Making Peace with My Pain: A Journey of DiscoveryWritten By: Dr. Stephen F. Grinstead, LMFT, ACRPS, CADC-II Date: February 12th, 2013. Topic: Recovery Stories.
I believe that life is meant to be lived to the fullest. For me, the term fullest has changed significantly over the past three decades. Before my injury in a construction accident more than 28 years ago, my definition included opening my own Karate Dojo and teaching other people the art I had learned to love with a great passion. I was in my early 30s and believed anything was possible.
After my injury I lost all hope of ever teaching the martial arts again. In fact, I became so depressed I seriously considered ending my life. Today I’m grateful I didn’t give into those feelings of hopelessness and a life of suffering. Instead, I made a decision to live the best life I could with what I had, which became possible through an intense grieving process that took almost three years. Today I can honestly say I have the life of my dreams and I continue to live it to the fullest, despite my pain.
For the past several years as I researched and conceptualized my latest book Freedom from Suffering, I experienced a series of acute pain flare-ups. It had been more than 20 years since I felt this kind of pain that kept me in bed many mornings, unable to work or participate in normal activities. I began to obsess about my pain and was feeling depressed as a result. When I realized I was slipping into a “chronic pain trance”, I became motivated to take action. Because of the pain flare-ups, I applied a fresh understanding of these pain-management tools to myself.
Grief, Loss and Depression
I had to go through a very intense grieving process before I was able to believe my future had anything worthwhile to live for. People living with chronic pain sometimes develop an automatic and unconscious way of coping with chronic pain that I call the chronic pain trance. For me that manifested in my adopting a hopeless/helpless mindset and mistakenly believing that my life was over.
In the past I had tried to cope with my situation by embarking on a quest to find the right pill, or to find someone to rescue or fix me. At this point in my life I needed to learn to avoid these types of self-destructive coping mechanisms. I had a responsibility to myself and those I cared about; especially my daughter, to break through this trance.
The chronic pain trance was a dark and difficult place for me, especially when I could hardly even walk a half-block. Pain, especially chronic pain, is an emotional condition as well as a physical sensation. It is a complex experience that affected my thoughts, mood, and behaviors and lead to isolation, immobility, and sometimes a risk of relapse. A quick response was necessary to lessen the risk of these life-threatening consequences.
When medication alone does not eliminate pain or improve the lifestyle losses people are experiencing, the result is usually irrational thinking, uncomfortable emotions and self-defeating behaviors that culminates in suffering with their condition. The anticipation of an expected level of pain influences the degree to which someone experiences pain, contributes to their suffering and pushes them to stop the pain no matter the cost. This was also true for me at the beginning of my journey of making peace with my pain.
Effective Pain Management Is Your Right, But It’s Also Your Responsibility
It is important to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with wanting pain relief. However, it may be unrealistic to be completely free of pain with some conditions. In this instance I ask my patients, “Even if you had a certain level of pain, would it be all right if you never had to suffer with it again?”
My bias is that effective pain management is not only a right; it is also a responsibility. You must take responsibility for your health and healing. In fact, you are the only one who can. The challenge is to decide if you are willing to do the work required to effectively manage your chronic pain condition.
In order for me to live life to the fullest and make peace with my own pain, I must strive to maintain an attitude of gratitude. As I age, I am grateful for all the experiences I have had and all the knowledge I have acquired. I’m grateful for all the people who give meaning to my life: my wife Ellen, my mother, my friends and family, my colleagues, and especially my recovering brothers and sisters. Instead of feeling depressed about all the things I can’t do, I choose to be grateful for all that I can do and everything that is possible.
My Karate Sensei (teacher), Master Richard Kim, once told us a story about living with adversity through gratitude that I would like to share.
If you are training and break your toe, be grateful it wasn’t your foot. If you break your foot, be grateful it wasn’t your leg. And if you break your leg, be grateful it didn’t kill you. And if you die, be grateful you don’t have to finish this class. The lesson for me was; whenever you hit an obstacle or a difficult time, say, “Thank you, adversity, for yet another test.”
As I think of Sensei Kim’s suggestion to “thank adversity for yet another test” I realize I have an opportunity to accept my chronic pain condition as one more circumstance to be grateful for and to develop a good plan for managing it successfully.
Appropriate Activity Pacing Is a Must
A major objective of any effective chronic pain-management plan – and especially as we age – is appropriate activity pacing. It’s important to remember that there is a continuum with activity pacing. Our stage of life can become a factor. On one end is the person who always does too much; on the other end is the sedentary person who does almost nothing.
When developing this activity pacing plan, we must not only pay attention to where we are in the aging process, but also to the limitations our chronic pain condition places in our way. Some of us deny our condition and do too much. We hurt ourselves and then become depressed when we can’t do what we want to do. I have been there, and sometimes still go there, so I needed an activity pacing plan that slowed me down.
On the other end, some people with chronic pain use aging as an excuse to stop participating in life; they mistakenly believe they can’t have a good life because of their condition. These people need more of a jump-start, or a kick in the butt, to develop an activity pacing plan that encourages them to push more than they normally would.
Today I can honestly say that I’m grateful for that construction accident and my injury. I’ve found that living with a pain condition for almost three decades has created some limitations for me, but the rewards far outweigh them. I have participated in the healing journey of others living with chronic pain; taught healthcare providers how to work more effectively with their patients suffering with chronic pain; have developed and maintained more fulfilling relationships: as well as writing this book. But my journey did not happen overnight, and yours won’t either; it takes commitment, willingness, and hope.