Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).
  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.
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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.

 

 

 

 

Laid Bare By a Questionnaire

Talking to a stranger about ourselves can (sometimes) be fun at a party or on a first date; cathartic when the stranger is receptive or being paid to listen; marginally OK/not OK standing in line at the grocery store; and downright disconcerting when the inquiry is particularly personal and your life kinda sorta depends on how you answer.

In preparation for my hip replacement on Wednesday, a surgical nurse called Friday to ask me questions about my medical history. Even the blogger in me, whose “job” is to write stuff about my life and share it with strangers, is unnerved by the medical interview because who doesn’t want to bring their best to an interview?

Martha, the surgical nurse, seemed very nice. She’d had her hip replaced last year, so she was empathetic. She started with the easy questions. Well, easy questions to answer, but not so easy to feel inside. Date of birth? How tall am I? How much do I weigh…? Apparently “Not what I’d like to” isn’t the right answer. Old habits die hard, and I made an excuse for being overweight again and vowed to her (reminder, she is a complete stranger who I’ll never meet) that I would lose 50 pounds once I had a new hip.

I could hear her typing and she offered no response, so of course I thought, ‘Crap, maybe she’s overweight, too, and I’ve insulted her!’, but I didn’t go there. Apologizing would maybe have furthered an even bigger cluster f*** than I’d potentially created.

My mind was everywhere it didn’t need to be at that point.

*deep breath*

Martha moved on. She asked about what surgeries I’ve had, how my various body systems were functioning, and how I responded to anesthesia. I gave short, succinct answers. She didn’t need to know that after I had my tonsils out, when I as 17, when I woke up after surgery, I lifted up the sheet and cried, “I’m naked! I want my mom!”

Martha asked if I had children. I said I did. God love Martha, I dodged a bullet when she asked, “When were your babies born?” I answered, without hesitation and with a deep breath out, “1983 and 1984.” In prior medical interviews, the question was phrased, “How many times have you been pregnant?” That’s a red-flag question for anyone who has had a miscarriage or abortion, and the response can trigger a shit-ton of regret and sad feelings. Thank you, Martha, for not making me go there.

Any depression or anxiety issues? Well, now, that’s complicated. I blabbed on for a while, giving her way more info than she probably needed, but then, I wanted her (again, a complete stranger) to understand that I wasn’t always depressed or anxious, and that lately, things were going well and…and… and… She listened patiently, and when I was finished, she simply said, “Take an Ativan the day of your procedure.” End of convo.

There’s so much about our lives we want to keep private, and it’s in our protective nature that we don’t want to offer full disclosure about things that, to non-medical folks like me, don’t seem relevant when being interviewed for a hip replacement. Just like a job interview, you want to stay upbeat and say what you need to in order to get the job.

Was I 100 percent truthful? Not really. But I doubt that the joint(s) I smoked when I was 16 (to 24) preclude me from getting this hip. I’ve had five other surgeries since that last high and I’m alive to tell the story.

Just don’t tell Martha, OK? (Or my mom.)