Sunday, July 17, 2016

Thoughts On Pain And Its Purpose: The Surprising Upside Of Injury

I've been thinking a lot about pain lately, mainly because I've been experiencing a lot of it. Not just the usual heartache that comes with being an oversensitive, exhausted, working parent of three young kids, but actual physical pain.

It all began about eight months ago, when the usual post-run stiffness and soreness in my right hip simply wouldn't go away, no matter how much I rested, iced, or stretched it. The pain got so bad it literally stopped me in my tracks mid-run one day, and I ended up limping 4 miles home.

Several trips to the doctor eventually lead to a round of physical therapy, which lead to an MRI, which lead to an orthopedic surgeon, which finally lead to a diagnosis of a labral tear, bursitis, bone spurs, and a condition called Femoroacetabular Impingement, which basically translates to the ball and socket of the hip joint not fitting together properly.

In layman's terms, that means a structural issue with my hip, combined with a family history of arthritis, combined with two decades of high impact exercise have made for the perfect storm that is currently raging in my right side. Surgery is the only option to fix the myriad issues, and in my case, September (when the kids are back in school) is the only option to have the surgery.

So that means two more months of dealing with the pain, which is increasing by the day. Sometimes by the hour. Two more months of feeling every single step, never knowing which one will land safely and which one will lead to the entire joint buckling under me. Two more months of carefully easing down into chairs and using my upper body to compensate. Two more months in which everyday tasks like putting on socks, going up and down stairs, or reaching for an item on a shelf are oftentimes impossible, and almost always excruciating.

Running- my stress reliever/sanity saver/social outlet/source of inspiration has been taken away, indefinitely. Walking for any significant time is also too painful, and on any given day the same can be said for sitting, standing, and even sleeping. The fickle nature of this particular injury means that even on good days, one wrong move in any particular direction can throw the entire joint out of whack, resulting in a shooting pain so strong it brings me to my knees...figuratively, since I have nowhere near that range of motion right now. Only the pool and its delicious weightlessness offers a temporary respite from the pain and a vague sense of normal movement.

But I don't tell you all this so that you will feel sorry for me. I'm not looking for sympathy or a pat on the back. While I wouldn't wish this particular condition on anyone, I guess I'm not sorry it happened.

The pain has made me walk more slowly, talk more slowly, and to think before I move. This internal injury that can't be seen has profoundly changed the way I see everything around me, and caused me to retreat into myself in a way I have not done before. As a result of feeling so much in one part of my body, I believe I have become more sensitized in every area of my life.

And that's a real blessing, because it sure seems like we're living through times where no one wants to feel a darn thing. When tragedy hits- a shooting, a bombing, a toddler ripped away from his parents by a wild animal- we react. We judge. We criticize. We take sides. We insert our personal politics where they don't belong and throw verbal arrows from the comfort of our computer screens. Anything to keep from feeling the pain.

I get it. I get that when life hurts this much, when there is so much chaos and loss in the world, it's tempting to armor up, to shield ourselves from the intense vulnerability of the how much we, ourselves, have to lose. In other people's tragedies, our own are always present, as the instability of life reveals itself. Rather than face the possibility of something similar happening to us, of how many loved ones could be lost, how many cherished places destroyed, or how many dreams dashed, our instinct is to try to protect it all- to grasp it tightly and keep it safe- to control it, so that there's no chance we can be hurt.

But sometimes, we need to be hurt.

Medical professionals will tell you that pain serves a purpose. Acute pain, for instance, is protective. That's the kind of pain that lets you know that something is wrong and that you need to get checked out. For example, if you have chest pain when you're having a heart attack, that's a good thing if it makes you go to the hospital. If you touch a hot stove and feel pain, even though it's severe, it's a good thing because it makes you move your hand away.

Pain also serves a unifying and correcting purpose.  It tells us that something is wrong. If we didn't feel pain, we wouldn't know we were sick, and we wouldn't seek an answer. It's a healthy body that responds to pain, after all.

Emotional pain, I believe, can serve a similar purpose. We can't take care of what we do not feel, so if we anesthetize ourselves from every possible hurt, how will we ever address the root cause? We've become so fragmented as a nation, perhaps as a world, so hardened, that we feel almost nothing but anger...or worse, indifference. If the health of our society is measured by the way it responds to pain; to the hurting, the helpless, the broken, the bruised, the battered, the bleeding, and the impoverished among us...then we are in big trouble.

You may be telling yourself you feel fine. You're not in any pain. I guess I'm not sure that's enough anymore. Before I hurt my hip, I wasn't walking around rejoicing over its functionality. I didn't really have any feelings toward the joint which now occupies so much of my time and energy. But you'd better believe that once the surgery, rehab, and recovery have come to an end, I will feel differently about the ability to move without pain. The absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

I don't mean to suggest we all need to go out and injure ourselves just to find meaning in our lives- there's plenty of suffering in the world to go around. But the next time you find yourself in or near a painful situation, whether it is physical or emotional, whether it is yours or someone else's, before you do anything else, take a moment to sit with the pain.

Ease into it, and allow it to serve its purpose.

Take a moment to pray not just for, but in solidarity with those who suffer, to mourn with those who mourn.

Remember that pain softens the heart, as fire softens iron.

Feel someone else's pain, and allow them to feel yours.

And maybe together, we will begin to heal.

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