Pain has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Anyone who has a chronic condition that interferes with daily life knows the emotional and mental toll it can take. The physical discomfort is merely one hurdle in a much larger complex obstacle course.
There’s the unpredictability factor: not knowing when pain or fatigue are going to crop up or how long they’ll stick around. This makes it difficult to plan things in advance.
There’s also the stress and anxiety of not knowing what I’m going to miss out on or who I’m going to let down on days I can’t get out of bed. And then, there’s the aftermath of unpleasant emotions: guilt, frustration, and hopelessness. Smoothing things over has become an art form, but sometimes apologies and explanations—no matter how sincere—simply aren’t enough.
The costs of living with pain can be overwhelming. I’ve lost jobs, friends, and countless opportunities. But, I refuse to let these things keep me from living a full and happy life. I’ve simply had to learn how to regroup and keep going, many times over. Every time I get a migraine or bout of fatigue, I’m faced with a choice: I can give up and give in to self pity, or I can pick myself up and continue to do the best I can in spite of the way I feel. I’m getting progressively better at choosing the latter.
I don’t win every battle…and that’s okay. I can lose a few battles and still win the war, and this has been a game-changer in terms of how I view and respond to pain.
I didn’t always have such an optimistic attitude, and it is my hope that by sharing my story and what I’ve learned, I might help others find a better way of living and coping with pain. At the very least, I hope others take comfort in knowing that no matter how different our individual trials may be, we are not alone. And there is much to be gained from sharing our experiences and struggles with each other.
It takes courage to open up about my health issues because I saw it as a weakness and something that I was ashamed of for a long time. It’s totally irrational to feel that way about something I have no control over. But, for whatever deep-seated psychological reasons, it’s a part of my life that I used to downplay or hide from most people. Until I finally realized the massive flaws in that approach.
When I don’t trust people enough to open up about what I go through, I am both separating myself from them, and setting myself up for disappointment and misunderstanding in the long run. In an attempt to avoid being vulnerable, I was actually putting myself in the position to get hurt.
Vulnerability is inevitable.
Because there is no cure for my conditions, and I will eventually get sick, it will come out one way or another. It is far less messy when I’m honest and upfront—but this has taken practice and being patient/gentle with myself. It still doesn’t come naturally to me, and I wonder if it ever will.
What has changed, however, is that talking about things that I used to think made me “less than” somehow, has become easier and less scary over time. It feels good to be authentic with people. And, it has allowed me to lighten up.
I can focus more of my energy on managing the pain and fatigue without the added pressure I put on myself to live up to unrealistic expectations. This usually happens when I’m comparing myself others. So, it is just as important to be honest with myself about my limitations as it is to inform and educate those around me.
I use the phrase “in spite of” versus “despite” because it is a more accurate way of describing my coping strategy. Of all the wisdom I might offer on how to remain positive in the face of medical challenges, this one simple phrase has had the greatest impact on my outlook and made the biggest difference in my quality of life.
Spite is generally not a thing I endorse, but when it comes to chronic pain, I’ve found that anger can be a great motivator.
I can think about my health issues as a hindrance to be endured, or I can think of them as obstacles to overcome by living well in spite of them. In other words, I can use the bad days as motivation to get the most out of life on good days and I can accept the challenges pain presents me with, rather than be defeated by it.
This mindset has allowed me to make peace with pain and to find the lessons in it—like learning to live more purposefully and looking for joy in every moment and interaction.
Today my medical issues don’t define me or dictate my attitude toward life. To some extent, my symptoms will always get in the way of plans, affect my relationships, and occasionally warrant reevaluating my goals. But the way I see myself and the way I react to these uncontrollable factors is up to me.
And today I choose to live fiercely and joyfully—in spite of pain.
Author: Lorian Shumate
Image: Hilary Boles/Flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Caitlin Oriel