I’ve been thinking lately of my experience with pain. Physical pain. I spent many years running from pain of any sort with the help of a combo of substances. I’ve spent much of my recovery from drug addiction observing emotional pain, learning how to recognise it and not be afraid, practicing the 12 steps, going to meeting regularly for a reality check, doing talking therapy, and writing about feelings so I can face into what is in front of me without boozing or using. And to take care as I go. I’m not talking here about an archaeological dig, more a being present as emotions emerge. I’m developing what can be described as a friendly relationship with the pain. Patient, forgiving and loving, allowing room for movement. The comings and goings. That’s the aspiration anyway.
Physical pain, however, is another story…
A couple of years ago, at work, going about my business and about to walk down the stairs, My feet slipped on something oily. I slipped and flipped and landed on my left arm, consequently shattering my wrist. I was hospitalised and had surgery and my fine boned wrist was put back together with the help of pieces of metal and several screws. That meant a cast and all the discomfort that goes with that; and once I’d shed the shell, it was ‘hand rehab’ and a variety of braces. Along the way I developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) in my injured hand, plus something called ‘Frozen Shoulder’ in both arms. I learned this is not uncommon after breaking a limb. Who knew? (By the way, why is it described as ‘frozen’ when it’s a burning sensation?) I won’t go into further detail because that’s not this is about. Suffice to say it was effing painful and I was prescribed pain relief and referred to a Doctor who specialises in pain management, aka ‘The Pain Guy’.
Pain is nothing new. I’ve experienced it in the past – of course I have – we all have – it’s part of life. And the giving of life. I’ve given birth twice. And had kidney stones a couple of times, toothaches, appendicitis, dengue fever, pleurisy and hepatitis B & C, among other things. I was dogged with migraines for years and used to get regular sinus infections. The pain was intermittent though. It came and went and when it wasn’t there I didn’t give it a second thought. And when it was there, I took pain relief, and took to my bed and waited for it to go away. I was not in relationship with it. I just wanted it to fuck right off. And eventually, it would.
This constant pain in my arms and hands is not like that. It’s with me when I wake up and when I go to sleep. It lives with me, sometimes whispering sometimes shouting for my attention. Constant does not mean predictable. The intensity waxes and wanes. The default is, of course, to wait for it to go away and leave me alone, so I can get on with living my life. My ‘real’ pain free life. As if what I’m experiencing isn’t related to me or something? The reflex is to push away pain, to disconnect. Trouble is, cutting off from pain means being cut off from the full aliveness in my body.
There was a time when I lived with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Oh the shame. It was crippling. My perception of self was as a defective human being. I was taking it personally, as if I had somehow caused the CFS on purpose. I felt like I was basically flawed and each cycle of un-wellness deepened feelings of shame. In our society we get rewarded for looking and acting a certain way and I wasn’t making the grade. The self-stigma and the story I told myself about how others viewed me kept me silent. So I didn’t talk about it and did my best to divorce myself from it. When the pain and fatigue was upon me I’d get acupuncture to treat the symptoms and lie down and wait for its passing, all the time, feeling like a failure. After all, I was doing well in recovery from active addiction so ‘should’ be well in every area of my life, right? Otherwise I was doing something wrong. I was wrong. It was dire, and very lonely. During periods of wellness, or less worseness, I’d make up for lost time and work my guts out and tip myself over the edge again, and again and again. Einstein is credited with saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Whether he said this or not is neither here nor there. What is important is this quote helped me see the insanity of my actions. I resented that the people around me “didn’t understand”. I eventually had to get real and tell on myself. I began talking to one or two people and consequently reached out for professional help and slowly, with support, I got well. Naturally, with the current situation, there is a strong invitation to go back to that familiar lonely place of shame. I don’t want to be trapped in that same old pattern though.
Anyway, this current pain was doing my head in and I gave codeine a go. It made me feel sick. Anti-inflammatories took the pain away and made me feel nauseous and headachy. Having been addicted to a variety of analgesics I need to be mindful. I loves the morphine, however opiates trigger me into wanting ‘more’ and dampens my spirit at the same time. Then there the constipation. Talk about ‘broken arsed’. I was prescribed Nortriptyline for the CRPS by ‘The Pain Guy.’ Nortriptyline is prescribed for depression and is also used to treat certain kinds of nerve pain. Due to unhelpful side effects in the past with anti-depressants, I couldn’t bring myself to take them. Paracetamol helps. I’m mindful of the potential effect on my liver though, plus I don’t want to constantly be relying on something outside of myself if there is another way.
My dear friend, Stanley Panley is eighty and has lived with physical pain on a daily basis since he was eight years old. This has not prevented him from living his life, practically, creatively and wholeheartedly. He just gets on with it and does the daily biz. Stanley is a national treasure and paints beautiful landscapes. (I just noticed the word ‘paint’ contains pain) I have assigned him the role of my ‘living well with pain’ mentor. Stanley says “pain is part of life and when it goes, you don’t give a tinkers cuss.” Meaning, I think, it doesn’t matter whether pain is present or not, life is to be lived.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, said “The cure for the pain, is in the pain.”
So what does a recovering person do to live well with the pain? Well, I don’t know what others do and there is fuck all written about this that I can see. I’ve had to learn what works for me as I go. First of all I need to recognise it and own it. To come home to the pain. To inhabit my body. To learn how to hold myself with mercy and tender compassion. Daily writing myself right in ‘Morning Pages’ really helps me with this. So do NA meetings. And recovering from the wrist shatter grief and pain gave me a much needed prod to commit to daily meditation. Leonard Cohen, when speaking of what propelled him into deep Buddhist practice, said “no one gets into a very rigorous activity unless they’re suffering.” I’ve toyed with meditating for years, practicing weeks and months at a time, then nothing. Now, with the help of a lovely Jack Kornfield guided body scan app on my phone, meditation is part of my daily routine, along with the writing and prayer. Netflix and Facebook and so on appear to help, and they do, up to a point, however, I notice the screen time stresses me out, because, for this girl, “one is too many and a thousand never enough.” Sugar can be a seductive siren so I don’t go there these days. I take care to eat regularly and I choose foods that support me and don’t contribute to inflammation and consequent pain and nausea. I have a whinge to my girlfriends from time to time and have regular cranial osteopathy. Oh and guess what? I discovered that a strong coffee first thing in the morning alleviates pain, as does high dose Vitamin C. So does a good laugh. And it’s important for me to connect with others and do stuff I enjoy such as go to movies and shows that nourish my spirit. I don’t sleep as well as I would like, however, I have learned to not worry myself sick in the wee hours about the lack of sleep and how I’m going to feel tomorrow, and instead, do a guided meditation to quiet the mind and soften my heart. And I’m learning to pace myself during the day and make time for rest. It’s okay and always balances itself out. I can do this with support. It’s a daily practice. And I only have to do it today.
The most recent manifestation of pain is in my right arm. Something is going on and it appears I have been overusing it to compensate for the limited movement I have in my left. I see a cranial osteopath on a regular basis for support and the other day, as she pressed and prodded and I winced, said “It’s definitely Tennis Elbow because if this was happening on the other side it would be Golfers Elbow”. Tennis Elbow? Golfers Elbow? A sports injury? Me? But I’m a life-long member of ‘The Fitness Protection Program’. Okay, so does this mean I need to purchase some stylish active wear to go with the Tennis Elbow? I can see myself kitted out in Lululemon or, maybe, black and white Adidas. Truth be told, I already have the Adidas pants and jacket and mostly wear them as pyjamas or to wind up Amy, my daughter. No longer need this be so. I now have a legitimate reason for the active wear. I have a sports injury. Tennis. You can call me Serena.