The Humbling Experience Of Pain

I recently read Michael Booths’ August 9, 2016 article, If it were easy, it would already be done, and it brought to mind something I recently learned about myself and my pain.

I began to live with chronic pain before I learned to speak. It is such an intrinsic part of my life that most of the time I can bury the noise it makes pretty darn well. I have parts of my body that are constantly talking to me whether I’m awake or asleep, sitting, or standing. Because of this, my philosophy has always been that if it hurts no matter what, I might as well do the things that I enjoy, and this has served me well most of the time. Recently, though, I’ve had to admit that I’ve gotten a bit cocky with myself around my ability to handle pain.

Something I’ve always known is that I have a high pain tolerance. I know this because I’ve had acute injuries resulting in the kind of pain that incapacitates most people and for me it is the equivalent of a bad pain day. When I was 10 it took my parents almost 24 hours before they realized I had a broken leg. This wasn’t because I had incompetent parents- they took me to the doctor immediately; I just didn’t complain enough for anyone to think that a broken leg was possible. This has been a theme in my life, happening enough times that a good friend told me, “Anytime you are the least bit concerned you need to go to the doctor, because there will be something going on.”

About a year ago, my JRA took a turn for the worse. My baseline at that point wasn’t great so when the disease began to become even more active I quickly began to have extreme pain along with my increased inflammation. I pushed through the pain, as I’ve learned to do so well throughout my life, and stubbornly refused to acknowledge what was becoming more obvious; this wasn’t a typical flare, my disease was getting worse every day. I was still walking my buddy Jasper, who is an 80-pound half wolfhound half golden retriever, who is too cute to turn down when he stands patiently at the door. However, I kept tripping during our walks. Then one day I was standing in line with my husband Todd at Home Depot. We had just picked up some plants for our yard and a couple of clay pots. The basket was full and I told Todd, “I’ll hold onto this pot.” Almost as soon as the words came out, I dropped it. I was shocked and horrified not because of the spectacle, but because I had no idea how one second I had a firm grasp on the pot and the next I was dropping it on the floor.

I finally figured it out, although I wasn’t happy about my discovery- there is a limit to how much pain my body can handle after all. When the pain I experience reaches a certain level my body has figured out how to take care of itself even if I won’t. I was tripping because my knees didn’t want to bend past extreme pain. I dropped the pot because my hand was hurting too much to hold it. Michael talks about a horrible bike accident and how the pain was so bad he couldn’t use “mind over matter” to control it. My discovery made me humble myself enough to realize that I wasn’t doing my body any good by trying to use my strong mind to push it. My body was telling me the opposite, and when I finally got the message I was able to take the right steps to get help.

Pain is a subjective experience, this is true, but I agree with Michael, there are times when pain is a strong signal that demands respect and attention. Anything less will do nothing but make your circumstance worse. This can be a difficult dance, trying to understand your pain well enough to know when you can push and when you need to respect it, but it is a worthwhile endeavor. For me, it has meant the difference between certain injury and further joint damage, or gradual improvement in my symptoms.

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