My life of pain started when I was young. I played baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, and racquetball. Playing sports brought me into intimate contact with pain. I can go back through life and detail the ankle, knee, leg, feet, elbow, and arm injuries I have had from playing sports.
I also remember ninth grade. This was the year that I got chickenpox and mumps. This was the year that I started having pain in my feet, hips, and elbows. The pain was so severe I couldn’t run or throw a ball, a major problem for a sports addict like me. My parents took me to the doctor for the pain and the doctor said, it is growing pains. You who are my age and older remember that growing pains was the explanation doctors used when they couldn’t figure something out. As I look back at it now, I realize that these pains were likely the precursor to the problems I have today.
I played competitive sports until I was in my early thirties. The pain in my knees became so severe that I knew I had to stop, and the demands of the pastorate made it easy for me to retire from the ball field and the gym.
I went to see the orthopedic surgeon today about my shoulder. The good news is, I don’t have to have surgery. There is no tear in the rotator cuff. There is a slight tear elsewhere but he says almost every adult my age has tears like this. The pain problem is from severe osteoarthritis in the shoulder joint. He gave me a cortisone shot and scheduled therapy.
The doctor told me that he could fix the shoulder pain by doing a procedure that would allow more space in the bursa. This procedure doesn’t really fix the anything, it just enlarges the space in the bursa, and by doing this, hopefully there is less pressure and pain.
Hopefully. My doctor is a straightforward, honest, doesn’t beat around the bush, kind of guy. He told me the surgery could make the problem worse. He told me there is a risk of infection and that since I heal slowly, have auto-immune problems, and a family history of blood clot problems from surgery, that I should think carefully before saying yes to surgery. (and he recommended against having surgery at this time)
Every x-ray and MRI I have ever had has one common denominator,osteoarthritis. I asked the doctor, so, other doctors have told me that the osteoarthritis is from playing sports. Do you think this is what caused this? He replied, that is a load of crap. He then went on to explain to me the likelihood of a genetic predisposition to osteoarthritis. He made it very clear to me that this was going to be an ongoing problem for me as I age.
He asked, the real question is, how much pain are you willing to live with?
I explained to him my pain philosophy. I told him that I have learned to embrace pain, knowing that there is little I can do about it. Even when it comes to cortisone shots, if they only work for a few weeks, why bother? Now, I have had cortisone shots last for months, and, I think I get enough benefit from them that I would continue to get the shots.
Next Friday, I will have surgery on my left hand. A couple of weeks later, I will have surgery on my right hand. As I was talking to the pre-op surgical nurse she said, I see you had a torn meniscus in both your knees and you had surgery on them. I said, no, I haven’t had any surgery except outpatient surgery for a leg cyst and skin cancer.
She was shocked that I had not had surgery on my knees. I told her that the meniscus tears were thirty years old and that the pain comes and goes. When my knees hurt I endure the pain knowing it will, in time, pass.
My pain philosophy is this:
As a Christian, I was always praying for God to heal me. He never did. God never gave one moment’s thought about the pain I endure every day of my life. As an atheist I know I am not special. The pain I have comes from a variety of sources for a variety of reasons. Yes, it sucks and yes, I don’t like being in pain, but, it is what it is. So, I endure.
But enduring pain is not enough. As anyone with chronic, pervasive, unremitting pain can tell you, there are days when you don’t want to endure the pain anymore. I have cried many a tear over the pain I am in and the loss it has brought me. There have been days that I have thought of suicide. So, for me, enduring the pain is not enough.
This is where embracing pain comes in. I can’t think, pray, or will the pain away, so I must find a way to embrace it. It is very much a part of who I am. I doubt that I would be the man I am today without it. Embracing the pain means accepting that pain is a part of my life. To quote Dexter Morgan, it is my dark passenger. It is as real and close to me as my wife. I can’t pretend it is not there, and all the mindfulness techniques in the world won’t make the pain go away.
Not only do I need to endure and embrace pain, I also need to adapt my life to conform to what the pain requires of me. This is the hardest part for me. I want to be the Bruce before the pain. I still want to run up and down the basketball court. I want to go to the woods on a fall day and cut wood and not feel worse for it the next day. But, what I want doesn’t matter.
Reality is all that matters. You can read all the books about not letting your illness define you and you can give yourself mind over matter pep talks, but, at the end of the day, whatever you are suffering with is still there. All the wishful thinking in the world will not change your life. Once you come to this point, you are ready then to adapt your life in such a way that allows you to live in a way that is meaningful and productive.
The list of things I can no longer do continues to grow. I am hoping the hand surgery will knock a few things off the can’t-do list. I know that I will continue to lose the ability to do things I am doing and I am fine with this. I am quite stoic about the pain and debility…since no God or faith healer is going to heal me and the doctors can’t heal me, if I want to continue to live I must adapt my life in such a way that allows me a meaningful and productive life.
This means that Type-A, work-a-holic, obsessive compulsive personality, perfectionist Bruce must learn that he is no longer in control and that he no longer has the power to always have things his way. On any given day, the ability to have a meaningful and productive day depends on pain level, fatigue level, quality of sleep the night before, and what activity was done yesterday.
Adapting is not the same as giving in. Giving in is a coward’s way of living life. (at least for me) It is not giving in for me to realize I can’t do certain things. Like the aging sports player, I have to realize that I can no longer play the game like I used to. While I can mentally psyche myself up to play the game, my body no longer can do what I ask it to. All the positive mental attitude in the world won’t make an arthritic joint work like it did when I was twenty-five.
I have had to learn the difference between giving in and adapting. Having chronic pain and debility makes it easy to use health problems as an excuse for not doing something. Am I really in too much pain to do this or is the real reason, I don’t want to? I have come to accept that I usually have a window of opportunity each day to do the things I want or need to do. I also know that strenuous physical activity, be it sex or walking in the grocery store, will make the window smaller or non-existent the next day. I know taking a vacation means that there will be days and days where the activity window is boarded over.
Every day, I must survey the lay of the physical land of my life. Once I have done so, I can then adapt to what life is presenting me with. How about you? Do you have chronic health or pain problems? How do you deal with the realities of your life? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.