Making Peace With Pain

Making Peace With Pain

War is Hell. . .

Being at war with our pain is a no-win proposition. I have lived with chronic pain for a long time and I still remember being at war with it…and what it cost me. I’m grateful for the people on my journey that helped me see the futility of fighting my pain.

I’m hoping this report will help if you need to make peace with your own pain or help you understand what someone else is going through if you’re trying to help them.

Seeing pain as the enemy is self-defeating proposition. Our pain system is the first line of defense against danger and damage from our environment. As you’ll learn later, ending the fight is the first step toward making a lasting peace. Many people see pain as the enemy when, in fact, it is really a friend. Pain tells us something is wrong and needs our attention.

Unfortunately, people suffering with their pain can develop a pattern of complaining about it. Many of the people I’ve worked with over the years have shared some very common complaints:

  • My healthcare provider doesn’t really understand what I’m going through.
  • My doctor says my pain can’t be as bad as I’m saying it is.
  • My family doesn’t understand what I’m dealing with.
  • People think I’m making it up or exaggerating.
  • My pain is killing me.
  • It’s not fair.
  • Why me?

I, for one, really do understand what it’s like; it’s one of the major reasons people love working with me. At the time of this writing, I had been living with chronic pain for over three decades. I can remember the early years when I suffered with it. Please believe me when I tell you I never want to return to that bleak time of my life when pain controlled and consumed me.

I can honestly say I have not suffered with my pain for over twenty-eight years and I can do this because of what I’ve learned and what I teach others.

I now consider the pain I live with on a daily basis as my friend. Maintaining a positive relationship with pain has enabled me to accomplish many things. I offer my experience and hope to those who might be feeling lost and helpless because of their current relationship to pain, as well as those who want to learn more so they can help a loved one or in a professional capacity.

Many people see pain as the enemy when, in fact, it is really a friend. Pain tells us something is wrong and needs our attention.-Stephen Grinstead

Getting the Most from the Journey

If you want to get the most out of this article, I encourage you to keep a notebook or journal handy. Some of you may want to do this electronically or even use a recorder – whatever works for you is fine. Use the journal to write down your thoughts, feelings and experiences when something strikes you as important. You will discover that reflecting on what you’ve learned will lead you toward a more positive future.

Make a commitment to set aside a specific period of time each day (or for some of you who can’t commit to daily, at least 3-4 times per week) that you spend reading through this material and writing in your journal. Try for at least 30 minutes per sitting, but not more than an hour or two at the most.

I will also share stories about other people I’ve met and worked with over the years who were on their personal chronic pain management journey. I’ll tell you how they overcame their challenges and recaptured their hope. Many of them were facing much more difficult problems than mine.  It was an honor, as well as a privilege, to guide them through their healing process and support them as they made peace with pain.

Back to the Beginning: My Early Years

Like many people, my story begins well before the painful injury I experienced. I have a history that made me who I am today. The lessons I learned in childhood, adolescence and adult life all shaped how I reacted to my life-changing industrial accident.

I was born in 1950 in Pueblo, Colorado and was the first of nine boys. My parents were both 19-years-old when I was born and we traveled a lot during my first few years of life. Dad was an electrician and work was very scarce in Southern Colorado where we lived. Before the age of four, we had already lived in five or six states.

After my parents had three children, Mom stopped traveling with Dad, so they bought a new house in Pueblo. It was a good neighborhood for kids. There was lot of open space and places for me, my brothers and friends to play. There were also a lot of places where kids could (and did) get hurt – cuts, scrapes, bumps and bruises.

What I’m going to share is meant to explain – not blame – how I developed the relationship I did with my experience of pain. My parents had completely different reactions when I got hurt. Mom would give attention and nurturing that sometimes included medication. On the other hand, Dad was old-school; he believed and taught me that “real men” don’t acknowledge or let others see that you’re in pain.

At the age of 5, I remember going on a fishing trip with Dad and some of his friends. They chased me around and I got away by jumping off a cliff. I sprained my ankle and cried. I can still remember Dad saying “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.  Stevie, real men don’t cry.”

I love my Dad. He said what he did because he honestly believed he was helping me and making me tough. Unfortunately, it hurt a lot and I felt ashamed. I learned to hide my pain and emotions from other men…and even from myself. As an adult, it took many years before I could make peace with this and begin sharing my physical and/or emotional pain with other men.

At the age of 12, a major turning point happened as I was playing sandlot football with my cousins and friends. I fell onto a concrete post stand and injured my back. In the emergency room they gave me a shot of Demerol. It not only stopped the pain, but it made me feel “really good.” They sent me home with a prescription for Tylenol/Codeine.

Being the oldest son, I was very much an overachiever and had the role of “family hero.” I had a lot of stress in school and felt responsible for my younger brothers. But when I took those pain medications, I noticed I could relax. I felt so good – I could escape. It also helped me sleep better.

During this time, I also received a lot of nurturing from Mom and my Grandmother.

Pain Pills and Alcohol Don’t Mix – But I Wanted Them To

Over the years, I was often injured playing sports or just playing rough. I don’t believe I consciously lied or exaggerated, but I was a very good “doctor shopper” and always got pain pills at medical appointments. A huge shift happened when I was 13; I discovered the benefits of mixing pain pills with alcohol.

Normally people adhere to the warning labels that detail dangers of mixing alcohol and pain pills, particularly the line “alcohol may intensify the effects.” When I saw that, everything inside me said “YES!” My alcohol and pain pill use significantly increased after that and continued this way for the next 16 years until enough was enough and I decided to stop both.

The amazing thing was that most people didn’t even realize what a big problem I had. I don’t ever remember trying to hide my alcohol or pill use and heaven knows most of my family and social circle were heavy drinkers. I even remember saying if I ever think it’s a problem, I’ll just stop. Problem is; I never saw the problem on my own. It wasn’t until my daughter’s school counselor called and suggested it was something I should consider looking at.

I was almost 30, working as a construction electrician and training heavily in Karate. I was physically very active and had plenty of opportunities to hurt myself. Many of my fellow Karate practitioners would pass around pain pills in the dojo like candy. Someone was always getting injured. It was the same with work friends and alcohol; everybody drank a lot.

Out of the Problem and Into the Solution

At this point, I made the decision to stop alcohol and pain pills – I found recovery. I struggled that first year, but eventually got serious and received the help I needed.

My life was back on track; I was in my early 30s and believed anything was possible…until the day I was seriously injured.-Stephen GrinsteadMy life was back on track; I was in my early 30s and believed anything was possible…until the day I was seriously injured.

After my injury, I lost all hope of ever teaching the martial arts again. My dream was to open my own Karate Dojo and teach other people the art that I had learned to love with a great passion. I became so depressed that I seriously considered ending my life.

I’m grateful I didn’t give into those feelings of hopelessness and suffering. Instead, I made a decision to live the best life I could with what I had, which required an intense grieving process that took almost three years. Today, I can honestly say I have the life of my dreams and I continue to live it to the fullest. But I had to come out of a very dark place before I found hope.

Grief, Loss and Depression

People living with chronic pain sometimes develop an automatic and unconscious way of coping; they slip into what I call the chronic pain trance. This manifested in me as a hopeless/helpless mindset and a mistaken belief that my life was over. I couldn’t believe – or even see – a new future for myself or that I had anything worthwhile to live for.

The chronic pain trance was a dark and difficult place for me, especially when I could hardly even walk a half block. Pain, in particular chronic pain, is an emotional condition, as well as a physical sensation. It is a complex experience that affected my thoughts, mood, and behaviors; it led to isolation, immobility, and sometimes the risk of relapse. A quick response was necessary to lessen the risk of these potential life threatening consequences. I also had a responsibility to myself and those I cared about – especially my daughter – to break through this trance.

I remember my days in the U.S. Marine Corps when we woke up every morning with a bugle playing Reveille, which comes from the French word for “wake up.” If only waking up from my chronic pain trance was as simple as responding to a bugle call.

The first step in moving past this was to process my intense feelings of grief and loss around my prior level of functioning.  For this, I needed professional help and sought out a therapist who was able to guide me through some of my major trauma resolution and working through my grieving process.  In the early days, the first few years anyway, I was still struggling and suffering with my pain.  I needed to learn how to stop suffering before I could fully resolve my grieving process.

The chronic pain trance was a dark and difficult place for me, especially when I could hardly even walk a half block.-Stephen Grinstead

Pain Versus Suffering

I learned that chronic pain is often associated with perceived endless, meaningless suffering. Often, this suffering seems inseparable from the physical pain a person experiences and can influence the way they express their pain.  I know this was true for me – it kept me stuck.

The psychological meaning that people assign to a physical pain signal will determine whether they simply feel pain (Ouch, this hurts!) or experience suffering (Because I hurt, something awful or terrible is happening!). Although pain and suffering are often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction to be made. Pain is an unpleasant signal (sometimes very unpleasant) telling people that something is wrong with their body. Suffering results from the meaning or interpretation the brain assigns to the pain signal.

What is my pain trying to tell me? Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the pain generator, and as human beings, we want to know why something is happening and we want to know “right now.”

When we’re in pain, a more important question to ask ourselves is: What do I need to do right now, to manage my pain in a healthier way that supports me physically, emotionally and spiritually?

The answer will be different for each person.

But what if we can’t answer that question because our chronic pain has become unmanageable, no matter what we try? This brings us to a back to our discussion of pain versus suffering. The psychological meaning that we assign to a physical pain signal will determine whether we simply feel pain (Ouch, this hurts!) or experience suffering (This pain is awful and will just keep getting worse; this is terrible and why is it happening to me!).

Remember pain and suffering are often used interchangeably, so in order to avoid suffering we need to make the distinction – words have power! We need to remind ourselves that pain is a physical sensation, a warning sign telling us that something is going on in our bodies – and we need to listen. Suffering results when we amplify or distort this with our thinking and feeling response.

We can develop a lot of mistaken beliefs when we get caught up in the chronic pain trance. Many of those beliefs are what lead us – and keep us – in a suffering mindset.

A big step toward effective chronic pain management occurs when we can identify and change our perceptions, thoughts and beliefs about our pain, which in turn decreases our stress, uncomfortable emotions and overall suffering.

It was my referral to psychotherapy that allowed me to finally separate out pain versus suffering. It was a long and emotionally painful journey. Many times during this period of self-discovery, I felt sorry for myself and wanted to give up. I became seriously depressed and went on antidepressants to help me through this dark time.

I am so grateful that I had a well-developed support network of people who believed in me and wanted to support me as I traveled the road from surviving to thriving. They would not give up on me, even when I tried to push them away or hide. They reminded me that, even though this was my own journey, I didn’t have to do it alone. Their help was integral in finding peace with my pain and freedom from suffering.

In the final section, I’ll talk more about the difference between pain and suffering. Truly understanding the concept of pain versus suffering has been the most important discovery in my own journey of chronic pain management; it was a process I went through, not a one-time event. It was my start to finding meaning and purpose again.

Next week in the second installment of Making Peace With Pain, we’ll discuss finding meaning and purpose in life, along with the process of moving from despair to hope.

Images Courtesy of iStock/Shutterstock