In this beautiful essay, John Ptacek describes how he’s learned to live with the pain of chronic migraine without suffering. Want to share YOUR story? Submit it here.
Walking the Line Between Pain and Suffering
We learn to avoid pain at an early age. We are taught that hot irons, sharp objects and electrical outlets portend danger. Parents counsel children about such dangers, but sometimes the most effective teacher is pain itself. Pointed lectures are no match for a bright purple bruise. Incident by painful incident, we learn to sidestep misfortune through increasingly observant behavior.
We learn to avoid pain, but who teaches us to live with it? I, along with a billion and a half other people in the world dealing with chronic pain, could have benefited from a lesson or two on this subject.
We can all avoid trips to the emergency room by treading carefully on icy sidewalks and tucking in our fingertips when speed chopping carrots, but preventive strategies are of little use to people experiencing ongoing physical pain. People dealing with fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, migraine and a long list of other chronic conditions understand that their pain cannot be outwitted. They are chained to it, and probably forever.
The urge to resist pain is instinctive. What could be more natural than to hate hurt? One of my earliest memories of pain was the electric jolt of a bumblebee sting. I wailed hysterically as my mother patted a wet baking soda mixture around my throbbing thumb. I wondered how something so horrible could happen to me. All I did was touch a flower! This isn’t fair, I decided, unknowingly adding a layer of emotional distress to the mix. Soon, the pain went away, and along with it my existential uncertainty.
This rapid recovery cycle would repeat itself in coming years as I endured broken bones, concussions, pinched nerves, kidney stones, shingles and other assorted agonies. A “why me?” inner narrative often accompanied these events, but the pain passed too quickly for me to perceive that such mental resistance came with a price. That is, until the headaches showed up at my door.
Sometime in my fourth decade I started getting frequent headaches. At first I shrugged them off to my highly stressful job. Rather than seek medical attention, I started meditating, exercising and eating healthier. None of this put the slightest dent in my pain. In subsequent years, I sought the help of every traditional and alternative health care provider who might have even a remote chance of helping me. They gave it their best shot, but nothing helped. My headaches continued unabated. The lack of progress shuttled me off to a cold dark place familiar to chronic pain sufferers, a solitary space that is all but impossible to describe to outsiders for whom pain is a just passing affair.
Frustration at having to drag my evil friend around with me nearly every day compounded my painful existence. My mind had gotten in on the act, and now I had two fires to put out. Here’s the kind of nonstop chatter I had to endure: How much more of this can I take? If it gets any worse, how will I be able to work? Am I always going to be in pain? What’s the point in living? Why can’t these damn doctors do their jobs?
Anyone experiencing chronic pain knows what it’s like to be tuned in to this unnerving frequency. My unanswerable questions pitched me further and further into an unknowable future.
Even if someone would have counseled me early in life that embracing pain, rather than resisting it, was a winning strategy, I probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Wisdom can be baffling at first, and brilliant only later. And anyway wisdom can’t be taught. Moments of great anguish served as my bright purple bruises, and one day, I can’t say exactly when, I got wise to the voices in my head that were the cause my suffering. I achieved a degree of separation from them. I could still hear them, but it sounded like they were coming from the next room. Without really looking for it, I discovered that there was a dividing line between pain and suffering, and depending on how I walked that line, my situation could be either bad or much worse. Who knew bad could sound so good?
This dividing line can look awfully blurry when pain pins me to the mat. Because I am not at my rational best during such moments, I keep a note in my sock drawer reminding me not to push myself and to refrain from making important decisions. I also have a secret password to pull me up when I feel myself slipping into the pit of suffering: Allow. I allow the pain, and immediately suffering leaves the room. Without resistance, suffering cannot exist. That leaves just two of us in the room, me and my constant companion, locked in an uncomfortable but tolerable embrace.
Let me be clear. Pain is a rude and abusive house guest. No secret password will put it out on the street. I will be forever forced to cover its rent. But knowing this relieves me of my duty to resist it, and in that simple act of surrender, I know that I am opening myself up to all the goodness that life will allow.
Read more of John’s writing on his blog, On Second Thought, where he explores “the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness.” His writing is thoughtful and insightful.