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What Pain Wants

Last updated: March 2021

I'm currently reading a fantastic book about living with chronic pain, "Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System" by Sonya Huber. Huber herself struggles with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is what prompted her to write the book.

The first essay in this collection is a list of short, creative statements describing what pain "wants" and "likes" and "asks" and a whole host of declarations of what pain is and does--some humorous, some sarcastic, many playful, and several that are unsettlingly close to the truth. For this article, I chose some of my favorites of these to share.

Describing RA pain

Pain likes to start big projects and not finish them.
I like to call RA "The Great Interrupter," but I think that title can also apply to pain in general. Countless times in my life, pain has gotten in the way of projects I'm working on, plans I have, and basically just most things that I want and need to do. I always feel hugely frustrated that I have to struggle to finish nearly everything that I start. Pain doesn't play by a person's rules or follow one's schedule or demands. It takes over whenever it feels like it, and this makes being an organized person incredibly difficult. Acquiring and sustaining motivation, inspiration, and energy while in unrelenting pain isn't easy. Not for me, anyway.

Pain will get revenge if you ignore it but sometimes forgets what it was angry about.
Ignoring pain usually doesn't work very well, does it? However, those of us with RA and other chronic pain conditions attempt to ignore it all the time, I think. What else are we supposed to do? It's always there in some form or another: sharp, stabbing, throbbing, burning, aching, radiating, mild, moderate, severe, excruciating, nagging, pestering, unforgiving.

Pain really hates being ignored, which it reminds me of whenever I try to push it out of my mind. Yet if I try to ignore my pain, it feels like it does enact some sort of revenge on me. "Listen to me! I'm here! DON'T IGNORE ME!" pain screams into my ear and in my face. "Drop everything you're doing, drop your whole life, and pay attention to me! I'LL SHOW YOU!"

The pain will then skyrocket and my ankles will feel like there are hundreds of razor-sharp knives, burning knives, twisting into the soft inflamed flesh. How can I ignore this? I can't. Nobody can. Whenever this sort of thing happens, I will invariably then strap frozen ice packs to my ankles and lie down on the couch with my feet up. And there I will stay, trapped and overwhelmed by feelings of frustration, anger, worry, fear, depression, grief, and exhaustion.

But why is pain so angry and demanding? Why does it continue to beat on us, and drag us down? What is the point? I don't know. I don't think my pain really knows the answer to this, either. It just does what it does, compelled to wreck my body and break my spirit.

Pain tells you to put your laptop in the refrigerator.
Pain also tells you to be late for work, forget to brush your teeth, get lost driving somewhere you've been to a million times, wear mismatched socks, book a hotel room for the wrong week (I did this in D.C. a few years ago), and lose track of, well, everything. And many, many other things that I can't think of right now because my RA and pain "brain fog" (pain fog?) has wreaked havoc on my memory skills.

Chronic pain is also incredibly distracting and it saps a lot of energy from a person, making completing normal everyday tasks difficult. I think I've always been a bit of a dreamy, unorganized "ditz," even before getting RA, but I know that living with chronic pain for the last 21 years has only increased my challenges with being and staying focused. So if you live with chronic pain, I can totally see how your laptop could end up in a refrigerator. I'm surprised I haven't done this myself yet.

Pain wants to watch a different channel than you do on TV.
Pain is not very respectful or thoughtful of one's plans and goals in life, whether related to social activities, work, family, friends, hobbies, and things done simply for enjoyment and pleasure. It selfishly wants what it wants and when it wants it.

There are many things that I've wanted to do myself over the years and couldn't because of my RA: traveling (where and how I want), exercising (no running or even long walks), playing sports (the tennis dream died), enjoying certain hobbies (drawing, painting, doing photography how I want, playing piano/music), and lots more. It often feels like pain holds the remote control in my life, not me.

Pain stubs out the cigarette of your to-do list.
Completing a to-do list? Do people actually accomplish these things? I know I certainly don't. Is my pain to blame? Yes, I think so. Despite my best, most diligent attempts, I can never seem to get everything done that I need to do. RA and pain get in the way, always.

Pain inhabits curved, soft bodies in hopes of fluid movement and then cries when it breaks them.
I think this is a really beautiful way to describe what it feels like to live in a body consumed by disease and pain. A lovely, fragile body devoured by this evil thing that slithers around and then strikes. That won't let go of its ruthless grip. Ever. I feel as though my body is constantly at war with itself; it's a battle between my true self and this furious entity that will not give up its attack, stabbing and slashing at every swollen, tender joint. My own curved, soft body is daily battered and broken by the pain of RA. It's a shocking and unnatural contrast.

Taking an insightful look at RA pain

If you would like to read the remaining list of "What Pain Wants," I highly encourage you to check out Sonya Huber's book and to read the entire first essay to discover what pain is and does and wants in your own life. I plan to revisit it myself and to continue reading this insightful book and being amazed and comforted with how spot-on Huber is with everything. She is a Pain Woman.

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