The minor pains of my childhood consisted of periodic doses of castor oil, applying iodine to cuts and scrapes or receiving the dreaded enema. My mother, of blessed memory, explained these interventions this way: “It’s good for what ails you.” It was like I’ve heard preachers tell a grieving congregation: “It’s God’s will.” Glib explanations don’t clarify anything, but they sure end the discussion.
I’ve written about my recent experience with severe pain. Since pain and suffering are, as one writer put it, one of the “non-negotiables of life,” it’s better to talk about them than ignore them.
I’ve come some distance from the pain, enough so to view my experience in a new way. What did the experience teach me?
David Mercier, regional teacher and practitioner of alternative medicine, advises us that our body’s symptoms are messages. We should listen to them. They are trying to tell us what we need to know. This formula also applies to the pain and suffering involving spiritual and psychological matters. Treat seriously what you feel and talk about it.
Pain and suffering aren’t necessarily identical. Say you feel pain in your lower abdomen. You’ve had it for a long time and thought little of it. A neighbor mentions that her mother had a similar pain. It was diagnosed cancer. She soon died. Your pain now becomes suffering. You can’t sleep, you’re fearful, constantly filled with dread. You see a doctor. “Gas” he concludes. The intensity of the pain remains but, in a roundabout way, your gas has relieved the suffering.
How we think about our pain can aggravate or minimize suffering.
In reflecting on my own recent circumstances, I’m not sure my suffering was significant. It was pain. As I look back, I see a pattern. My first reaction to pain was to numb it, to make it go away. The second was to try fooling it. The third was to fight it.
The pain was sufficiently intense to warrant opioids. They numbed the pain. I couldn’t use the usual analgesics. They were contraindicated because of other medications I am taking. I became addicted quickly, but subtly. I’d always assumed the seductions of opioids were like heroin, the coveted high it first offers, the rush. I never experienced euphoria. The opioids helped me sleep, as many as fourteen hours a day. I welcomed sleep as my escape from the pain. Instinctively I grew suspicious and stopped taking opioids. I had classic withdrawal; severe flu-like symptoms, eyes that watered all the time, and edginess. The learning for me about addiction was that wanting the high, the rush, may not be the greatest seduction in addictions. It may be the numbing they offer, particular for psychological and spiritual pain.
There are diseases we can’t cure. To ease their suffering, we manage them. Wisdom and compassion are classic management tools.
Pain made me self-absorbed. I’d hardly be aware of anything, but the pain. I mention this to say that this is normal and this self-preoccupation should cause no shame. I also mention this to offer comfort for caregivers of the afflicted: the self-absorption can cause their charges to be selfish, combative and to put it bluntly, downright snotty. (I offer this simply as helpful information, not personal disclosure.)
When proper analgesics were prescribed, pain became more manageable and my new challenge was not to numb pain anymore, but to avoid it. The task? Outfox it.
I worked this new strategy like an art, as one practices yoga; seeking just that right posture to maximize one’s skeletal and muscular potential while provoking no pain. At times, I’d even become stealthy, like a furtive cat, sneaking up on my bones imperceptibly so they’d not even know I was there. It actually worked a few times. However, my bones and their nerves quickly got wise to me. When they sensed me approaching, they’d let me know in no uncertain terms with intermittent shafts of pain. I stuck with this tactic even though it was no guarantee of success. At least I felt I could do something: thinking I had some control over pain was a big deal for me.
Soon I was in another phase in managing pain, which I must confess I found the most embarrassing. It’s the phase when I began fighting my condition.
I’d fly into rages.
I need to mention, first, a little-known law of physics which, to my knowledge, has never been successfully challenged. Drop a piece of toast slathered with marmalade from the breakfast table, and it will always fall marmalade side down.
A similar law operates in orthopedic conditions. Medical disclaimers make no mention of it. ‘Anything you touch, falls on the floor.’
The worse thing for a compromised back is having to bend over and retrieve something from the floor. I’ve discovered that whenever I pick up something from a table, a chair, a pocket, a shelf or someone else’s hand, even putting on an article of clothing, or eating – invariably all or some of it drops to the floor.
One day my underwear fell to the floor while I was performing the torturous task of putting it on. I swore out loud, issuing a string of obscenities at the top of my lungs, loud enough that my wife, out on the porch, heard me. I kicked my briefs across the floor which, of course, sent pain shooting up my back.
It’s embarrassing to actually turn on something as intimate as one’s underwear, blaming it as if it were an adversary, an enemy to be attacked.
And, so it went.
However vulgar my protests were, I have to tell you, blowing off occasionally felt great. I was happy that for the first time in my life I could affirm my mother’s explanation: “It’s good for what ails you.”
These experiences have not been clinically verified. I do suspect they’re fairly common. It’s one man’s description moving into (and partially out of) the landscape of physical pain. I believe the hardest part of being in any kind of pain is how it can seem to be something interminable.
Fortunately, nothing is forever.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.