Every minute of every day, I experience pain. People say how hard it must be, and I don’t disagree. It just is. I have experienced pain since my late teens. I recently turned 63, and the pain has really been both continuous and severe for the past 20 years.
There are days when I complain about it. Not so much the pain as the extra limits it places on my life: less mobility, so a walk on the beach turns step by step into agony. Less ability to sit, so an evening at a restaurant becomes 20 minutes before the pain just makes me, well, go home. At least in recent years, I’ve learned that I have to either pre-order, or choose a restaurant that serves me quickly.
Doctors now recognize chronic pain as a disease of the nervous system or of the brain. That’s not to say that the pain is all in the mind. Rather it points to the mis-firing of the brain’s systems for experiencing pain. In chronic pain, the nerves that bring messages of pain to the brain and the systems that interpret sensations and the brain’s own map of the body are all out of whack, like an orchestra playing out of tune and out of time.
In my case, it’s as though the brain is replaying pain from previous injury to my spine. Ghost pain messages play havoc in my brain. For other people, the ongoing pain may not relate to tissue damage at all, but it arises, a mystery with no obvious cause.
On a scale of zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 the worst pain imaginable, my pain sits uncomfortably around 7 most of the time. Others with chronic pain have more fluctuation.
Pain is one thing. The experience of suffering is another. Both pain and suffering are mysterious experiences. But the extent to which a person suffers from their pain is partly a choice.
As a young man, I climbed Mount Toolbrunup. In W.A.’s Stirling Ranges, Toolbrunup’s the toughest climb, because loose scree covers its steep sides. You scrabble up two or three steps, often on hands and knees, and then slide back one or two. It’s exhausting. Even though you seem to make no progress, the skinned knees and knuckles don’t make you suffer. You are climbing. An interesting activity engages you, and if you lift your head high enough, you see better and better views.
Climbing Mount Toolbrunup is a bit like living with chronic pain. You scrabble along. Your way is exhausting and the pain is real. But you are engaged in something other than the effort to move along: the fascinating activity of life. If you lift your attention away from the pain, you see how absolutely captivating life is. You see people to love, usually those who love you. You see an extraordinary world full of natural and man-made marvels; planets and meerkats and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You choose interesting activities, reading, watching movies and setting crossword puzzles are some I choose. Life is there to be lived.
Or you can choose to suffer. Chronic pain is different from many illnesses. If you break a leg, it gets better. If you have diabetes, you can take insulin. There are pain pills, but they don’t always work. Meditation and exercise form the best base treatment for chronic pain, but note: you have to work at them. You have to choose.
The pain is unrelenting. I have many strategies to keep me sane, even cheerful. I don’t underestimate the climb. Researchers have found, for example, that chronic pain is experienced in the same region of the brain as depression. For many people ongoing pain and deep depression go hand in hand. It’s easy to slip into the chasm of depression, and I have once or twice.
But in the end, I choose. I choose to minimise the pain and limitations, and as well as I can, I choose not to suffer. The view’s great.