Monday, 20 October 2008



A friend of mine came down very suddenly with Rheumatoid Arthritis last year. Not surprisingly she's been finding it hard to go from being average healthy to living with chronic pain. She posed a question to myself and her other internet friends - How do you cope with ongoing pain?

I don't think there's any one right answer, but here's my own thoughts on the topic. ..

I think I've known, but fought, the answer for a long time. It's both simple and very difficult. I think you surrender.

Not give up - just surrender.

Years ago (decades actually) I read about this in a magazine, but I didn't understand then. It was an article written by a man who had been in a Russian prison/work camp. He explained that the inmates and himself found a way to manage pain (apparently the camp dealt in torture as well as hard labour and deprivation). They managed their pain by learning to love it, he said.

I thought that was just NUTS, but it was such a weird idea that it stuck in my head all this time.

My first real experience of pain was about eleven years ago after my op to have my left ovary removed. I started having terrible lower back and stomach pain if I lay down. I went for all sorts of tests = nothing = doctors sent me home with pain killers. I was so ANGRY. I wanted results and cures, not pain killers! So I did my own research, found a chiropractor who did acupuncture as well, and sorted it out.

That's what I've done my whole life, one way or another I fix things myself. I don't trust others to do it properly and I don't rely on anyone. I have a problem - I get angry - I fix it.

But in my thirties getting angry started to be too tiring. I'm a Leo, we do righteous anger beautifully. Injustice makes us ROAR and fills us with fire, but plain old garden variety anger is different. Long term anger at life just sucks the life out of you and that includes anger at pain. Plus there's another kicker that my mom knew, but I hadn't realised connected to all pain. It's the fact that tension makes pain worse.

My mom has often told the story how she never had pregnancy classes when she was pregnant with me. They were a new idea back then and expensive. My mom asked her friends and family who'd already had children for any advice and one of them told my mom, "Just relax." ...and that's exactly what my mom. In fact she relaxed so much that the nurses even commented on it to the doctor when I was being born. Instead of being a screwed up screaming ball of tension with every contraction my mom was a rag doll that let the pain wash over and through her... and away.
That''s the thing those people in that Russian camp had figured out as well - you tense up and the pain increases. Relaxing might not make it vanish, but it does ease it and it makes it more likely to wash through you and away. It's back to that word I got in my Mayan birth calculator - surrender.

The more you let go and surrender... the easier things become, even pain.

Of course the next step for the Russians was loving their pain. That idea - loving your pain - freaked me out. It still does to a degree. I "get" the logic of loving pain, I understand how surrendering to it cuts the tension that makes it worse, but when I'm in pain for long I just want it to STOP - to GO AWAY.

It's been a while, but from what I remember in that article on the Russians they worked on telling their pain how they loved it for warning their bodies that something was wrong, because pain really is nothing more than a warning system. Our body didn't invent it to make us suffer, it invented it to warn us that something was wrong so that we could fix it. Basically the brain relaying messages like, "You feel extreme pain in your hand? Maybe you should take it off the hotplate?" really fast. Chronic pain is just a smoke alarm that doesn't understand it's in a smoker's lounge. The trick is making your brain understand that the smoke is there to stay so you really don't need the alarm going off 24/7.

Getting angry at the smoke alarm doesn't help anymore than getting angry at chronic pain does. In fact it's not even fair. Pain really is our friend - it only wants to keep us safe. When we fight it we're going against the whole reason it's there in the first place... and I'm beginning to think that that's where the Russians had their breakthrough. They learnt ways to thank pain for warning them and through that they managed to find a way to turn the alarms off, even when the smoke-and-fire situation was real.

But what about the kind of pain that's more subtle and not based on literal things like illness, accidents or being tortured like the Russians.

I'm also beginning to suspect that there's a connection between people who don't like their bodies, or themselves, and auto-immune diseases and/or chronic pain conditions. People who think of their bodies/self as their enemy rather than their friend. How can your body repair itself if you're the type who "beats yourself up" about things? Look at that phrase and really think about it - it implies self-harm at the most fundamental level - our subconscious. Would it be any surprise if a brain constantly told it was the enemy might short it's wiring and set off pain alarms constantly?

I'm still not sure what the "magic key" is that opens the door to setting pain free, but I do know that the first step is to stop fighting it and stop seeing it as the enemy.



Genie said...

I refuse to take narcotics for my pain. I'm saving those for when and if it becomes unbearable.

To deal with it now, I've had to learn my limits. I know what shoes won't make me unhappy, I know that sometimes when I get a very bad headache that all I really need to do is lie down for a few minutes and this usually eases the headache, when I'm especially grouchy I probably need to eat, I've learned that stress makes my pain much much worse and so I've learned how to eliminate as many of life's stresses as possible. I screen my calls so I don't get stuck on the phone talking about stuff I have no interest in. I turn down invites to parties where I know I will be physically uncomfortable. I learned how to say no. If it's something I can do without taxing myself, fine. But I have no interest in wearing myself out and having to spend the next three days recovering because I was guilted into serving beans at a barbeque. I have to get better, that means I have to rest my body, avoid stress, and only participate in those things that make me feel BETTER after I do them and not worse.

I make a point of taking myself out on dates to things that I know will fill me with joy. A slow walk in a part of town I'm not familiar with to take photos can bring me a lot of good energy. Joy is a great pain killer.

A simple horseback riding lesson with a good and patient teacher might be uncomfortable but it doesn't have to hurt. Being around animals is so healing. Going fishing really gets those endorphins flowing--if the fishing is good. Speaking of endorphins--some gentle sex with a loving partner (or yourself) can really be relaxing and can do a great job of pain control.

Creating through art, photography, music, or writing is a fantastic way to get out of the body and into spirit.

Turning up the music and just moving your body however you can, no matter how limited, can lift morale and the spirit.

I don't watch dramas and downer movies anymore, and I don't read those kinds of stories. I want movies and books that take me to a better, higher, happier place. Young Adult Fiction has a lot of wonderful stories that are light enough and fun enough, no matter how serious, not to drag an already drained person down any further.

Having a loved one or a trained masseuse work you over can be so profoundly merciful to an aching body. The body, despite its suffering, is reminded that it is loved by a caring pair of hands working it over. No one around who can massage? No problem. Just ask a loved one to place their hands on the spots that hurt and direct good energy into those spots. Everybody has some ability to lay their hands on another and bring comfort. Touch is an extremely powerful tool

Lastly, having a conversation with, say, a specific affected joint can be very powerful, "Listen pinky finger, I know you are trying to get my attention and tell me something is wrong. But I heard you already. I know there's a problem and I'm working on it, I won't stop working on it. So I need you to decrease your warning signal down to about 10% so that I don't forget there's a problem but also so I don't have to suffer so much. The pain is completely distracting me from working on the cure. So BACK OFF!

Just some thoughts.

Unknown said...

You must be on to something here. My own experience with this comes from the winters in this area--they can become awfully cold, and with that cold, your mouth freezes, your nostrils freeze shut, your eyes tear up, your hands stop functioning and your body is wracked with the cold, and it stiffens with the winter's chill.

This cold can be quite painful if one is not dressed properly, but I found that, by simply accepting the fact that it's cold and there isn't anything I can do about it, the load is lightened.

I should hope I shan't have to take the next step.

Blur Ting said...

This is really enlightening. My mum has been suffering from chronic pain all her life. Recently it has gotten worse because of her tumour. I can't help her or advise her very much and the doctors can't seem to do anything to help. She end up hating her body and wish she could just end her suffering. Sometimes she asks what she had done to deserve this. If only she can change her perspective, maybe life will be more bearable.

74WIXYgrad said...

Michelle, I had to take this post in a couple of times to get your message and I know what you mean about surrender. It's not about letting the pain take control over your life, but letting it present new opportunities in your life.

I have arthritis in my neck and sometimes have a problem when I am stopped at an intersection that comes at an angle other than 90 degrees, much so that I almost caused an accident recently. My car has a remote controlled side view mirror, and I now use this to my advantage at those intersections.

Necessity being the mother of invention, one could use a situation for good and possibly come up with something to make life a little easier for some who come up with the same situation in the future.

Connie said...

Michelle, you are so right about pain being made worse by tension and stress. Scceptance of what is and relaxing really are the keys. Several ways that I have found to relax include listening to music I enjoy, going for walks in a peaceful place, practicing yoga, meditating, and praying. All of these things make me more serene and at peace. And being more at peace for me is how I relax. Just being able to focus and think about something other than the pain really helps too like being able to escape into a really good book that you love.

Genie said...

On a whim I looked up RA in my copy of Louise Hay's, "You Can Heal Your Life" and she says that a probable cause is "Deep criticism of authority. Feeling very put upon." Her recommended affirmation for it is, "I am my own authority. I love and approve of myself. Life is good."

Michelle said...

Thank you, dear friends, for all the replies and advice.

I'm sorry I haven't been answering everyone personally lately - I appreciate every comment, but haven't been keeping up recently. Will try to ammend that!

Genie - thank you especially for your ideas. I will be passing them on, as well as the rest here, to my friend. :-)

Ting - my love and prayers for you and your mom.

... and (((hugs))) all round for achey sore people! :-)

Amel said...

WOW! This is a marvelous post, M! THANKS A LOT for sharing! It really opens up my mind!

Michelle said...

Thank you, Amel. Sharing with others on this topic has certainly made me realise a lot myself.

Amel said...

I think that's one of the beauties of writing: that you realize many more things when you're writing it he he he...

And boy I LOVE getting enlightenment when writing or reading other people's posts or reading anything he he...