His radiant smile changes the atmosphere in any room. You know him well. He’s always got a joke or an uplifting story to share.
For a moment, look closer. Notice how he’s favoring his left side. Observe how he never picks up anything with his left hand. Recognize the slight grimace on his face as he tries to stand. A friendly smile can hide a lot. That truth is one of the first things you learn when you begin to cope with chronic pain.
Smiles Conceal Suffering
Smiles can be deceptive. While they lighten the air and are contagious, the grim reality is smiles are often hiding something painful. When you have chronic pain, there’s a part of you that wants to complain about it all the time. You’re suffering and you need to vent about it. It doesn’t take long, however, before you feel like your chronic condition is your only identity. Every time a friend tilts their head to the side or nods slowly while asking how you’re doing, you know they’re seeing your illness and not you.
It’s only logical to do your best to hide the problem. If people don’t see your pain, then you can go back to being you again. There’s a positive to this deception. As you learn to hide your malady with smiles and jokes, you also learn to see people from a unique angle. You notice your friend is limping or frequently holding on to something to keep himself steady. A deeper connection with people develops as you observe the world through new lenses.
If you’re smart, you’ll take this knowledge and use it to make the world a better place. Your new insight will make you more empathetic, and that will come out in the compassion you share with others.
Everything Has a Price
Some say nothing comes free. That may not be true in all areas of life, but it’s a certainty when you live with chronic pain. Learning this lesson early will save you from a literal world of hurt.
You know you need to haul off that old couch. You promised weeks ago you’d take care of it. Yet, you also know as soon as you put the effort into lifting it onto the back of your pickup, you’ll pay for that exertion with days of pain to follow.
It takes minimal effort to aggravate chronic pain. Fighting it takes most of your energy on a good day. On the days you do too much, it zaps not only today’s strength but tomorrow’s as well.
This truth changes the way you see every activity. You lose some of your spontaneity, and you’re less likely to take off on a trip or to go out with friends. This is where flexibility enters the party.
Flexibility Is a Must
Living successfully with chronic pain requires flexibility. While the flexibility you get from doing yoga or pilates is a positive thing, this is another type entirely. The only way to cope with your newfound companion is to pay attention to its needs. Unfortunately, those needs can change quickly and without warning.
The cold front moving in might mean your hands will be unwilling to hold a fishing pole or reel anything in tomorrow. The rain falling outside could cause your pain to be so severe you’ll have trouble putting pants or shoes on.
Necessity forces you into an alternative life where everything has to be flexible. The unknowns create a reluctance to make plans too far in advance. Even though the thought of spending the weekend out on the lake in your buddy’s boat sounds like exactly what you need, when Saturday morning comes, it may not be possible. Chronic pain may instead keep you held captive in bed for the entire day.
You might think this means planning loses all value. You’d be wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Planning becomes one of the most important aspects of navigating your life.
Planning Gets It Done
Driving to the home improvement store on Saturday morning has become a tradition for many men. While you browse the aisles, you consider the projects you’ve started or intend to start. Standing in those aisles, you decide which ones will get your attention this weekend. For most men, this tradition is one that requires little thought. They get up on Saturday morning, throw on their favorite t-shirt and jeans, and head off to the store to see what tools grab their attention. After some time wandering the store, they head home to start their afternoon projects.
Chronic pain creates vastly different weekends. If you want to do a project on Saturday afternoon, you better limit much of what you do during this week. In fact, you might even need to go to the big-box store this Saturday, and then put off starting your project until next weekend. Insignificant things such as tying your work boots or reaching overhead to install a light bulb become increasingly difficult. Since you already learned everything comes with a price, it becomes more important than ever to make sure you’re planning ahead. Budget your energy so you can pay the price for what you want to accomplish.
If you need to mow the lawn this weekend, you better plan on staying home Thursday and Friday nights. If you’re planning to clean out your gutters, you might need an entire week of rest to get the monster in your back to stop howling.
There Is Hope
Coming to accept that chronic pain is now part of your life involves its own grieving process. It takes time, and your grieving can start anew every time you have to face new limitations. However, grief and limitations do not mean your life is over. Most people with chronic pain continue to live a full life. Maybe they’re not climbing Mount Everest or whitewater rafting, but there’s still lots of life worth living.
The key to dealing successfully with your new reality is to pay attention to how things change. When you were a toddler, you learned to walk by falling repeatedly. Likewise, learning how to cope with chronic pain will come with bumps and bruises along the way. If you watch your pain trends, you’ll quickly learn how each activity affects you. That wisdom includes understanding the link between doing what you want and spending days in pain.
Coping daily with limitations is a challenge. There will be days it feels too much. Most days, though, will be bearable. Pay attention to your condition, and you’ll discover the secret to living successfully with chronic pain.
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