At my first ever Writer’s Camp this summer we were given a writing prompt about shame. Shame is a tough thing to write about. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for quite a while, but I’ve been ashamed to. It’s hard to be that vulnerable, that bare. It’s hard to let the world see into those deep dark places. To let the world see your cracks.

But I also know I’m not alone. That the shame I have felt in my life, the shame I have felt with my pain, is not so shocking as it seems. I think it likely that many folks who live with chronic pain have felt ashamed of it in some way, at some point along their own pain path, and it’s probably hard for them to think about it, let alone talk about, too.

So talk about it I will.

When I first got hurt I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. It was just a misstep of the fire engine, a no-nothing twinge. But that no-nothing twinge turned into a big something: something scary, something unexplained, something that kept getting worse. So much worse that I could no longer sit comfortably, no longer raise my leg up to reach the tailboard of the engine, no longer do my job safely if a big call came in.

So I went off on Worker’s Comp, thinking things would resolve quickly. It was just a soft tissue injury and just needed some time and some physical therapy.

But the pain got worse. So did my function. I couldn’t drive, couldn’t go to dinner or a movie, couldn’t work.

My world became pretty small.

I felt pretty anxious and a bit fearful, too. I was worried about the future, about what this injury meant for my career, my life. Me. Was I going to be in this kind of pain forever? Could I survive if I was? What the hell would I do?

I lost my identity, my sense of worth, my purpose. I lost my fire family. I stopped talking to my real family. I lost touch with all my friends.

And I was ashamed of it all.

I was ashamed because I felt like I proved all the naysayers right, those folks who believe women don’t belong in the fire service in the first place. I was ashamed of what I had done to all the women working their asses off as firefighters. What I’d done to the women I worked with, the women who came before me, the women trying to become firefighters.

Did I set them back? Did I make the hill they have to climb even higher, steeper, more treacherous? Did I fail them?

Yes. I failed them.

I struggled with the weight of that, on top of the weight of the pain, silently. I carried it as best I could, but I was failing.

I didn’t ask for help.

I had always been strong, fiercely independent, a problem solver. A bad ass. Tough, strong, fit. So I was too ashamed to ask for help, fearful that it would prove I was weak, unworthy, helpless.

And all the while the pain got worse. All the while I still didn’t know why I had so much pain: no diagnosis, no pain education, no effective treatment. No answers. No future that I could foretell.

I completely withdrew. I rarely spoke to anyone, not knowing how to explain my pain. What it was like to be able to think of nothing else, to go through every minute of every day thinking only of pain, of darkness, of bleak futures, of more pain.

Feeling ashamed that I wasn’t handling it better. That I wasn’t stronger. That I wasn’t better.

On top of all that, and it seems so ridiculous to me now (more shame), I was terrified of getting fat, of losing my fitness, my physique. That was a part of my identity too, after all: being jacked, strong, lean, tough. A competitor. An athlete. A firefighter.

So I controlled everything I ate, counting my macros, measuring my food. It was the one thing I felt like I could control in the upside down world of chaos and uncertainty I’d found myself in.

And I was ashamed of that, too. I was ashamed of being vain and worrying so much about this stupid shit and also ashamed of not being able to not worry about it.

And all the while, the pain got worse. I couldn’t be in a car for more than 10 minutes without involuntary tears. The idea of going back to firefighting became more and more far-fetched after years of physical therapy, surgery, acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, more physical therapy and not being better.

I tried, though.

I tried my damnedest. I wanted to prove the naysayers wrong. I wanted to prove that I belonged. That I could still be what I was. That I had deserved to be there before everything went sideways. That I was worthy.

So I pushed through the pain.

And then I was accused of malingering. Of faking it. Of not wanting to work, when in truth all I wanted to do was work. To be of use, to be worthy again. When all I wanted was to be a firefighter, to be me, again.

The accusation came from a battalion chief I greatly respected, a man I thought had respected me, too. It was a blow that knocked me down for the count, one I couldn’t recover from. It crushed me, so much so that it still crushes me to this day. So much so that it’s one of the few things I can’t seem to let go of. Seems silly, right? But I’m in tears even as I write this.

I’d had a good reputation in my department. I was a good firefighter, a good paramedic. I did everything the department asked of me. And suddenly my reputation was in question.

If there was one doubting me, certainly there were more? My reputation was all I had left.

My depression worsened. My pain worsened. My shame worsened.

I became stuck in this strange world where I had to prove how much pain I was in, which I was ashamed of, yet also try to get better. If I tried to have any semblance of a life, I had to do so knowing it could be used against me as proof that I wasn’t in pain (therefore a fraud). So I also became ashamed of trying to have a life.

Those accusations hit me so hard and drove me into such a deep dark place.

It’s hard to admit this. It’s hard because I know it’s my reaction to those words that drove me there, not the words themselves, and I’m ashamed I didn’t stand up to them. And I’m ashamed I haven’t let go of that indictment on my character. But I was so confused and sad, so shocked, so demoralized and dehumanized. I didn’t know how to.

I still don’t know how to.

The lesson seemed to be that being in pain means you can’t leave the house, can’t have friends, can’t try to live, at least if you’re in the worker’s compensation system. That pain is something to be hidden from sight, battled alone, overcome through strength of will and grit.

And I wasn’t up to par. I failed at being a pain patient, too. I was just no good.

I still hold anger and resentment about all this, obviously. I know I need to let it go, but I haven’t.

I haven’t let go of the shame either. Hell, I haven’t even gotten to all my shames. The shame of no longer being the wife to my husband that I once was. The shame of shutting out my friends and family. The shame of not being a good patient and not getting better. The shame of not having been more empathetic to my chronic pain patients in my time as a firefighter and paramedic.

And these are just the shames of the last decade, I haven’t scratched the surface of the depths of my shame.&

So why the hell am I even writing this? There are no answers here. There is no resolution.

I am writing this to let my guard down, to shed my armor, to stop trying so damn hard to protect myself. To be vulnerable.

I am writing this to break down barriers.

I am writing this because there’s so much more that goes into the experience of pain beyond the pain itself. And that so much more is often more relevant to the experience of pain than the sensation of pain that we feel.

I am writing this because our words can have deep ripples in a person’s life, which can have deep ripples throughout our society.

I am not the only person who has felt shame or been shamed.

I want to make it clear I’m not blaming one man’s words, one man’s doubts, for my deepening depression, my increasing withdrawal, my worsening pain – it was only one aspect of this experience and it was my reaction that sent me to that place – but it does shed light on an interaction that happens all too frequently in our society.

People living with pain are too often blamed, doubted and ridiculed rather than validated, believed and supported.

This needs to change.

Having chronic pain is not something we have to be ashamed of. Not being better at it is not something we have to be ashamed of. Being who we are, with our unique set of life’s circumstances and experiences, is not something we should be ashamed of.

Shame and pain. It's time to break the ice

There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in. ~Leonard Cohen

Thanks for reading folks.

Stay tuned for part 2, a rising from the ashes, so-to-speak


21 Responses to "Shame, resentment, hurt, and pain"

  1. Hi Jo, what a brave piece!! I admire your writing so much. I work as a chronic pain physio in Ireland and have sent many patients to your blog. You are an inspiration! Thank you.

    • Eithne, I am so grateful to you for sharing this with me, your support and kind words are appreciated beyond measure. And it is so wonderful to hear that you send your patients to my blog, I am humbled and honored, thank you. In kindness~ Jo

  2. Thank you so much for this Joletta!
    I live with chronic pain as well, and this spoke to so many of my own responses to invalidation and shame…and anger with myself and my pain experience that gets all tangled up with humiliation, self-pity, and rage against those who have actually invalidated, trivialized my pain and insulted my character…This tangle then gets tangled up with the hunger, isolation, boredom, and fear due to the resultant extreme economic insecurity…these then tangle with grief of loss of professional identity, and efficacy…and emptiness of loss of personal identity (I’m not a strong bad-ass anymore, can’t build my own furniture, ride my bike for transportation, march in protests, or even clean my apartment sometimes anymore)…tangled up with the cognitive dissonance of stereotype threat and the horror of marginalization. Then there is the discomfort of the sensations and impairments themselves…and the loss of the activities I used to do to manage ordinary day to day discomforts like doing yoga or cycle fearlessly in NYC traffic, or being able to afford massage. All these tangles have me immobilized on the couch, wincing and crying, obsessively ruminating on when is my Dr going to decide I’m just a drug-seeking malingerer and cut me off the pain medication that does get me off the couch and on to the yoga mat.

    I thank and applaud you for the generosity of your writing about your experience with chronic pain! Your words are powerful, necessary, precious; a healing balm to many of us!

    I am so grateful to you for writing coherently about this, because, as you can see from all my ellipses…I haven’t been able to.

    • Thank you so much for this deeply personal and insightful reply, Gabriela, it is appreciated beyond measure. And it is much more coherent than you give it credit! Every phrase and every ellipse resonates with me, your words are profound and speak to so many of my own truths. Tangles is such an apt word to use, it really conveys the complexities and interconnectedness that come along with pain, and being human for that matter. We don’t do a very good job (the big societal we) of trying to untangle these things, of talking about them, of trying to validate, support, and understand one another. Please know that you are not alone, that we are never alone.

      This was a difficult post to write but even more difficult to share so I thank you for taking the time to reply. I can’t adequately express how grateful I am to you for your kind words and support. With love and kindness ~Jo

  3. Ah yes …. Shame! That insipid, cowardly, and pervasive enemy we face. It is not enough that we have to arm ourselves against our unwanted passenger, Pain. We also have to deal with Shame, and his bigger brother, Guilt. We work endlessly, focussed and determined, to accept pain as a reality in our lives. We are mindful daily, we are accommodating and creative, in our search to live meaningful lives despite the pain. We are handed successes, and failures, and just when we are learning to live with both, Shame and Guilt rear their cowardly heads to undermine our new born confidence. Shame that we did not learn to succeed earlier, shame that despite our successes we will never have our old lives back, shame that we have not found that Holy Grail that will magically unlock the secret to curing our pain.

    I don’t know Jo, if I have succeeded in battling shame and guilt. I do know though, that they too are unwanted and uninvited passengers. As you may have noticed, I like imagery and use it daily … nay hourly. I picture shame and guilt as smoke – impossible to catch. How can something so inconsequential hold such power over us? You may never be able to catch it and destroy it but … you can blow it away. What others think of us is none of our business as we have no control over their thoughts. Shame and guilt is nothing but a fear of what others think of us. Suck in that clear, healing air into your lungs, hold … and let it go! Blow with everything you’ve got! Cleansing! Will shame and guilt return. Of course, leeches that they are! But we know their achilles heel … we know that they have no substance.

    I know the strength it takes to open yourself as you have. Courageous and honest and infinitely healing. Good for you. I continue to watch your journey, and read your posts with pleasure and a sense of familiarity. Thank you

    • Thank you for this wonderful reply, Rose, I have read it a couple times because the language is so vivid and poetic – I can see your imagery. And I love that characterization of guilt and shame as smoke. Inconsequential yet it can obscure so much, cloud our lives, choke us. But we do have the power to clear it, to blow it away. To breathe freely of the fresh air. To let go of the (largely unknown and misunderstood) thoughts of others that make up it’s tendrils. It has no substance…I love that. I am going to hold onto all of this, Rose, thank you for it. And thank you for your kind words, your support, your encouragement. They mean a great deal to me, I can’t find the right words to express how much.

      This being human deal is fascinating. We are awesomely complex, fearsomely so at times. And we are all so unique yet all so similar. We all experience hurts, pain, shame, guilt, yet we do such a terrible job of acknowledging them as a part of the human experience. And so they form this giant smokescreen that hides our true selves from one another. Only in the sharing does the smoke dissipate, to we become known, do we start to know others. Or so I think ;) What do I know, right? I’m just another clumsy human fumbling along trying to figure this life thing out. But I am so grateful to have others who are willing to join me in the search.

      With love and kindness ~ Jo

  4. As always, I nodded my head throughout the entire article. Thanks for putting my thoughts and feelings into words. Hugs to you.

  5. Same here. After a 25 yr career in my profession. It was shattering. Losing my identity, not being able to work. This blog post really resonated with me.
    Luckily I’ve been able to find the joy in each day now. Looking forward to part 2.

    • Thank you so much for leaving this reply, Michelle, and for sharing your experience. It’s such a difficult thing, losing our careers, our identities, ourselves. But we do get through it somehow, don’t we? It is wonderful to hear that you are able to find the joy in each day. I hope to have part 2 out next week or so! Thank you again. With love and kindness ~ Jo

  6. Hi Jo. I read this twice and to say that I was completely moved would be an understatement. Thank you for sharing your feelings with us. You are so brave, honest and genuine and although your injury was very unfortunate, you should’ve never experienced the emotional side effects of it and the difficulties that others have caused for you. You have served your community and have saved many lives and everyone should be proud of your services. If certain people have deficiencies in comprehending that fact, then shame on them. Through my photography I have met and captured photos of many injured military personnel and while many of them feel as you do, I for one am proud of them and am forever grateful for their sacrifices and the same goes for you. Wish you the best and I’m looking forward to part 2.

    • What a wonderful reply to receive, Reza, I am so grateful to you for reading the post and for your kind words and support. They mean more to me than I could ever express my friend. I’m at a loss for words right now! All I can say is thank you from the very depths of me, my friend.

  7. It’s a wonderful essay. I once heard that “guilt” means that you feel that you’ve done something wrong, and that “shame” is when you feel that there’s something wrong with YOU. That has lived in me, but more intellectually than in ways you’ve expressed it. We’ve ALL got something “wrong” with us, because we’re all human. As I say to others, “We all fall. I’ve fallen. We need to be nice enough to help each other up.” That’s true today. Maybe it will always be true.

    • Thank you for reading the post and for the kind words and thoughtful comments, Barrett. I love your saying about how we’ve all fallen, it’s so true and yet it seems so many of us want to deny it, wanting to maintain the illusion of perfection, perhaps. I have fallen many times and I’m ever grateful for those who were there to help me up because I couldn’t have done it alone. I appreciate your insightful reply, thank you.

  8. An absolutely courageous post. You’ve described what so many are feeling. It empowers and inspires the spirit to hear this kind of story. Last night I was thinking things will never change. When I read your posts they make me believe that yes they can! You’ve freed many people of their own guilt and shame! Look forward to part 2!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Craig, they are appreciated beyond measure. Things will change. Any state we are in, good or bad, is temporary. That’s why I cherish the good and have hope when it’s bad :)

      The second post is up, too! I imagine this a topic I will be writing on more in the future, too. We are not alone in our shame and guilt, so many feel trapped by their own as well. Perhaps through sharing we can all get through it a little easier.

      I’m grateful for your comments, Craig!

  9. Pingback: Trying to get better while having to prove we’re in pain

  10. What an excellent article. I feel privileged to have read this very honest account.
    I think your reaction to being disbelieved by your senior colleague was natural. It’s bound to hurt badly if someone who was or is significant in our life accuses us of lying, especially about something so important. We’re social creatures and very few of us are immune to being hurt by those kinds of judgments. (We can rarely ‘choose’ to be unaffected by them.) Wishing you health Joletta.

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