I excel at hiding pain. It’s pretty easy as an active, fit, thirty-something who tries to rock a positive outlook on life – I don’t fit the profile of a person in chronic pain. But for nearly 20 years, I suffered intensely with intermittent, undiagnosed abdominal pain. It would come to visit for five days at a time, making its presence known as a tight fist under my rib cage, at times breathtakingly intense. But most of the time, it was merely a persistent, exquisite distraction – a wincing seven on a scale of one to ten, making it impossible to be fully present with other people, or even to think.
Every time I saw a doctor, I’d be sent for an ultrasound, and every time, I was told that “everything’s fine.” That was as far as any physician was willing to go. I was left with no diagnosis, no treatment, and no advice as to what to do.
Over the years, I tried cutting out all sorts of different foods and tried every treatment modality I could think of. Making the rounds to different health care providers became an expensive and not-at-all-fun hobby. So I quit trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, here’s how I made my suffering worse:
I would try to ignore it and carry on as normally as possible — an exhausting and at times impossible strategy.
I isolated myself. I would retreat behind a closed door, not wanting to burden anyone else with my pain. Plus, it didn’t fit the image of strength I was trying to project. So I cut myself off from love, empathy, and caring just when I needed it most.
I felt victimized, wondered “why me?” and felt desperate to learn whatever lesson I needed to in order to make it stop.
I resented the pain for getting in the way of my ability to be fully present for daily life, as well as the highlights: yoga teacher training, my honeymoon, a trip to Italy, visits to my family back East.
I shamed myself for not knowing what to do, for not doing enough to figure it out. I raked myself over the coals for any dietary sins: “If only you hadn’t had that cup of coffee this morning or that piece of chocolate last night, you might not be in this mess.”
I let the pain undermine my confidence as a clinician. After all, if I can’t figure myself out, what kind of a healer could I possibly be?
When I finally got decent health insurance (and a few expensive tests not previously suggested), I found out that my gall bladder didn’t work. Like, at all. (It scored an impressive zero on the HIDA scan.) I had it removed last year and have been free of this pain ever since.
I don’t miss the pain. But I am grateful for the following lessons:
1) Pain is an invitation to learn about yourself. You honor it by listening. Stay curious and keep investigating. Trust your own experience, and find health care practitioners who will trust you as well. Just because conventional medicine doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Try different modalities, as well as different practitioners within those modalities — everyone looks through a different lens depending on his/her background and training, and everyone has their biases and blind spots. Advocate for yourself. It could save you decades of suffering.
2) You’re not alone. Pain sucks. So does feeling like you’re missing out on fully participating in life. But trust me on this: you’re so not the only one. As a clinician, I hear people describing various ailments and feeling lonely and victimized because everyone else can eat whatever they want, stay up as late as they want, overwork as much as they want, and feel fine. But here’s the secret truth: they don’t. Most people suffer unpleasant consequences for such behaviors – they just don’t talk about it. In the US, more people suffer from chronic pain than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.
3) Allow the experience. Pretending it isn’t there is trying to argue with reality. It’s exhausting, isolating, and increases suffering many times over. I’m not suggesting you embrace it, love, it, or build a shrine to it; just be willing to acknowledge its existence. Give it a nod. As your resistance softens, you may even feel a bit more ease.
4) Stop blaming yourself. It’s hard enough to deal with pain without slathering on a layer of guilt. You can be doing everything “right” and still be in pain. It doesn’t mean you’re flawed; it means you’re human. It’s an inescapable part of the human experience – one that every person on the planet will experience from time to time.
5) Practice self-compassion. When someone else is in pain, what are the first feelings that come up? Empathy? A desire to help? You are just as worthy of that; give it to yourself, then do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
6) Own it. Admitting to a good friend or a partner “this sucks. I wish I could be connecting with you right now, but I can’t focus through this blinding pain,” and having them say “wow, yeah, that does suck. I get it. It’s okay.” Letting people in on what’s going on can take the pressure off of needing to feel “normal.” And it’s so much more honest and intimate than “I’m fine.”
When we are willing to acknowledge our experience of pain, we give others permission to do the same. In doing so, we poke holes in the cultural illusion that “everything’s fine,” reducing that social pressure to pretend that nothing is ever wrong or difficult. Pain then becomes a less lonely experience and induces far less guilt and shame, which makes it easier to bear. In showing up with our whole selves, even the vulnerable parts that we’d prefer were different, we allow for deeper intimacy with those around us and help create a more compassionate culture.