“There was no ‘normal’ life to return to. In my own surprising, glorious, and hurting human body, I was already living it.”
When I was 22, what I thought was a temporary injury became chronic pain that spread from my ankle up my left side. As a bright-eyed college graduate ready to change the world, I couldn’t imagine how my life could be good with pain. I resisted. I went down symptom-search rabbit holes on the internet late at night. I wailed desperate prayers at God.
Because of my mindset, I entered a combative relationship with pain.
Embracing the Right Stories
It took years to accept that pain would be part of my life going forward, and in that time my mindset shifted. I started questioning the stories I was telling myself about the pain. I experimented with seeing my life through different narratives that didn’t make pain the enemy. What I found is that the stories we embrace change everything about our experience of pain.
Here are four ways I shifted my narrative that others experiencing chronic pain may find instructive:
1. From “I must return to normal” to “there is no normal.”
So much of my energy in those early months of pain was focused on returning to what I thought my life should be. I witnessed friends go to salsa clubs, travel overseas, and take long hiking trips. I thought this is what 22-year-olds do. My definition of normal at the time was informed by a perspective that put young, able-bodied, middle-class people at the center of the human experience.
But this vision of normal centers an ideal rather than centering reality. We all age. Not everyone has the resources to have travel-filled adventures. We all move in and out of health and illness and experience a spectrum of physical ability. As I sought out stories of people going through health challenges like me, I began to see that these experiences of loss, limits, and adaptation were more common than I thought. There was no “normal” life that I had to return to. In my own surprising, glorious, and hurting human body, I was already living it.
2. From “limits are devastating” to “limits are part of life.”
As a young adult, I knew theoretically that life had limits. But they didn’t apply to me. No, I was exceptional, gifted, outstanding, and all the other labels we attach so much value to in our society. In short, I was under the spell of the Dunning-Kruger effect, not knowing how much I didn’t know and vastly overestimating my competence at life.
It was a blow to realize that I was just as susceptible as the next person to illness, loss, and pain and that no amount of intelligence or Internet research could exempt me. In fact, losing my sense of invulnerability was more devastating than the physical pain itself.
Life as I knew it had ended, but then—to my surprise—life continued. I found I could still luxuriate in a silken bath, the autumn leaves, chocolate fondue, and so many of life’s simple joys even with my newly discovered limits. My limits, and my capacity to live a meaningful life, had been with me all along.
3. From “it will be this way forever” to “everything changes.”
Life feels like it will go on forever when you’re young. Pain as well. The pain commanded all my attention, sucking me relentlessly into a throbbing, burning, aching vortex. I couldn’t step outside of this reality, and with my limited life experience, I took this to mean that pain was all my world would ever be.
But I remembered what a philosophy professor once shared about her experience of appendicitis. While her mind wanted to dart away from the pain, her curiosity held her there. As she stopped mentally fleeing and started observing, she noticed that the pain had edges. There were places in her body that were not in pain. And the pain changed. She noticed waves of intensity, felt different textures of pain in different parts of her abdomen.
[Read: “The Tao of Chronic Pain.”]
Knowingly or not, this professor was practicing mindfulness, which has been proven as an effective approach to manage chronic pain and decrease our suffering. It took me some years to learn what my professor did—that the pain would not stay the same forever. Even though I still have pain, it isn’t the same from day to day. I know a flare-up is not a life sentence. I know I will find new ways to manage, and my inner emotional landscape will shift. Everything changes, and that I can count on.
4. From “my body is my enemy” to “my body is my friend.”
Something is wrong, and I need to fix it. My body is betraying me. I can’t trust it anymore. These kinds of thoughts looped in my head after my body, which had been reliable and cooperative for 22 years, became unreliable and threatening. My body felt bad and wrong. My body was my enemy.
I came to these conclusions partly through Christian misinterpretations of scripture, which equate pain and disease with sin. But I also kept returning to the deeper spiritual message of the Christian story—that God created human flesh, became one of us, and calls our bodies good. My spiritual journey has been one of living in tension between the reality of ongoing pain and the truth that my body is still sacred and valuable.
Partnership With a Body in Pain
There are still times that I’m frustrated by the ways I can’t make my body fit my agenda. But I’m learning to see my body as my partner, offering critical information about emotions, boundaries, other people, and life itself.
Pain is a teacher, inviting me to pay attention, be curious, and ask questions. As I let go of fighting against my body and the pain, I find surprising reservoirs of peace, joy, and meaning.
Shift to mindfulness with this guided meditation for chronic pain.