As a person who is successfully sustaining my poise most of the time, I have often wondered if I could remain poised in the face of terrible challenges like chronic physical pain. In the face of great pain could I stay present, connected, grateful, creative, and lighthearted? Could I avoid self-pity and victim-hood? I still don’t know how I would do, but I have a better knowledge of what I would face after reading Sarah Needles’ post. Welcome to Sarah, the first ever guest writer on The Poised Life blog.
A Poised Life with Pain
A few months ago, I was lying in a hospital bed at three in the morning, in darkness punctuated by the steady beeping of machines. Every part of my body ached with pain. I coughed for hours that night with no relief, feeling my lungs fill with fluid, each spasm sending a knife-blade through my abdomen. I lay in the dark, listening to my breath rattling in and out of my chest, wondering if the next time I started coughing, I wouldn’t be able to stop. How could I expect to find any kind of poise when every muscle in my body was screaming?
From the moment I was born, I have been in a tug-of-war with my body. I have scars that ache in the cold, surgical clips in my chest that burn during a change in the weather and any number of muscle pains from a lifetime spent contorting my body around its weakest points. Not to mention half a dozen surgeries and subsequent recoveries, twisted ankles and a bone marrow tap that still aches in the winter months.
Striving to maintain any kind of poise in the face of that much pain is a daunting challenge. I spent a long time running away from my pain, trying to lose it by burying myself in academic pursuits, in food, and in other people’s drama. Living in the world of books and schoolwork brought me temporary relief, but left me disassociated and out-of-touch with my body. Delicious food often exacerbated many of the symptoms I experienced. And, of course, trying to solve other people’s problems was a welcome excuse not to face my own.
It took me many years to realize how much I was selling myself short. I could run from my pain for only so long before my illnesses would bring me back to reality with a crash. Over and over, I had to learn that I couldn’t escape my body. Ultimately, I realized that I had a choice: I could spend my life hiding from pain, or I could learn how to accept it and move past it towards a richer, more honest life that wasn’t defined by my fear.
After plenty of mental hand-wringing, I chose the latter.
I started experimenting with mindfulness techniques, relearning how to remain in my body even when every instinct told me I should tune-out, numb-out with any number of distractions at my disposal. I changed what and how I ate, eliminating foods that made my symptoms worse and trying new recipes that gave my cell the nutrients they needed. Reluctantly, I started naming the things I was grateful for, even as my mind grumbled about everything that was still painful or wrong with my life.
I learned how to watch my emotions, and to view them as passing states of mind rather than an all-consuming reality. Just as there are many shades and nuances of pain sensation, so too are there variances in the emotions we label “good” or “bad.” I examined my fear, met the anger I was feeling with calm, and took the time to notice when I felt content.
In short, I started treating myself with compassion.
Rather than seeing my pain as an enemy to be beaten and my body as a broken machine that needed fixing, I practiced accepting each imperfect moment as what it was. I stopped tossing my emotions into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” and learned to dig for a deeper calm beneath the ever-shifting waves of my reactions.
I am by no means an expert, but for those looking to improve their ability to weather life’s storms and cope with discomfort in their lives, I can offer the following stepping stones as a place to begin:
Learn to be okay with discomfort.
Our instinctive wiring is to avoid pain at all costs, and for good reason. Standing with your hand on a hot stove for longer than one eighth of a second leads to unfortunate consequences. But there are some pains in our lives that are not easily dodged, if they can be avoided at all. Instead, we must find a way to coexist with them.
This is not an easy feat.
There are days when I am in so much pain that getting out of bed feels impossible. I feel anger, grief, and self-pity on a fairly regular basis. Rather than seeing these times as a failing in my quest for a perfect, balanced life, I try to accept them for what they are: a part of my reality.
When I learned to accept the fact that some days would feel harder than others, that I would not feel ecstatically happy all the time, I felt strangely lighter, better, freer. I don’t have to enjoy the challenging times, by any means, but I can learn to greet them with acceptance rather than hostility or resentment. By giving my body permission to have hard days, by accepting the fact that I will definitely feel fear and anger at some points in my life, I opened myself up to a greater range of appreciation for my life, in all its shades of grey.
See illness as one part of a greater whole.
Sometimes my schedule has felt like little more than an endless cycle of surgeries, doctor’s appointments and recoveries. Other times, in between sleeping and remembering to eat, I have felt chained to my phone, waiting for the latest test results or to hear back from a new specialist. In those moments, it is difficult to remember that my life is many things outside of my illness.
We all play many roles in our lives. Some of them we choose, and others we have no choice but to carry with us. I didn’t choose to be someone with chronic illness, and there are times when that label feels like the sum total of my life. However, there are other aspects of my identity that I value more: writer, partner, dog-lover, musician and advocate, to name a few. When I feel helpless in my role as a patient, I remind myself that it is only one of dozens of identities to which I lay claim, and that there are many other roles over which I have much more control.
I may not be able to change my test results, but I can love and care for my dog every day. While I can’t erase the scars or the surgical clips in my chest, I can choose to write and play music. While it is sometimes easier to over-identify with my pain and allow it to define me, I remind myself that I am far more than the physical make-up of my cells.
Ask for help
I am a fiercely independent person, and learning to admit that I couldn’t do everything alone was a huge blow to my ego. For years, I insisted on attending all my appointments alone, convinced that I didn’t need anyone else’s help. It wasn’t until I grudgingly allowed my partner to come to one, short test that I realized how much my pride had blinded me. Feeling supported as I navigate hospitals and meet dozens of physicians has made such a difference in my life. Having someone else around to drive the car, or take careful notes during a meeting with a specialist lifted a burden I didn’t realize I had been carrying for years. Looking back, I wish I had swallowed my pride and taken others up on their offers of help from the beginning.
I am also grateful for the help that was given to me without my asking: For the people who dedicated their lives to researching illnesses like mine, to the medical students who learned how to perform the surgeries that saved my life; to the nurses who, despite my poor attitude at times, cared for me when I was at my most vulnerable. As much as I want to be strong enough to go it alone, I owe my life and my well-being to the expertise of strangers, and for that I will always be grateful.
Celebrate the small joys
As I write this, a breeze is playing through the wisteria tree outside the window, blowing the perfume of pink blossoms through the screen into the house. It is a warm spring afternoon, with just a hint of rain on the horizon. My head is aching from the change in weather pressure, but I can acknowledge that fact, while also enjoying the beauty that is only a few feet away.
With my conditions, it is highly doubtful that I will ever win a triathlon or scuba dive to discover a sunken wreck. However, I can enjoy hiking with my dog along the beach, or the feel of sunlight on my bare arms. Having lived through times in my life when many of these pleasures weren’t possible has taught me to savour the moments when I can enjoy them.
Tasks as simple as lifting a shovel to dig over a garden bed, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or feeling warm water on my wrists as I wash the dishes are proof that I’m still alive and able to do the things I enjoy. Knowing that there may come a time when those things may be once again out of my reach gives me even more motivation to celebrate the small things as they happen.
So how, then, did I find poise during that long, awful night in the hospital?
I counted my breaths. I timed my breathing to the beeping of the machines, and acknowledged my fear as it ran over the surface of my mind. I noticed how my muscles stayed clenched even after a coughing fit had passed, and gently coaxed them into relaxing. I mentally probed the edges of my pain, and found it to be just bearable if I took everything one moment at a time, one breath at a time.
After many hours, I finally dozed off. Then I woke the next morning to find that my lungs had cleared a little and that I had enough strength to stand and walk. As I left the hospital later that day, the rain fell in curtains over the city and I rolled down the car window to lean out into the air, feeling cold and very much alive.
Bio: Sarah Needles lives on Vancouver Island. She blogs about books, gender identity, queer culture and chronic illness. You can find more of her work at www.sarahneedles.com