January 19, 2011

PAIN Part 1: Introduction to the Subject of Pain

acute or chronic.

I've been in a fair amount of acute physical pain over the last seven weeks. Thankfully, it has now skulked away, mumbling the brand name of my antibiotic and shaking its fist. I injured my back at the end of November, and it was just healing up and not constantly reminding me of the foolish move I'd made (trying to lift up an elderly friend), when I came down a week ago with an abcessed tooth. Overnight it progressed to facial cellulitis, a painful, serious infection that ebbed its way out of my jaw, chin and cheek thanks to the miracle of modern medicine.

I've had periods of both acute and chronic pain at other times in my life as well, and while I've written about my childhood, my children, surgeries, my business, my love of Ohio and art and crafts and books... I've never written about pain until now.

Outside of the medical community, pain seems to be a "hush-hush" subject. To talk about it, to admit to experiencing it, implies a degree of wimpishness, of self-centered attention-seeking impropriety even. For men, there are even more societal pressures to "put up and shut up" when it comes to pain and all sorts of cliches such as "take it like a man" and "Don't be a sissy." As children, when we said, "It hurts!" our parents may have countered with: "Now, don't make a big deal out of it. It's not that bad." Parents may be so afraid of raising a whiney child that their only course of action is to negate feelings and discourage further discussion.

Fortunately, although I spent a year and a half of my high school education ill and undergoing three surguries, my parents did everything right. Looking back now, as a mother myself, I marvel at how they offered to me the right mix of empathy and confidence in my ability to cope. They took my complaints and concerns seriously, yet never babied or spoiled me, though I'm sure at times it might have been tempting to do so, as I was the only child still at home and was introverted and sensitive by nature.

When bringing up my artistic leanings in conversations with others, my mother often mentioned how, when waiting for surgery at age fifteen, I asked for pen and paper and created a little chess set so I could play the game with my father and pass time while coping with pain and waiting for the operating room to free up so the surgeon could relieve pressure in my swollen neck (from a benign tumor). What Mom doesn't mention is that she and Dad were the sort of parents who encouraged my creativity and gave me the pen and paper and played the game with me as if these were good solutions to a stressful situation.

In the adult world, it seems we don't trust ourselves or others to mention, admit to, or discuss pain and illness for fear of giving into it entirely and letting its presence control our lives and keep us from the good health we all hope to experience. But perhaps that is the wrong approach. Perhaps silence only empowers pain; by trying so hard not to mention it, we end up screaming about it in less psychologically healthy ways. While no one but immediate family wants to listen to in-depth, descriptions of illness or medical procedures, that verbal faux pas is a far cry from stating the truth:

  • "I'm in pain, but finding ways to cope."
  • "I've been ill, but am on the mend..."
  • "I am doing much better thank you; but it was pretty awful."

(Of course, in work environments there are reasons not to share health information, but I am talking about discussions between friends and those in one's social circle.)

All posts on this topic:

Part 1, "An Introduction to the Subject of Pain"
Part 2, "My Personal Pain Story: The Pink Porcupine"
Part 3, "Creativity in the Midst of Pain"
Part 4, "What Others Have Written on Pain and Suffering"
Part 5, "Resources Related to Pain Management"

Please bookmark Appalachian Morning or click at this link to add it to your RSS Feed or Google Reader as I will update these posts from time to time. You can also follow along on posts by "liking" Appalachian Morning on Facebook.

Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist. physician, physiologist, or therapist. I have no medical or mental health training whatsoever. Therefore, no advice, medical or psychological, is intended or implied by any of the posts in this series on PAIN.


February Grace said...

This is an absolute gift- thank you for giving a voice to those of us who live our lives every day with this unwelcome companion.

I'll post about this on my blog tomorrow. Looking forward to the entire series- there is a book in this for you if you wanted to write it, Janice, I know it!


Madeline Sharples said...

Thanks for this, Janice. I plan to pass it on to Bob. He has almost chronic back pain, and thankfully he does talk about it. However he always follows up with apologies.
Best, Madeline

Michelle Gregory said...

i've suffered from on and off dizzy spells since i was in highschool. when i tell people who don't know me, they look at me funny, like they want to say just get over it, it couldn't be that bad. i understand. thanks for posting.

Hart Johnson said...

I think this is great--I found my way here because on the side, I write, but I study pain by day, managing the research for an anesthesiologist, and it is AMAZING to me how telling people that gives them permission to tell their pain story, and SO MANY PEOPLE have pain stories. I agree with you, that talking will help bring it out of the closet, take away the stigma... and with less stigma and less secrecy, maybe people can improve their ability to cope with it.

I wish you the best and look forward to the rest of this series.

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Thank you, each of you, for leaving comments and sharing this post with those who live with pain. I want to understand it better, and that is why I decided to write about it.

Hart, thank you for stopping in. I imagine your work is very interesting and, perhaps, a bit heartbreaking at times as well. I welcome any insights you want to share.

Michelle, I think the disorders that people cannot see have their own form of difficulty, because people can be so judgmental...until they hurt! I think there is a lack of empathy in our society on many levels...I'll leave it to a psychologist or sociologist to explain why, if it is indeed so. In the meantime, kudos to you for maintaining more compassion toward others than some folks are showing to you.

Jessica Bell said...

Sorry for taking so long to make it here to read these! I've been meaning to for ages, but something has always gotten in the way, and then I kept forgetting!

I suffered from severe migraines growing up. I can remember having one as young as 8 or 9. So bad that I would convulse from the pain and vomit. Thankfully as I have gotten older, I have them less. But they are still as debilitating as ever when they happen, and there's nothing I can do about it except lock myself in a dark silent room until it passes. I'm always stressed about getting one on an occasion where I don't have access to my bed. This is one of the reasons I NEEDED to become a freelancer, because I would always take so many days off work! My employers would always roll their eyes when I said I had to leave because I had a migraine. They'd never believe me. Gosh, I'd never wish such pain on anyone, but to the folks that rolled their eyes ... well, could they have one, just once? ;o)

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Jessica, these articles will be here to be read whenever and likely forever! I'm glad you found the time to stop by and I'm so sorry to hear about the migraines. I know someone who also suffers from severe migraines; her's lead her to the ER every so often. I wonder why it is that people do not seem to appreciate other people's pain until they also are in pain, then suddenly it is a really big deal? It seems almost human nature. But for those who do or have struggled with chronic and/or severe pain, there is a huge amount of compassion for others and no need for others to "prove" that they really are in pain.
I am very sensitive to sound and light on a normal day; I do not get the pain of migraines but I do get the auras that go with them, and the confused brain/typing that goes with them. Fortunately only a few times a year. I feel for you and hope that you will always have a safe, quiet, dark place to rest when these clouds of pain and discomfort hover over your precious head. I wish we could just zap them away with some super-sci-fi wand!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post Janice! Chronic pain is no fun. It's no fun when it's happening to someone you love either. My father-in-law is in chronic pain. He rarely complains, but you see it in his face everytime he moves.

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