Chronic pain is my daily reminder of the challenge and the grace of learning to live with what I cannot change. It first surfaced as a severe case of tendonitis in one of my ankles that lasted for several months. I had never known such pain before, and I ignored it at first, keeping up my normal routines of physical activity. Before long I could barely walk. Then I was forced to rest my ankle, and inactivity starkly revealed what I had always suspected—that exercise was how I managed to keep depression at bay. Despair washed over me in waves.
When my ankle finally began to improve, the pain migrated to my lower back. Although I could now walk, sitting for any length of time was agony, as was lying down. Months went by with no relief, then a year, and then another. I learned how exhausting chronic pain can be, and how hard it is to talk about. Everyone wanted me to feel better, and I felt like I was letting them down. My physical therapist mother kept saying, “Your back shouldn’t hurt,” as if that settled the matter. I could still function in my daily life, and over time, those around me assumed that I had healed. I vacillated between avoiding the subject and wishing that people cared more.
In those years, I consulted with all manner of specialists and underwent multiple tests, with no conclusive diagnosis. I saw several chiropractors, each offering relief that never lasted more than a few hours. In desperation, I signed up for ten Rolfing sessions, a treatment known equally for its discomfort and its expense. During my last visit, the Rolfer told me that there wasn’t anything wrong with my back. “Your brain is caught in a pain loop,” he said with authority. “The only thing you can do is to keep telling yourself that there’s nothing wrong. Eventually your brain will get the message.” For a while I believed him and tried to retrain my brain, but it didn’t work. In fact, nothing “worked” in that I live with chronic back pain to this day.
In time, I found partial relief through a combination of exercise, periodic chiropractic treatment, posture improvement, and meditation. But first I had to accept the fact that the pain wasn’t going away. I found another chiropractor who took my suffering seriously, and I saw him weekly for about six months. He showed me an X-ray displaying the curvature of my spine and the slight jutting out of my chin, perhaps caused by some injury I can’t remember.
At our last session, he took another X-ray. After studying it carefully, he turned to me. “We’ve done as much as we can to correct it,” he said. My heart sank. “So it’s never going to improve?” I asked. “Probably not,” he said. “But this may be one of those conditions that paradoxically promotes health.” Then he added something that has become a mantra for my life: “If you tend to the weakness of your back, and surround it with strength, you will live a long and healthy life.”
His words have proven true. Every morning I wake up with an aching back; every morning I take the necessary time to stretch my muscles until the pain abates. At the end of the day, I stretch again so that I can sleep through the night. I’ve learned that if I want to live without constant discomfort, these exercises aren’t optional, and over the years they have had the auxiliary effect of keeping my body flexible and relatively fit. If the pain becomes too distracting, as it sometimes does, there are a few other remedies to draw upon, but I’ve long since given up the notion that I will ever be without it. Acceptance is liberating, in that I no longer fight with my body, which allows my brain to focus on other things. Perhaps that was what the Rolfer was trying to tell me. Living with pain also has given me empathy for others who suffer from chronic illness and all the other circumstances we would never choose for ourselves but must learn to accept.
Many people endure pain far greater than mine, without relief and without meaning to be gained from it, and in no way do I mean to minimize their suffering. At the same time, there is a mystery embedded in pain that all major faith traditions point to, and those who have experienced it testify to its transformative power. They do not judge others who do not share their experience, but they want us to know that it’s possible to find meaning in adversity, even the circumstances we would have given anything to avoid.
Excerpted from HOW WE LEARN TO BE BRAVE by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2023, Mariann Edgar Budde.