Sitting comfortably with a friend during a quiet, cold afternoon, an unexpected question was posed “Will you ever write about your pain?” I was caught off guard by this intimate poke into my interior life and did not respond right away. “Why do you ask?” I offered. “Your blogs are rich with many deep topics yet there is one that is obviously missing…one that I know you are quite familiar with. I think people would benefit from your story and insights on this subject” she said.
After thinking about this encounter for some time, I decided that I was, in fact, acting cowardly by being unwilling to delve into a difficult area that all of us battle at various times in our life. Pain is real for every person and yet for some reason, we don’t seem to want to talk about it. Why is that?
Sadly I think it has a lot to do with our obsession to live the “perfect life.” In today’s social media driven world, we want to portray a public image that is simply flawless. We yearn to convince others that we have it all together: lucrative, stimulating jobs; multi-talented, intellectually gifted children; stunningly beautiful homes; perfect marriages and the list goes on and on. Given this shallow level of thinking – no wonder there is little time to talk about the real things that matter in life. By talking about pain, we don’t want people to think we are weak or unsuccessful. By avoiding this subject, we have become unhappy, by trying to show how happy we really are NOT.
Pain is real for every person on this planet and it comes into our realm when we least expect it. Pain can be physical and/or emotional or both. I have had the experience of not handling pain very well in some situations, and would like to share my story as an example of what not to do when times get really tough. I’d also like to share what I’ve learned in order to suggest how to navigate life’s journey through pain in a more successful manner.
As a lover of learning, I’ve gained so much by watching others closely during my life. Observing my heroic mother battle terminal cancer with grace and class was a life lesson I shall never forget. I admired the way mom put her best face forward daily, despite the pain she experienced. My family sought to surround my mom with a circle of love and healing during her pain journey. I pray we succeeded in the most profound way as she deserved only the best because she gave us only her best! I also learned through my own journey that it is good to ask for help when the pain becomes too much to handle alone. (Sometimes pride prevented me from doing that.)
I am grateful to God that I didn’t really have a significant physical pain encounter in my life until I discovered a fracture in my spine about 8 years ago. This fracture caused disc disease and ruptured spinal discs which were excruciatingly painful. At that time though, I didn’t allow myself an opportunity to rest or recuperate. I went right on working full-time, while wearing a hideous back belt, that didn’t really help the pain. Looking back, I wish I had advocated better for myself, especially with a doctor who had little empathy for my situation (I was just a number in his practice) and the levels of pain that I experienced. To him, I was just another person with a ruptured disc who would eventually heal. Of course the situation only got worse and the problems escalated into increased levels of pain which revealed that the fracture in my spine had caused a misalignment of my vertebrae among other serious conditions.
My point in sharing all of these details is that I never took time off to take care of myself. I went right on mothering, working and doing my regular duties while the physical pain got worse. We live in a culture where the last man standing at work wins, right? This type of thinking is ridiculous, of course, and I know that now. (I vividly recall hosting a large fundraising dinner while experiencing a level 10 pain in my back. After getting off stage I promptly took a pain pill with the hope that it would kick in quicky!) At the time, I didn’t know what else to do. I suffered quietly until things fell apart and I ended up having a major spinal fusion surgery to fix many things. Sadly, the pain was worse after the surgery but I felt like no one would listen to me. It was a physical and emotional roller coaster. After many complaints to the surgeon, he finally did an MRI and discovered that the first surgery didn’t fully fuse the fracture. Seven months later, I was back in surgery for a second major fusion and this time, I was filled with plates, screws and artificial discs. At this point, we all hoped the nightmare was over, but that was not to be.
During this period, I was the primary caretaker for my beloved mom, along with my beautiful dad. About 2 months before my first spinal surgery, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer which had metastasized throughout her body. As a non smoker, the diagnosis came as a shock to all of us. Needless to say our family came together to secure the best care at Dana Farber for my mom and are thankful to God that he brought an amazing oncologist into our midst. The emotional pain associated with mom’s cancer journey was quite profound. Mom had always been the rock of our close family and now the tables were turned. I was being called upon to step up and become the person she had raised me to be. (I pray that I fulfilled this noble task – she deserved nothing but the best, but I never felt that I measured up to her greatness as a mother.) The challenge for me was balancing the physical pain of my back with the emotional pain of losing my mother. In the midst of all this – I did not give my best to my immediate family. They took second fiddle and I am grateful that my loving husband picked up the pieces at home with the children. Looking back, I am not sure I could have done anything different, but pain has a way of affecting us in unknown ways. It is important to keep up the communication with those we love the most during times of pain. That is something very important that I have learned.
As my beloved mother grew weaker from the cancer, my back pain increased and I receive no relief or answers from any doctors. It was a time of great sadness and challenge for every member of our family. When we lost mom to the disease which takes too many innocent lives, the emotional pain overtook the physical for the first time in my life. None of us could imagine going on without our beloved, loving, light-filled matriarch. The physical pain in my body coupled with my regular job and full-time job as a mother and wife made for a truly difficult period. BUT, God sent me incredible people who showed me His mercy. Without these people in my life, the pain may have overtaken me. Please never forget that we are made for community, for one another and it is incredibly important to open ourselves up to those who love us during times of excruciating pain. The healing begins during the small acts, seemingly insignificant acts of love and friendship: random walks on the trail, a 50th birthday dinner in Boston, GF treats at my door, flowers on my mom’s anniversary, reminders from a coworker to call my doctor, delivery of favorite coffee, chicken soup dropped at my door and the list goes on. Embrace the people in your life who offer you love – they are the face of God.
Things have changed a lot in the past few months. I am not able to work full-time anymore, due to my back. I am actively seeking treatments to ease/manage the pain but the reality is that it will never go away due to the underlying problems caused by the fracture. I have learned to breathe a bit easier now and take more time to listen and respond to what I am being called to do each day. I am not sure what my future holds, but I am not worried. I trust in the God who loves me when I am well and when I am in pain.
There is so much more I could share, but this is already much too long. My hope and prayer is that those who read this blog take something positive away like: Be good to yourself in times of pain; advocate for yourself, the doctors are not always right; stay in communication with your spouse; don’t lose hope, there is always tomorrow; trust your instincts and your heart, there you will hear the voice of God who never loses battles; seek help from friends and support groups, there are so many resources out there for people in pain. Above all – love yourself as much as God loves you, which is infinitely much more than you can ever imagine.