At some point along the way in writing this blog and trying to figure out this whole chronic pain thing, I went from learning about and understanding more about the science of pain to actually living what I know (well, mostly living what I know, I have my moments). I didn’t really notice it myself, at least not until it was pointed out to me by Alison Sim, a lovely osteopath and author of the site Beyond Mechanical Pain (and a speaker at 2016’s Pain Summit).
It got me to thinking about how this transition happened, from the knowing to the living. I think it was made possible only when I finally accepted pain as a part of my existence, as a part of who I am, as a part of life. A true acceptance, though, not the lip service I had been paying it for years, years when I’d said that I accepted that I had chronic pain, years I’d said I was ok with it. Years when I wasn’t really accepting of it at all. Years when I wasn’t really ok.
I said it because that was what I was supposed to say, it was a step in the process of successfully managing and overcoming pain, so it was a step I wanted to check off the list so I could get on with it, so I could move on to the next check box.
But acceptance isn’t a check box, it isn’t so easy as that. You can’t just say it and have it be so. For years I had said “I accept my pain”, but I didn’t really feel that acceptance in my heart. I didn’t live that acceptance.
Acceptance alluded me because I kept fighting it off and I kept fighting it off because I thought if I accepted that I had pain it meant I was giving in to it and giving up, that pain would win. I thought that acceptance meant giving up on the hope that one day the pain would be gone, that acceptance meant that I had failed.
It ain’t easy
Acceptance was also hard to come by because it’s hard to come to terms with the complexities of pain, the biopsychosocial nature of pain, the nuances and intricacies of pain.
It was easy for me to learn that pain doesn’t always equal damage, that pain is not always reflective of the state of the tissues, that pain is rather a combination of many different biological, psychological, and environmental factors that are all interrelated and all influence one another and all matter.
It was harder for me to believe that the pain that I felt wasn’t in my tissues somewhere, that it wasn’t a thing that could be isolated and repaired or removed. That it couldn’t just be fixed by someone or something. I still had fear, I still worried, I still thought I was moving wrong or sitting wrong or damaging myself in some way, that it had to be damage or else I wouldn’t still be in so much pain.
This even though I knew that pain doesn’t equal injury, even though I’d already had surgery and wasn’t fixed, even though I’d been through years of physical therapy and still had pain. Deep down I knew that there had to be something more to it, that perhaps there was something to all the pain science stuff I was learning, something to these other factors, that might help.
I also knew that going down that route wasn’t as easy as a quick fix.
What it’s not
Acceptance isn’t giving into the pain or giving up on hope, it’s not resigning yourself to a life of pain and suffering. Pain can exist without the suffering. Pain can be a part of an awesome, active, meaningful life.
Acceptance is about about making space for the pain, acknowledging it’s presence, and recognizing that there is room for it alongside all of the other stuff that makes us us, that makes life life. It’s about making peace with ourselves and our current situation so we can get on with living and loving and doing.
But though the words are easy to say, the act is much harder to come by. That’s why I think acceptance is such an important concept to talk about and then talk about some more. It’s why I’m thinking about starting and ending my book with it. It’s like you need to be exposed to the idea so it can marinate a bit while you learn all the other things there is to learn about your pain, about yourself, about life.
The idea of acceptance needs to be present, even when we’re not quite ready to act on it, so that we can become accustomed to it, so we can get familiar with it, get to know it, get comfortable with it, so we can actually embrace it once we’re ready for it.
Getting from there to here
I don’t have a ready solution for how to get there. Truth be told, I don’t know how I got here, but it was life changing once I did. I do think I know some of the pieces that fell into place that helped me reach that point, not to say that every day is rosy and I don’t still get pissed or frustrated or sad that I have pain.
I do know that it wasn’t until I realized that pain wasn’t a battle to be won that I could begin to accept it’s presence. That I could finally be at peace, that I could stop resisting, that I could make space instead of make war.
It wasn’t until I stopped defining success as eradicating the pain, conquering the pain, that I could begin to accept it as a part of my life, as a part of the human experience, as a part of me. Just a part amongst many other, more interesting, parts.
It wasn’t until I understood that my life was now, regardless of whether or not the pain was there, that I could begin to accept that pain may always be a part of my life, and that that was ok, that there was still a life to be lived. A life to be loved.
I still get scared sometimes. I still have moments when I long for the days of yore when I was running, lifting heavy things, and fighting fires. Acceptance doesn’t mean that doesn’t happen, at least not in my book. Acceptance does mean we get better at dealing with those things, though.
Acceptance is a state of mind where those thoughts, feelings, flare-ups, and frustrations don’t have the power to derail us any more, where pain doesn’t color all of our days in shades of black and gray and paint our future bleak and miserable. Acceptance isn’t giving in or giving up on hope, it gives us up, it helps us see the endless possibilities within our limitations.
Acceptance became possible for me when I was finally able to reconceptualize what pain was and understand what pain was not.
Acceptance became possible when I could look at my life honestly and introspectively, when I went within to seek the answers even though some of the questions were really, really tough.
Acceptance became possible when I could take responsibility for the things that were within my power to control, to figure out the things that made my pain worse and the things that made my pain better and to do more of the latter and minimize the former. And, no matter what happens, I can always manage my thoughts, behaviors, and reactions, that’s where our power is greatest.
Acceptance became possible when I figured out that I wasn’t broken and in need of fixin’, that there wasn’t a surgery (been there) or pill or person (tried a bunch!) out there that could solve this pain problem for me, that maybe the pain didn’t have to be such a problem.
Acceptance became possible when I no longer saw myself as damaged goods, when I realized I didn’t need to be put out to pasture, hidden away from the world.
(although this is a pretty pasture to be put out in, if one were to be put out)
Once I realized that perhaps, just perhaps, I didn’t need to be fixed, that perhaps I was ok just how I was, I was able to stop searching for that which would fix me. I could finally stop thinking about ‘my pain’ so damn much, stop stressing about it so damn much, stop fighting it so damn much.
I could finally start living.
Paving the path
I think that my path forward was through understanding pain differently. That new understanding, that pain didn’t mean damage, that pain didn’t mean broken, that pain didn’t mean I was less because of it, helped me realize that I had the skills and abilities to manage my day-to-day pain stuff, to successfully handle flare-ups, to realize that I was in control of my life, my pain didn’t control me.
That new understanding opened the door for me to be able to move and play more and without fear, to be ok with some of the uncertainty that comes packaged with pain (with life, for that matter), to be able to talk about it even when it was awkward, to get out and engage with the world again and do stuff that matters to me.
And it allowed me to accept that I had pain. In turn, that acceptance allowed me to stop searching for the meaning of my pain and start focusing on the meaning of my life. It allowed me to be me and to be ok with who me was.
An amazing thing happened when this shift occurred, when I finally was able to accept where I was, who I was, and that pain was a part of it. The pain got smaller and my life got bigger. When I made room for pain, pain was no longer everything, there was so much more room for everything else.
We are not our pain
We are whole, we are strong, we are awesome, even with pain. We can be active and creative and kind and loving and funny and beautiful and complete, even with pain. We can be in control, we can live with pain and not have it control us. Pain can become a part of us without defining us.
Pain can become a part of life, without it becoming life.
We can go from living painfully to living with pain, really living, not just half-living, not just living in anticipation of better days.
Today is our day. Right now.
Once we stop focusing so much on the pain and start focusing on what makes our lives meaningful, the pain gets better, our lives get better. That right there is the clincher – that once we can accept the pain, the pain gets better. Once we accept the pain, life gets bigger.
Once we accept the pain, we can get on with the living.
(I took this pic down in La Jolla and the pic in the middle of the post in Mission Trails park in San Diego. Part of my living right now is taking pictures – I love being outside and seeking out the beautiful in the world around me. I’ll be talking about creativity and self-expression in an upcoming post, but acceptance was one of the things that got me outside taking pictures, when I stopped putting my life on hold waiting for the pain to go away.)
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Until next time, stay awesome, friends.
Note: Red checkmark in box image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net