A Poised Life With Pain

by Gary on May 22, 2014 in


bodypainAs 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

by Gary on May 22, 2014 in


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  1. Sarah, Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    All a warrior has are her challenges and her decisions, as I often repeat on this blog.
    Sarah, I hear you understanding your pain as a challenge, and I hear you learning how to make powerful decisions about how to respond to the pain and how to create the life you want. This is the warrior’s way.

    You tell us that you still feel anger and self-pity when the pain is severe, although your narrative here doesn’t indicate any anger or any self-pity as you reflect on your experience.

    I’d love to know if you think a future without self-pity is even possible for people who suffer severe pain? I think the quest for such a future would be worthy of a book I hope you will write. Gary

  2. People with chronic pain are not a uniform group, but rather a collection of individuals who happen to share the same label. Suggesting that people with illness are at a disadvantage in terms of self-development does a great disservice to anyone who strives to maintain a balanced life when faced with overwhelming challenges of any kind. Those of us with illness must overcome many additional challenges in order to achieve a “normal” life, let alone a life of idyllic spiritual contentment.

    I think a better question to ask would be “Is a future without self-pity possible for anyone?” and to that, I really don’t have an answer. Any setback in life can be turned into self-pity if we choose to do so and ultimately, we all decide how to respond to the events in our lives.

  3. Sarah and Gary,
    What an interesting and profound discussion, one that has much resonance in my life today as I watch a close family member in a fight for their life undergo periods of pain and discomfort that would put me into periods of great depression and self pity. What I see instead is a person able to take this challenge and turn it into an experience of great learning and self discovery. I see none of the sense of victimization that would descend of many others, I hear no “woe is me” as the fight against a fatal disease is mounted with no sure outcome of success for all the travail of the treatment and its aftermath. Instead I see a vibrancy and sense of possibility that is inspiring. From this perspective there is indeed a way to live a life devoid of self pity, I am witness to that.
    Nonetheless, it is a preternatural state of being to live Job’s life and not complain to God or whomever you pray to in the dark hours about your fate. It is unnatural to find the light heart inside the heaviness of disease. To see joy when your life is anything but joyous requires a awareness that seems beyond most. But I believe that the first step in that process is awareness and a desire to pull away from the quicksand of victimhood that saps our emotional strength, makes us feel dependent and needy, and denies us the firm emotional ground of maturity, self-reliance and gratitude. If I can reach the stage where I can dispassionately examine my weakness and resolve to conquer them I can find that place inside me where peace and confidence reign and happiness can follow. That would be a life devoid of self pity.

  4. Hi– Yes, great discussion and profound issues. Sarah- you wrote a compelling blog about your journey living with chronic pain and finding a larger frame for your self-identity. You offered useful tips that can apply to emotional pain as well. I hear Gary’s question as valid– Is it possible to have a future without self pity and deal with chronic pain? I don’t think this is meant to label people but does address a group within the world population that has a unique experience– one that many of us may age into– but whom now, can in no way understand.

    I have just been identified through x-ray with advanced degenerative arthritis in my lower back. Yet, at this point feel only some inconvenient stiffness which I address through exercise. The pain you describing dealing with every day is something very hard for me to relate to in terms of my own experience. I cannot feel what you feel.

    Yet I, as a student of poise, am always interested in examining obstacles to my staying present, connected, lighthearted, grateful and creative. As I have friends in my circle now, experiencing chronic pain, I often wonder how it is possible to stay poised amid the constant and harsh reminder of the body’s discomfort.

    So you, and other people with chronic pain, do, I think, have a deeper challenge to address in your life. This is not a label but a recognition that it is challenging enough to stay poised in the midst of life’s many triggers, and when intense pain is part of the equation, it seems more challenging than what I face. That’s why I thought your message was helpful and inspiring and would be especially so to people experiencing what you live through every day.

  5. My wife and I read Sarah’s blog on living with chronic pain and we can relate to most of the experiences and ideas she shared in her writing. My wife has dealt with chronic pain from a botched spinal fusion in May of 2008, I have witnessed the suffering she has gone through and the loss of poise at times that she has exhibited. I myself have lost poise and felt extremely guilty after saying something hurtful, mean or down right stupid. After reading Gary’s book I have stopped my self pity and feelings of being a victim. After all I am not the one in pain, I am the care giver. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult for my spouse to not feel self pity. She will say, “I just want to die, I cannot live like this any longer. I have ruined your life. I hate my life.” We have discussed trying to work on getting rid of our self pity. It is not easy for her to buy into those concepts. She states that by ranting, raving, and screaming about her situation, that it helps her to mentally and emotionally feel better. It is not something she does every day, but probably two or three times a month. Would wanting to commit suicide be an act of self pity? Would committing suicide be self pity?

    What can I do as a care giver? I hold her and tell her that I love her. I tell her I will be with her for ever. I am not leaving. I talk to her about the things in her life that she can be grateful for having. Her son, our dog, me, the view of the mountains, the birds, clouds, flowers, our friends, and movies. It is very difficult for her to feel grateful when she is moaning in pain after walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes. If she attempts to sit for more than 10 minutes she risks excruciating pain. Going to a movie can be out of the question. As the care giver I feel like I have almost eliminated my feelings of self pity. My wife and I are attempting to work on lessening her feelings of self pity. I am not sure she can actually accomplish ridding herself completely of self pity but she has agreed to try. I admire any person with chronic pain that is willing to pursue such a daunting task. I give my respect and thanks to Gary for helping us better deal with the challenges life has given us.

  6. Can we erase self-pity from our lives? Can we avoid self-pity and victimhood no matter how severe our challenges are?

    The Poised Life blog is devoted to exploring how to move from self-pity and victimhood to a state of consciousness that I call poise. Poised,we live without complaint. Sustaining our poise in the face of challenges, we say yes to life under all circumstances.

    Living without self-pity means that we take full responsibility for how we think and how we behave.

    Living without self-pity means that we don’t get angry or irritated anymore. We don’t resent anything. We don’t blame god, others, or circumstances for what we thinking and feeling right now.

    Living without self-pity takes the heart of a lion, but it is possible. People throughout history have challenged their own self-pity as a bad explanation for what is happening.
    They have sought a better explanation–a higher consciousness in which we don’t blame anybody else or anything else for the life we have.

    I believe that I have made that journey. In the past I was very capable of feeling sorry for myself and concocting false stories–victim stories–for whatever discomfort i was feeling.

    If I have a big challenge to face now, I take the Buddhist approach: Ah, now this.

    I have been inspired by many others who have lived without self-pity, and I have followed their lead to a sustained poise. In my book I tell what happened in the Nazi death camps of WWII. Prisoners lived in the most brutal, sadistic, and life crushing atmosphere imaginable. But some extraordinary prisoners, starving,ill, and weak, never stopped serving others. Their humanity did not waver. They gave dying prisoners their food. They gave assistance and love without thought for themselves. They made no complaint, but accepted their fate with composure and equanimity.

    Many men and women on the planet today live without self-pity. For me, theirs is a tremendous achievement. Let’s all imitate them so that we can live a vibrant life of joy and practical advantage. Gary