Painful Lessons

I’ve had a headache for over a week.

Before you start lobbing “go to the doctor” bombs at my head, please be aware that I’m neither stupid nor a glutton for pain. I just know my body and this is one of the many daily, chronic headaches that I’ve experienced since I was in the seventh grade. The quality and intensity of the pain is exactly the same, if it is running longer than normal. It’s not a migraine, and, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “It’s naht ah tooomah!” This isn’t new to me.

But it IS painful.

The pain, in a sick and twisted way, is a teacher of sorts. Sometimes effective, sometimes dysfunctional. But I’ve definitely learned a few things from pain.

One thing I’ve learned in my years of dealing with sustained pain and pressure in my skull is that it is possible to compartmentalize a heckuva lot of sensory input and feedback in order to focus on the immediate moment. This ability can be key to getting things done in really crappy circumstances. It can also be a crutch to get from one moment to the next. But it can fail, spectacularly, at exactly the wrong moment. So it isn’t a one-stop solution. But it’s a good, occasional-use tool.

Another trick I’ve learned from pain is that smiling can often avert an embarrassing, technicolor return of one’s last meal. That is, smiling can sometimes thwart the gag reflex and keep you from puking long enough to get to a bathroom. Smiling is also useful to mask the outward effects of a grinding, low-level, always-there pain. That’s a necessary art, because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that invisible pain is the slippery slope to ridicule and derision. If people can’t see a wound or scar, they tend to think you’re a goldbrick or hypochondriac and treat you as less-than. So, smiling through the ache can be a useful trick to preserve one’s dignity on a number of levels.

Yet, it takes a toll–the pain and smiling through it–it has a fairly high price that eventually comes due. Patience and good humor inevitably wear thin. Energy and will power last only so long before they have to be recharged. Managing mouth, emotions and pain tolerance simultaneously is a tricky business at the best of times. But when nearing the end of patience or energy reserves, it’s a whole ‘nuther level of delicate. I’ve learned over the years to pay attention to those subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints from the folks around me that my tone or wit is a shade too sharp; for me that’s a sure sign it’s time to retrench on the rest and self-care.

But through all of this, pain teaches that we are each stronger, more than our circumstances, each of us able to cope with an amazing amount of adversity if we are careful to balance grit with rest, determination with discretion. And it can teach those outside of the pain, too. You who observe the pain of others, know that ‘pushing through it’, ‘sucking it up’ is often more an act of courage than capability. Try not to judge too harshly when someone’s batteries run low and sucking it up no longer works.

So what’s the point of this post?

The short answer for those who hurt: Listen to your body, take care of it, and be kind to yourself.

The slightly longer answer for those who see the pain of others: Don’t assume from a smile or pleasant voice that a person isn’t suffering (physically or emotionally). Pay attention to what someone is not doing or saying for a clue to what pain might be doing to them, and be sensitive to their efforts to make it work.

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3 comments so far

  1. LillianC on

    Why are we compelled or expected to be happy all the time, just like the family in some demented laundry detergent commercial? Why can’t we just be how we are, with appropriate civility? I had a chronic pain problem for years. Tired and hurting came across as impatient and hostile, even to my family who knew I had the problem. You’re right. All we can do is hang on until we can go to the place where we rest and recharge.

  2. MainelyButch on

    “Managing mouth, emotions and pain tolerance simultaneously is a tricky business at the best of times. But when nearing the end of patience or energy reserves, it’s a whole ‘nuther level of delicate.” ….you put that perfectly! I am also one who has those “invisible” injuries that keep me in constant, chronic pain. I have actually resorted to monthly visits to the pain clinic per my PCP’s recommendation; so they are now managing my pain killers, etc. Without anything to calm it down I can be a real MFer to deal with, and very short fused! So I can certainly relate to this post! Thanks for sharing! 😀 ~MainelyButch

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      Ha, glad you liked that bit. Best if luck with your pain management. It can be a godsend.


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