to you. Suffering on the other hand, is optional.
First, some background: in late 2000 I was in a rather serious car accident. A mini-van t-boned me as I was turning left. The collision snapped my car around, smashed my head into the steering wheel and pinched my knee and ankle between the door and steering column. Most of this I know only from after-action reports, as I remember nothing of the accident save the mini-van’s headlights in my left window–I saw those out of the corner of my eye the instant before being struck, and had nightmares about them for years.
I was lucky. If my car had been struck six inches further back, I’d not be here writing about it. Eating mini-van grill at 60 km/h isn’t something most people survive.
I ended up with two blown disks, one in my back and one in my neck. The accident also left me with nerve damage in my lower back. It’s this nerve damage that continues to haunt me even after most of the other injuries have healed. Because of it my body is constantly telling me that something’s wrong with my left side–sometimes it whispers, and sometimes it screams, but it’s never quiet.
It took me some time to recognize this, as there were a variety of other aches and pains I had to heal from, and that too was for the best. I was laid up for a month, and spent another two in physio learning to walk again after the damage to my left ankle and tendons. By the time I realized that the ‘phantom pain’ was lingering, I’d begun to accept some of the limitations resulting from the accident.
Even more than my own recognition of the lingering after-effects though were two examples of perseverance regardless of physical pain and discomfort. The first was a friend from high school, who despite her youth overcame the pain of her leukemia treatments to experience life more fully than I ever could. Even though she eventually lost her battle, it was an amazing testament for what a zest for life can accomplish, regardless of what your body tells you.
My second example is my aunt. Despite her lupus she has been a blazing beacon of optimism in my family’s lives. My father especially is in awe with her selflessness and perseverance, and indeed optimism in the face of some incredible physical challenges. I can’t say that she’d necessarily agree to the distinction between experiencing and suffering, but I can only thank her for the inspiration and example she has provided me in my own journey.
Because in the end that’s what life is. On every road there are hills to climb and valley’s to ford, and every one of them has meaning and value and lessons to be learned. Each experience is one more piece to the puzzle that life is, and if you spent that journey lamenting about the life you live, how can you ever be happy? No body knows how many days we have on this earth, and I for one have little interest in suffering through the rest of them.
Pain is a part of my life, and though I don’t relish it, neither do I suffer it. I accept it as an experience, and savor it as proof that life can be fragile, but is always valuable. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be a little sad if I woke up tomorrow pain free–for that reminder would be gone, and with it, perhaps something that brings the value of my life into sharp relief would be gone too.
For all of that however, I could never have grown to accept, and continue to experience my life with pain without the love and understanding of my family and friends. Many thanks are owed to my aunt for her example and inspiration, but many more to my daughter, who is always understanding of her father’s occasional failure to stave off grouchiness. Thanks also to my parents, who have been supportive in every way possible. And also to one of my oldest and dearest friends, who never takes my pain as an excuse when he drags my fat ass off the couch to go bike riding.
If my life as it is today were a song, it would be a ballad of pain, but not a sad one. There is triumph in not letting it stop me from living.
For those of you out there who also experience chronic pain, I can’t say if my worldview is right, or even right for you, but I can say there is hope, because there is still life. And if you take one thing from my ramblings, it would be this:
Suffering is optional.