“To goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.”
I was 32 when chronic pain changed my life. I know many people who experience worse suffering than the pain that comes with my cracked vertebra…but when it’s your pain, and you have it all the time, it feels consuming. I know what it’s like not to be present in the moment because I’m counting the minutes until I can lie down and take painkillers. I know what it’s like to plan my days around pain, to quit activities I used to enjoy, and to struggle with the simplest daily tasks.
When it became clear I was an addict with a capital A and needed to go the abstinence route, I felt so sorry for myself. My black-and-white thinking painted the future as an infinite desert of unrelieved pain and bleak depression. It felt unfair. I had to change my attitude a lot to have a chance at staying clean.
When I went to rehab for the last time (well, let’s hope it was the last time) doctors told me that overuse of meds had screwed up my pain processing system to the point that my body was creating and amplifying some of the pain. They said for every year I had used narcotic painkillers, it would take about a month clean to figure out what my true pain level was. I’d used them for eleven years. So the first year of recovery was going to suck pretty badly.
Today, I can say with gratitude that the doctors were right. Though chronic pain is still part of my life, my average pain level is far lower than before I got clean. It gets bad occasionally, but “bad” now is what was normal back then. That’s only my story, of course. I got lucky.
Living with chronic pain, like living with mental illness or being in recovery, opens us to trying things that might not have been on our agenda if life had stayed “normal.” Spiritual exploration. Meditation. Trying to find and do small things that give pleasure. Examining our ideas about what we are if we’re not our jobs or our productivity. All of you who let pain steer you into a quest for growth inspire me: how amazing that we perform, however imperfectly, this mysterious alchemy that turns pain and despair into something beautiful.
Thanksgiving Day is over for another year. There’s no big drama in my family during it, but I still tend to find it overwhelming in terms of socializing and food. When I listen to others describe the stress they sometimes feel, the theme of differences stands out.
Sometimes, when interacting in this kind of environment, we become hyperaware of our differences because we feel a pressure to do one of two things with our differences: explain them or minimize them.
Take food, for example. Every year I hear fellow compulsive eaters, or diabetics, or anyone who needs to follow a certain way of eating for their health and well-being, talk about dreading temptation and/or pressure to eat outside their normal plan. They also dread trying to explain or answer questions about why they choose to follow the plan they do, or justify following that plan instead of what someone else recommends.
I’m so used to not eating what others do that I don’t feel too much specific dread about this, but it does highlight my feelings of being set apart from those who can eat “normally.”
Then there are those of us in recovery who cringe at the thought of being around family members who still drink or use other substances. We make judgment calls about what to attend, make survival plans, and generally experience the holiday as a guarded foray through dangerous territory.
Congratulations to all my kindred spirits who have just come through this. May we be kind to ourselves as we use whatever tools we favor to shore up any cracks in our defenses and restore our connection to the way our differences define and evolve us.
I anthropomorphize the general phenomenon of addiction; many of us do. Especially as we struggle with abstaining, it can be helpful. You want to resent something? Resent that. You need somewhere to direct your rage, your hatred, your frustration? Hate the thing that wants you dead; that wants us dead. Hate the thing that wants to eat your soul and replace it with its eternal craving.
It’s not that we deny our responsibility for our situation or our duty to keep fighting. But in the midst of the humility we need to seek and find, sometimes we need to rebel. So yes, I welcome the rage and the rebellion sometimes.
I recently spent time in the hospital with an addict who has been on dialysis for years and has now just had open heart surgery. Still on methadone, she has the accompanying high tolerance for pain meds. I listened to her repeated begging for more medication as the pain resisted treatment. I watched her be in the power of nurses–some kind, some not–who questioned the validity of every request.
I watched her frail body curling in on itself, like a leaf curling and withering in a flame. I could almost see addiction as the fire in which she burned.