My ex used to tell people I was tough. It came from a good place. He’d walk up to doctors whom I didn’t have the confidence to argue with and say “She’s got a chronic pain disorder. If she says it hurts, it fucking hurts.” I genuinely don’t think I’d have received the help that I did without his support.
He was proud of me. He knew what I was coping with, and knew that I was doing the best that I could to manage it.
The flip side of that, of course, is that the chronic pain condition was exactly why I wasn’t really that tough. I spent so much of my time and energy dealing with my pain that I didn’t have the energy left to tolerate things that wouldn’t phase most people.
When you stub your toe, it might put you on a 4/10 on the pain scale. It hurts, but you swear and you deal with me. Me? I’m already on a 3 that day, so that immediately puts me on a 7 .
That’s the problem with pain; it’s cumulative. What might make a normal person grouchy could push me to the brink of keeping my shit together..
I don’t like who I am when I’m in pain. I’m grumpy, and short tempered, and snappy, and impatient. I’m role playing a bitter, sarcastic divorcee and I hate it. Surely I’m too young to be this joyless?
The people around me could be silly and fun. Rather than finding relief in their levity it just irritated me. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Rather, I wanted to be able to join in. I just couldn’t seem to access that space in my head. Other people’s happiness grated crosswise on my nerves. I found myself being irritable with my kids, grumpy with my partners. One of the worst side effects of my pain was the way it made me just want to be alone, despite the fact that I felt constantly isolated and lonely.
I didn’t want anyone to tell me it would get better (after all, they couldn’t guarantee it). I didn’t want pills, or prayers, or advice. I just wanted someone to exist in that black hole with me. But, of course, they couldn’t.
Have you heard the parable of the man in the hole?
A man is walking along, minding his own business, when he suddenly falls into a deep hole. The walls are sheer and slippery, and the more he struggles to climb out, the more dirty and tired he gets.
A doctor walks past and hears the man calling for help. “You seem stressed,” says the doctor, “Here is a prescription for some pills to help you feel better.” The doctor throws a prescription into the hole and walks on.
The next person to walk past is a psychiatrist. “How did you get into this hole?” Asks the psychiatrist?
“I’m not sure,” says the man, “It just happened.”
“How does being in the hole make you feel?” Asks the psychiatrist. They talk for an hour, about isolation and fear of the dark. At the end of the hour the psychiatrist says “I’m sorry, our time is up. If you’re still in the hole next week we can talk some more.” And the psychiatrist leaves.
By this time the day is almost over, it’s getting dark and starting to rain. The man is cold and tired, and can’t see any way to get out of the hole.
Just as the man is giving up hope, a face appears leaning over to look into the hole. Surprised, the man recognises his friend looking down at him. “What are you doing in this hole?” Asks the friend.
“I fell in,” explains the man, “and now I’m stuck.” Without a moment’s delay, the friend jumps down into the hole.
“What are you doing?!” exclaims the man. “Now you’re stuck here too!”
“Don’t worry,” says the friend. “I’ve been here before. I know the way out.”
I first heard this parable on The West Wing, but it’s been used many times and in many variants. In some versions there’s also a priest. It’s often used to talk about alcoholics, but I think it’s suitable for any kind of mental health problem. Sometimes the most helpful thing in the world is to know that there’s someone on your side, and that recovery is possible.
One of the best parts about getting better (aside from being able to have sex again – THANK GOD!) was the freedom to discover joy again. Without the constant rasping of pain against my nerves, I’ve been slowly able to rediscover joy. I’m not just talking happiness here, ever since getting out of a toxic relationship I’ve been getting happier.
I’m talking real joy – pure moments that surprise and delight you out of nowhere. Laughing out loud when my dog goes tearing off after a squirrel; hallmark moments giggling with my boyfriend over some ridiculous inside joke; taking ten minutes in the park to listen to the birdsong. These things still existed when I had my pain, but the pain prevented me from being able to access them.
It’s an abominable cliche, but the sun is brighter and the world has more colour. When you’re in a dark place it’s easy to forget how good things could be, it’s easy to believe that the darkness is all there is an all there ever will be.
I still find myself getting caught up in all the mundane, everyday things that we all get caught up in. But I want to get back in the habit of noticing the good things and really appreciating them. Back when I was having therapy for my pain I was advised to keep a positivity journal. This involved making a conscious note every time something good happened, and listing three things every day that were positive or that I was grateful for.
It turns out, we can actually train our brains to notice happiness.
Our brains naturally have a negativity bias: we are more likely to remember negative experiences than positive ones. This is an evolutionary trait that is supposed to help us avoid dangerous things and learn quickly from our experiences.
The problem is that in the modern world this has a tendency to make us depressed. We have so many interactions every day, and if we only remember the negative ones it builds up into an enormous mental load.
The solution is to make a conscious effort to notice positives. Our brains are excellent at recognising patterns, so the more positive things we notice the more positive things we will see.
I highly recommend the TED talk The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert . I try and re-watch it on a semi regular basis, whenever I need to be reminded to get back into my positivity journaling.
So I’m making a commitment today to get back into this practise. I know it works for me, and I understand why it works, so I’ve got no excuse to keep putting it off. I’ve already taken the first step of noticing more joy in my life, but the next step is to make a habit of noticing, so that I’ve already got the hang of it the next time my mood swings low again.
 actually it’s more like a 5. I have a theory that pain scales aren’t linear, due to the subjective nature of pain. The difference between a 1 and a 2 is not the same as the difference between an 8 and a 9. In my head, at least, anything below three is more like acute discomfort.