Can you imagine life suddenly pain-free? What do you imagine first doing? What does it mean to have no pain? Who are you without pain?
I remember asking myself these questions after living with chronic pain for eight years. If I was suddenly pain-free, what would I do? I enthusiastically imagined getting any job I wanted, having financial stability, going out with friends again, and having back my “old life” before my injury. And then I realized…I could not reclaim my old life. That was in the past. My job and career history, my friends, and my residence had all changed.
So, I asked myself, what would my present life look like if I became pain-free? I realized that I would no longer have my present life either. Every decision I had made, the support system I had developed, the schedule I had created, the body that I had learned to care for and work with, all had been built upon the foundation of my pain.
The more I imagined snapping my fingers and suddenly feeling no pain, the more fearful and panicky I felt. If I had no pain, I would lose everything that I knew and had built my life around since I had become first injured.
Trapped in my “cage”
This past reaction of mine I was recently reminded of while watching my daughter’s new guinea pigs. We bought the typical cage that the pet store sells. After continued research to care for these little creatures, I learned that they needed a bigger cage for more room to run around. To solve this problem, I bought a ramp that I placed in the cage entrance and created a play area outside of the cage. A playground of tunnels, cushions, objects to hide in, and treats, all enclosed by a little gate, awaited them. Instead of using the ramp to climb out to the play area, the guinea pigs hid underneath it. To this day, they still have not discovered what lies on the other side of that ramp.
Just like these animals, humans are designed to scan for danger and protect themselves. This is why we tend to be creatures of habit. For me, pain had become part of not just my life, but my identity. I could not see “beyond the ramp” of pain. I had created a life built around pain that felt safe to me. It was difficult and scary to imagine anything outside of that. That had been my way of life for several years–learning to survive with and adapt to pain despite simultaneously always trying to get better and trying never losing hope.
Health care professionals call this “attachment” or identification with pain as “pain behavior”. Catastrophizing is considered another type of pain behavior, in which people with pain believe something is far worse than it is, and agonize over it. I don’t like the label of pain behaviors because as human beings, at some point in our life we all have behaviors like these, whether or not we experience pain. We cling to our stories as if it is our reality and our only way to survive because it is what we know and are familiar with. Yet, these reactions can be detrimental to us when we become locked in by fears, unable to see beyond the cage we have created for ourselves. When we believe our thoughts and our “stories”, our reality becomes based on these thoughts and their associated emotions, even if they are not beneficial. Often, we are not consciously aware of this.
Why was a part of me afraid to let go of pain?
Some people fear if they become pain-free, they will lose the attention and nurturing they have been receiving from loved ones. Others may fear losing a community with a support group or having to return to work in a career they never liked. And others may fear what I did—the unknown. From years of living with pain, I had based my decisions on what I could and could not do. I knew myself well and had become comfortable with this. But, if I suddenly became pain-free, what job would I get? Where would I live? Would I have to find more friends, new friends, that had the same interests as I if I suddenly had renewed abilities to hike, run, camp, and ski?
Endless questions overwhelmed and haunted me. How would I live a life without pain? What did I want from that pain-free life? Would I still work part-time so I could exercise to make sure I didn’t have a pain relapse, or would I work full-time? Was I afraid of failing? Or was I really afraid of success and what that looked like? Had I been using pain partly as an excuse to hold myself back from my true potential? But what if I did relapse and become disabled again after building a new life for myself? Despite how much I self-analyzed, I could not answer these questions.
Giving so much power to fearful thoughts created entrapment in a reality of limited possibilities.
I was giving my thoughts and fears the power to define my reality. I unknowingly trapped myself within this reality, devaluing, and imposing inner and outer images of myself that were not aligned with who I really am . This was self-sabotage and self-abuse. I was stealing from the uniqueness of myself and the possibilities of my life.
How could I free myself from my thoughts and fears?
I was not my thoughts, stories, or fears. And I was not pain. Just because they existed did not mean I had to become them.
Perhaps, instead of focusing on my thoughts and fears so much, I could focus on the space that existed between these thoughts and emotions, and rest here where there was no fear of the unknown nor thoughts holding me back.
What might life look like living in the truthfulness of every moment?
Is my truth to live in the experience of pain each moment or could I find a way to move out from under p
ain, painful thoughts and fears, and live in the experience of life in each moment? Everyone has some form of pain, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional, but living with pain does not have to take away from the truth, the uniqueness, and the potential of who we each are.
The unknown can be scary, but just like the play area that awaits the guinea pigs, it can be a world of possibilities, of expansion, and joy. We just have to come out from under our fears, out from the imprisonment of our stories, and courageously begin to explore what awaits.