This past weekend I attended the first annual San Diego Pain Summit and I can’t even begin to put into a cohesive string of words all that I am thinking, nor can I come close to formulating into a single blog post all that I learned during the course of three days of thought-provoking presentations from a stellar line-up of speakers. On top of the speakers’ presentations, I had numerous insightful conversations with other attendees as well. A diverse group of amiable, curious, smart, and insightful folks from all over the world (something like 13 professions were represented from 8 countries and most of the U.S.).
Nor can I begin to put into words all the directions that I want to go in with the information, the connections, and the ideas that were engendered at the conference! But I will start to try and put into words what the SD Pain Summit has got me thinking about, so you have an idea of what’s to come.
First, I signed up for the summit immediately after my interview of Lorimer Moseley (a neuroscientist from Australia) last year when I found out that he was to be the keynote speaker at a pain conference in San Diego. Lorimer, and the work of his research group BodyInMind.org, completely changed the way I thought about and managed my own pain issues, thereby completely changing my life.
Not only did Lorimer’s work change my life, he agreed to be interviewed (via Skype) by a grad student for a school paper – how cool is that? During our Skype chat he was gracious, funny, informative, attentive, insightful, and kind. He was even more so in person. He’s a joy to watch and to listen to; he’s a pioneer in the field of pain science, yet he is humble, he’s an accomplished researcher (something like 120+ academic papers and a number of books), yet he is ever curious – constantly observing, and being fascinated by, the human experience. In short, he’s just awesome.
When I interviewed Lorimer last year, we naturally talked about the complexity of chronic pain. But we talked more about how, even through the complexity, simple solutions can help us to successfully manage and even overcome pain.
I was fully on board with the successfully managing pain part last year. I felt I was evidence of such success, I’d come a long way at that time. It was after our last Colorado trip where I finally understood that I wasn’t fragile, breakable, or broken, that I wasn’t defined or controlled by my pain, that I was still a worthy, whole individual capable of living a happy, meaningful life, even if the pain was a constant companion.
And at that time, pain was still my constant companion. Though I was happy and healthy and doing much better than I had been in the years previously, I was still in pain a good deal of the time. But I was ok with that. I accepted the pain and decided to live my life with it, rather than battle it or wish it wasn’t there or long for the days before my injury (and surgery and persistent post-operative pain…).
I was going to be a successful manager of my pain, not an overcomer of my pain. And that was ok.
But a curious thing has happened in the year since that interview. Yes, I had my worst flare up in years at the end of last year, but even with the flare, my beliefs and my thoughts about my pain have changed once again. It snuck up on me somehow, but somewhere along the way I started thinking that I can actually overcome the pain, not just manage it successfully. I have hope that pain isn’t going to be my companion for life.
But I also don’t feel like it’s an all-or-nothing thing. I have the hope that I can overcome the pain, but I also don’t feel like it will be devastating if I don’t. I’m in a really good place right now, I believe, in part at least, because of that delicate balance between hope and realism that I have settled into.
I’ve now come to recognize that although I may have another horrible flare-up, or that I may have a bunch of smaller flare-blips, that they don’t have to be freakouts, they don’t have to derail my thoughts and beliefs and my hope, because they certainly don’t derail my progress (which I’m also just now beginning to realize).
I can still live a valued life, in the words of one the presenters, Eric Kruger. A meaningful life. A happy life.
And I think that’s the kicker, the big take-away. It’s about life, not about pain. About thriving, not merely surviving. .
So our focus needs to shift. Shift away from fixing the pain and toward living a valued life, even if there’s pain in it. When we’re sick or in pain or stressed or just in a bad place, we look at the sickness or the pain or the stress as a ‘thing’ separate from us, rather than as an integral part of us. A thing to be rid of as fast as possible.
But that stress, that pain, that illness is a part of us at that moment, and that’s ok. It’s a part of who we are; we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge it, to experience it, to express it. How else will we ever get beyond it? Learn from it? Grow from it?
But even though these things are a part of who we are, they’re just that. A part. They are not our totality. There’s a whole lot more to us than our pain or our stress or our illness. They are just a few lines of the narrative, not the whole story. They don’t define us.
So maybe it’s not just the stress, or the illness, or the pain that we need to ‘fix’ or focus on so much. No matter how much they seem to demand of our attention. It’s the whole story we need to focus on. The entire narrative of our valued life that we need to pay attention to, to write and to rewrite.
That’s the great thing, we are the story we tell ourselves, and we hold the pen, we write the narrative.
The things that make our story more interesting, more enjoyable, more meaningful – the people, the experiences, the creative endeavors, the music, the food, the magic, the moments, the books, the movies, the movements, the hobbies, the exploring, the discovering, the learning, the sharing, the playing, the crying, the caring, the giving, the images, the sunshine, the outdoors, the laughter, the art, the science, the love – those are the things that, if we focus on them just a bit more, if we make those things a bigger part of our narrative, then perhaps the pain, the stress, the illness will become a much smaller part of the story and play a much smaller role in the narrative of our lives.
And our stories are told down to the cellular level; we’re bioplastic, highly adaptable, incredibly resilient beings. Our thoughts can change, our movement can change, our meanings can change, our behavior can change, our nervous systems can change, our autonomic systems can change, our immune systems can change, our endocrine systems can change…our outlook can change.
Our stories can change.
And we – we! each of us! no one has to do it for us! – can set some of these changes into motion. And any changes we set into motion in any one area will set changes into motion in all the other areas. That’s pretty awesome.
We humans, we’re interesting beings, ain’t we? We’re fascinating beings, complex beings, unique beings, creative beings, expressive beings, thinking beings, evolving beings. We can’t be boiled down to a label: our profession, our pain, our disease, our sport, our race, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, our religion, our gender, our diet, our socioeconomic status, our treatment program, our alma mater, our successes, our failures.
Humans are complex, as such, pain is complex. As Patrick Wall said, pain is never bereft of context and emotion. Yet when we try to treat pain or manage pain, we continually ignore the context and avoid the emotion. It’s not comfortable. It’s not easy. But it is necessary.
We must pay attention to the totality of our story if we want to change the course of events. If we want a happy ending. We can’t just pay attention to bits about pain; we must get comfortable addressing the whole and stop trying to fix the broken parts.
Just as we can’t be boiled down to a label, chronic pain cannot be boiled down to a label, either. To one tissue, one diagnosis, one treatment, one doctor, one therapist, one coach, one tool, one strategy…one answer. Any one thing is not everything.
Rather than trying to pinpoint The One Thing that will fix us, maybe if we focus on the whole of us, on all of that which makes us us, we’ll find that we don’t need to be fixed.
Thanks for reading my post, folks. There will be more to come about all of this, but I have some thinking to do.
I have been on a bit of a creativity bent of late, both in physical and mental pursuits, and this idea of the importance of creativity and self-expression was reinforced for me during this conference. Nature photography (the above photo was taken while I was in SD for the conference), reading, writing/storytelling, and exploring movement through play and fluidity (as opposed to mechanistic, prescribed movements) have been some of the creative pursuits that have dramatically improved my own pain management.
These are the themes that will all be running through my future posts.
I think ;)