We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey." -- Kenji Miyazawa
For six years now, I have struggled with chronic pain due to a musculoskeletal and neuropathic condition. Shortly after graduating from college, while working out on the elliptical machine, I felt an unforgettable sharp pain shoot down the left side of my body. My life has never been the same. With all the changes also came life lessons that have helped me navigate through life with chronic pain.
I want to share these lessons because I strongly believe everyone has experienced some sort of pain or suffering, whether it is physical, emotional, or mental. Struggle is such an inherent part of being human. Without acknowledging the pain in our lives, we lose a common thread that connects each of us to the same humanity.
But, the beauty in struggle is that when we choose to authentically and genuinely experience the pain and suffering in our lives, the story of our fight can mean something to someone else one day. I share the lessons I have learned in hopes that they will serve someone else also fighting to find meaning and hope.
1. People have unknown backstories.
Since that fateful moment at the gym, I don't remember what it is like to not be in pain. My life now revolves around pain management. Because my pain is greatly aggravated with sitting, I quickly analyze every chair before I sit. Before engaging in a social activity, I calculate how much pain it will induce. And I spend a lot of my free time trying to decrease the amount of pain each day's activities have caused.
However, I go through much of the motions of managing my pain inconspicuously because I have an invisible disability. While chronic pain affects how I experience everyday life, many people do not know what I go through on any given day because I look and appear as an able-bodied person. My pain is invisible.
Similarly, I have realized there are others who are also living out important chunks of their lives behind closed doors. So, I now constantly try to remind myself that there are aspects to people and their life narratives that I do not know before jumping to conclusions.
2. Focus on the love.
One of the hardest aspects about living with an invisible disability is that people, usually through no fault of their own, just do not get it. Some people find it incredibly difficult to understand that someone who has no apparent disability could be in pain. In fact, the medical community is still undereducated and misinformed about many chronic pain conditions. It took me years before receiving a legitimate diagnosis.
And when people respond with a lack of empathy, such as saying that the pain is all in my head or that I "should just not focus on it," I don't find it helpful. Just as it makes no sense to tell someone who is suffering from an excruciating migraine to just forget about it, it is not effective to tell someone who is experiencing what feels like migraines in their bodies to just not think about it.
For a long time, especially because I already felt so vulnerable and broken, I really struggled with callous comments and hurtful misconceptions. They left me feeling dismissed and disempowered at the time I was going through a medical crisis.
But, with time, I have learned that I have complete agency and control over showing compassion to myself and giving less power to the voices of doubt and shame. This was largely possible thanks to those closest to me who, with their empathy and compassion, countered any negativity that came my way. Still, I am ultimately responsible for myself, and it is a fortunate thing that I can choose to focus on the love and filter out the hate.
3. Speak up.
Because I did not have this condition until after college, speaking up for what my body needs is still a new thing for me. However, I realized that I will never heal if I do not stop pretending I am as able-bodied as I used to be. So, I have learned to speak up more, and when I do so, most people are considerate of my condition. Plenty of people have helped me make my health my first priority. Classmates have been more than happy to share their notes if I miss class due to health-related reasons. Friends have been incredibly forgiving when I miss a social event due to an unpredictable flare-up.
All in all, I am still learning to speak up for what I need to do to take care of myself. I am immensely grateful to those who are giving me the space and understanding to cultivate and develop this trait of speaking up. After all, no one can help take care of me if I don't do it myself.
4. Gratitude is a necessity.
During the first few years with chronic pain, I fell in and out of depression. There was one particular time when I thought I could never get better and that I would have to give up my life goals. I was going to appointments almost every day of the week, not sure that any of the treatment plans would work. I was in a lot of pain and felt hopeless.
Regardless, I decided that every night before going to bed I would recount five different things in my life that I was grateful for. Soon, I was finding myself easily able to list more than five things each night. I believe it was this exercise that helped me emotionally and mentally recover.
There is always something to be grateful for.
5. Believe that everything will work out.
Living with chronic pain has changed my life. And there are always new adjustments to be made, whether it is a new treatment plan or just learning how to live with chronic pain better.
I remain not quite at a place where I am consistently in a tolerable level of pain. But, I look back from the beginning of this journey to now and I see that, so far, things have inexplicably worked out. There were years of misdiagnosis, shattered hope and crushing disappointment of unanswered prayers.
But, today, I am learning to thrive despite living with chronic pain. I finally found the most caring doctors, physiatrist and physical therapists. I am surrounded by people who believed in me and who held onto hope when I couldn't. I am almost finished with law school and about to embark in the next stages of my life, which includes marrying my best friend and life partner.
Life will throw you curveballs. You may fall and stay down for a bit. It will suck. But, so long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how long it takes, everything will somehow work out.