Day After Day
Chronic pain is so different from temporary pain. The ephemeral pain that can be brought on by injury or sickness garners a certain level of respect. Used to feeling well, people who experience pain of short duration often give it much of their attention. It causes such a drastic change in one’s experience that people often honor that pain by calling in sick, limping, or playing nursemaid to their bodies in other ways. These are not always the luxuries that those of us with chronic pain can afford.
The persistent pain of rheumatoid arthritis frequently makes everyday activities hard to bear. Yet bear it I must, because I have a life to live. If I called in sick every time I was in significant pain, I would quickly exhaust what sick leave I have. There are days when a flare is so excruciating that I do have to miss work, and there are far more days when the strain of social engagements outweighs the joy of them, leading to cancellations. Yet, for the most part I grit my teeth and push through the pain to complete my crucial responsibilities.
Chronic pain develops a familiarity, much like an obnoxious neighbor who pops up at inopportune times. I become so acquainted with the pain that I can anticipate all the subtle movements that are going to intensify it. For instance, I will immediately feel crestfallen if I realize the pan I need is in the top cabinet or when something I’ve dropped has rolled under the couch. The pain I feel becomes predictable, and I know what actions will increase the hurt before I perform them. In times when I’ve experienced the temporary pain of pulled wisdom teeth or a sports injury, I’ve been caught off guard by movements that I didn’t anticipate would hurt until I’m gasping in the burst of pain. The discomfort of rheumatoid arthritis is so different. I have to steel myself with a deep breath before attempting a tall staircase or carrying a heavy bag, knowing before I approach it that it will likely hurt.
When living with daily pain, mind over matter becomes essential. Pain serves a biological function, delivering the message that something is wrong inside of us. In times of temporary pain, this is helpful, as it prevents us from putting our weight on a fractured bone or keeping our hand on a hot surface. With chronic pain, one has to learn when to listen to the pain and when to tune it out. There are times when I overuse a joint, and my body gives me a huge warning flag by revving up the pain intensity. Other times the hurt is not exacerbated by anything that I’m doing, and I have to put it in the background of my awareness. There’s also the middle ground of doing an activity that may be increasing the pain, such as sitting for a prolonged period of time in an office chair, that I can’t avoid (at least not if I want to get a paycheck). In those times, I can simultaneously try to tune out the pain to get through the project I’m working on while intermittently honoring the message the pain is delivering by taking more frequent stretch breaks.
My relationship with pain is nuanced and complicated. There’s never a day that I’m entirely free of pain, yet I have many good days where the hurt I feel is easily relegated to the corner of my awareness. I know it is there, but I don’t have to give it my attention. Much like a marriage, the “work” of getting along with my pain is never done. There are times when I falter, giving all my focus to the unpleasant sensations in my body, and allowing them to alter my perspective on myself and on life. In these times, I must remind myself that my body is not my enemy, and that it is the only body I will ever know. I may not be able to change the way that I’m physically feeling, but with concentration and practice, I can sometimes change my emotional response to the pain I feel.