Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pain Breaks Us

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I hate pain. I treat people in pain in my practice. And usually I can help them. But I hate the pain. Pain--whether it's physical or emotional--breaks us. At a low level, we can tolerate it, although it wears us down. But when the level is high--when your nervous system overrides everything with distress signals, when everything hurts, or when your mind cannot escape the loss or betrayal that seeps into every moment of every day--something snaps. We become frightened animals, fleeing something so horrible we cannot grasp it. So we run. To doctors, to medication, to alcohol or drugs, to shallow relationships that offer some kind of temporary oblivion but are unwise and hurt us in the end. When we're too tired to run, we fight, or withdraw--or begin looking longingly at ways to end our time on earth.

Pain rips into our every vulnerability. And, horribly, we often have the fewest resources available to us when the pain is at its worst. Even the kindest doctor or practitioner can only do so much, and in the age of prescription medication abuse, a person in pain often has to overcome a wall of suspicion before getting help for their discomfort. Those of us in the healing arts alternate between keeping a sometimes nearly inhuman distance from our clients and patients and allowing their pain to envelope us and suck us into despair. I sometimes have to hide in the bathroom and cry when someone comes to me in their most broken state.

How can you cope when your pain is at its worst? I don't have a pretty pat answer. In my own life, I long ago gave up on suicide as a way to end my own pain. And thankfully, I have very little pain now. But when it was at its worst, all I could do was endure. I turned to my faith, friends, and family--but there were dark times when none of them seemed to help. So I trudged on. I rested as much as I could, and then just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one minute after the next, and finally outlasted the pain. I won. 

For those who may never fully escape their pain due to injury, illness, or the nature of the emotional trauma they have suffered, I say be kind to yourself. Give yourself understanding. And I ask the rest of us to reach out. Not with trite phrases and over-optimistic attempts at cures. But with a soft hand and a soft word, like we would a terrified puppy or child. I ask that we all remember that pain makes it hard to think and hard to be nice, and perhaps if we can endure the sharp edges of another's pain, perhaps we can blunt their suffering just a bit.

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