Posted by: MC | June 4, 2011

Listening to Chronic Pain

I have a friend who lives with chronic pain.  He has Rheumatoid Arthritis.  The other day we were sitting drinking tea.  It was the first time he told me of the RA diagnosis he received last December.  “It hits like a train,” he said.  “But, man is it ever teaching me about making choices.”

“Three things,” he said.  “First, it doesn’t feel fair.  It isn’t fair, and it is what’s going on, so every minute is what you’ve got.  That’s always the case, ya know, but we sure don’t live noticing every moment.  Pain forces that kind of attention.”  He went on.  “The second thing is that getting the hang of being in pain takes a long time.  It’s another dang process, and it can’t be rushed.  Thank god for people on the internet and here in town who’ve been living with this thing.  Listening to them helps.  It doesn’t soothe the physical pain, but it lessens the emotional tension – that noise in your head, ya know?”

“The third thing is something that is really big, it’s central to a lot of things for me.  Pain isn’t a competition.  If somebody hurts, they hurt.  If they’ve known pain, they know what it’s like.  All pain hurts and in a strange way it makes the person in pain more real.”

My friend began sharing his story as a way of joining me – as a way of offering support.  When we’d sat down with our steaming cups, he asked how I was and I spoke of the only thing on my mind in recent days – the relentless and agonizing pain in my left shoulder.  Multiple ribs were out from long term stress pushed over the edge by something seemingly benign like pulling weeds or sweeping.

In the past ten days, I’ve acquired a new understanding and awe for people who live with chronic pain.  This stuff is the major league!  Not only is the discomfort beyond description, it’s also beyond any control.  Acute and constant pain is wearing.  It makes it hard to listen.  Hard to speak.  Hard to care.  It’s exhausting.

Physicians and other care givers have you rate your pain.  How severe is it on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being barely a twinge and 10 being extreme.  Sometimes they like more nuanced information.  Is it burning, piercing or pounding?  Multiple-choice tests always screwed me up.  All of them could be right.  It’s a burning that pounds.  It’s like being pierced with a burning spike.  It’s like pounding that spike again and again, deeper and deeper with no way not to see and feel it all because I’m the one pounding even as I’m the one being pounded.

There are all kinds of pain.  All of them feel relentless and all of them interfere with wisdom, with kindness, with thoughtful and responsible engagement in everyday life.  My sister wrote last night about the landscapes of pain – losing a family to a tornado, losing the quiet of a head without a migraine, losing heart again and again and again.

These days in our country, many people are in pain.  All kinds of pain.  Maybe, as my friend has found, pain can make us more real.  I don’t know, but when I hurt less, I keep listening.

In pain I’ve been cranky and I’ve felt desperate.  I’ve prized the rare moments when intensity diminishes.  Perhaps unfairly, I’ve kept those moments to myself, not wanting to rush them or scare them away – not wanting to jinx any possible progress toward relief.

Today I ran into my friend in the parking lot, my friend with RA.  “Hey,” he called out in my direction, “How’s the shoulder?”  “It’s about a 4,” I said as we came closer.  “How about you today?” I asked.  He flashed his toothy grin, eyes shining behind his glasses.  “Look at this,” he said as he shuffled his white Adidas in a little dance.  “So a 1,” I asked, “a zero?”  “Nah.  My hands and wrists still hurt like crap, but today my feet are great, so I’m dancing.”


  1. wonderful wonderful connections, as always. thanks for the insight and the wisdom. And I’m so sorry to know about your shoulder! I’ll keep good thoughts. And I hope you take good care and through patience and following the good advice of those you trust with your care that you are better in record time.

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