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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.