Silent Elephants and Lilacs
There was a time in my life when constant, chronic, daily pain was the uninvited guest to every event, went with me to every room of the house, every ride in the car. Every activity, every movement, every step - it was like a silent elephant in the room. One gets used to pain over the course of a long time, but you can't settle in with it, as it's always dynamic and changing. Just when you think it's 'managed', another facet of it emerges and you feel you can't bear it once again. Pain always wears a newness. It refreshes itself at will and you have to start again with the 'management' of the thing.
Chronic pain makes people feel and do things they normally wouldn't do. Some folks choose drugs, some alcohol, some scream a whole lot, some cry, and some try to find ways to make it less than what it is, if only for a little while. The most desperate aspect of chronic pain, though, is a person's need to have it stop, even when the chances of that are nill. It comes into your mind that you MUST make it stop and you're willing to try anything to have five minutes of peace from it. You're almost willing to die to make it stop. Some days you definitely are willing to die. And sadly many people do. Those are the days when it matters what others think, only because it matters what they say to you. You're grasping for any shred of solution that might come from words people speak to you. Hopefully those around you choose their words carefully, because to a person in chronic pain, anything that is said will be searched, scanned, and gone over for anything that might provide a hint. Just like a treasure hunt, except there is no prize greater than peace and moments of pain-free existence. Moments. Once they're stolen from you through chronic pain, you never waste moments of no pain.
I found myself counting the moments I wasn't in pain each day, as I started to get better. At first there were no days, only moments, then hours. I'm not sure I learned patience over time or if I became immune to its ability to make me weep in its absence. Whatever the case might have been, I was not a 'good patient' and I saw no one for many months, except the medical professionals who were assigned to take care of me. The world didn't mind that I couldn't participate and I didn't care that it went on without me.
Other people's reactions to your pain are almost as annoying as the pain itself. They don't see it, so they disregard it as not being real. "Oh come on, you can do this if you put your mind to it." "You just really need to get some fresh air." I heard it all - from friends that I thought really cared about me, but they cared about me 'doing' more than me 'being' in their lives. People get upset when they want you to be a part of something with them, and you can't. In turn, YOU get upset because they write off the silent elephant that you only wish you could ignore. They deny its presence, but you cannot. They give it no credibility or value, but you have to. In your life, it supersedes everything, but in theirs "it's all in your head."
I used to tell my clients' families that they should try to put themselves in their loved ones' shoes, if it was hard for them to accept or imagine what it was like, but after my own long drawn out recovery, I no longer believe people who are not in pain can have real empathy for those in their lives who are in pain, without that loved one transcending humanity and taking on the form of an angel. Instead of 'try to walk in their shoes', my advice now would be to see WHAT they need from you - don't expect them to beg you for help - chances are their dignity is shredded. It's probably not a good time to use personal dynamics to manipulate how they communicate with you. Look around and see if there are things you can do to help, get a simple "okay" and go to it. Less is more, when you're talking to someone in pain. After you've done what you intended to do to help, go away, but stay in touch. Don't ask the person in pain to call if they need you - when you do this, you're inviting them to withdraw from your life, while the pain lives on. YOU call them, check on them daily. If you think something is awry, do something about it. Chronic pain is the number one reason for self-harm. Accept that, understand the warning signs, and ACT on it when you see or hear your friend becoming desperate for relief from pain.
The very best thing you can do for your friend or family member in chronic pain is to make yourself available. Know that during an extended time of chronic pain, it is nearly impossible for the person in pain to put anything above the management of it. It takes complete focus at times, and you commenting that they just need to 'snap out of it' will do more to damage your relationship with that person, than to help them in any small way.
When I was hurt, there were people who never gave up on me. They didn't shy away because of my whining, or my moments when bursting into tears in mid-sentence was 'normal' for me. They didn't check on me because I was a nice person to them, because truly I was not kind or nice to anyone during my recovery. Most of all, I wasn't nice to myself.
One who never gave up was my in-home physical therapist - who came to the house daily, and through my refusal of pain medication, through my inability to leave my room, and through my non-stop lashing out and tears, was able to gently, kindly bring me a sense of comfort and relief. He was no less than an angel sent straight from heaven above.
He taught me about pressure points and worked with me to make sure I was doing the right type of movements so that I didn't aggravate the pain I felt. He also became a trusted friend, who made sure I ate the right kinds of foods when no one else cared if I did or not, made sure my mail was removed from the box - without me asking him to (Mail? What is mail? At the time, I didn't care). He took phone calls from well wishers and board members and neighbors. He mowed my lawn. He acted as a parent, a friend, and at one point became so much more.
He picked the lilacs and the lilies and placed them in my favorite vase next to my bed, so that the room could be filled with the scent of outside. He even washed the windows and rearranged my room so I could see the moose in my yard in the evening when fall came. He promised me I'd ride a bike again. He promised me because he knew that his most important job was slaying the demon of chronic pain that had me bound in fear, self-loathing and hatred for the man who put me down - down so low that only love could lift me out and make me well. He didn't give up when I did because he knew the key - the answer I sought. He knew what I didn't know, and that is that time heals pain. He told me God loved me. I had forgotten, but my angel never let me forget. We counted down the benchmarks in my progress - one by one - until stairs were doable, and then the bike. He never once lost patience or got angry with me.
Today I remember that man - his memory conjured up by a smell as I was saying goodbye to a friend on the street. The smell of lilacs blooming in my yard. The sweet fragrance of an angelic presence brought back also the memory of chronic pain. The chronic pain brought on by a drunk man in control of 6 tons of steel who almost ended it all for me that fateful day, who took from me an entire year of my life. Without the Angel sent to help me, and without God's amazing grace and love, I wouldn't be here today, smelling the lilacs. And now, all that remains of the silent elephant of my chronic pain, is the memory, which is always countered with the joy of remembering that sweet sweet angel that brought lilacs when it mattered most.