Pain and guilt

I think everyone knows why pain exists. Simply put, pain stops you from doing the stupid thing. It makes you not touch the fire, not fall off your chair (if you can help it) and not drink tea right out of the kettle. It also makes you not hit, bite or kick anyone, as you are well aware after a while that pain to them is just as unpleasant as it is to you. It also forces you to rest an injury so it can heal. It’s a useful thing and should not be ignored.

Pain comes from the Latin word ‘poena’ meaning ‘punishment’ or ‘penalty’. The pain from a burn is punishment for touching the hot pot. Pain in a swollen ankle is a penalty for using it too quickly after hurting it. But then there is chronic pain. Chronic pain is different from acute pain mostly in duration. Any pain lingering for more than 3 months, 6 months or even 12 months, depending on who you ask, is called chronic pain. Chronic pain also sometimes exists without any obvious purpose or source. But when we see pain as a punishment or penalty, how do we mentally deal with chronic pain?

There are days when I feel punished for something and the ultimate question is of course ‘what did I do wrong?’. It’s a useless question, silly even, but when you feel punished, it’s also a natural question. Moving onward from that question when presented with chronic pain or illness then poses another one: ‘what am I continuing to do wrong?’ And that is a very frustrating question. People around the chronically ill will often present this person with good advice and suggestions to make small changes to their life styles in order to relieve their pain or illness. These suggestions are so extremely well meant (and sometimes even accurate), but it can also sometimes worsen the feeling for some people who are in chronic pain or chronically ill, of being punished continuously for something they are STILL doing wrong.

One horrific fear and longing for me has always been that someday someone will come along and tell me to never eat apples  (or something) again and thus curing my crappy thin skin.  Horrific because it would mean that I’ve wasted years on feeling broken and longing because it would mean easier life at last. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to happen, but sometimes people I hardly know give me this kind of advice, which in a way suggests it’s really that easy. It suggests sometimes that I’m just not trying hard enough.  It’s well meant, and frustrating. I wish it was that easy and I’m scared it is that easy. Both of those.

I don’t mean to say that I’m not interested in people’s advice, nor am I saying that I never give out advice myself. I think that people should realise though, that in giving out advice, it does sometimes suggest to some extend that the person in question is doing something wrong, and thus causing themselves discomfort. And in many cases this might be true, but it’s also something that can only be brought delicately and considerately.

When presented with digestion problems there is a difference between people saying ‘ you’re probably not eating right or not chewing enough’ and ‘ have you ever tried not eating dairy? I hear sometimes people are sensitive to this’. The difference is that in the first situation I have to defend myself because an assumption has been made that I’m doing something wrong, in the second one we can have a conversation about why something is happening. In the first situation I feel guilty and punished accordingly, in the second one I feel interested.

When presented with a lack of energy, there is a difference in people suggesting that I’m just doing too much, not resting enough, and people asking whether there might be something wrong physically that makes me not metabolise energy properly. The first suggestion makes me feel guilty and punished, the second one interested.

When presented with weight issues there is a difference in people calling someone ‘lazy and simply just eating too much and not exercising enough’ and researching the types of food people eat, how it affects them and why they feel so hungry and have no energy to exercise. The first one will make one feel guilty, powerless and punished, the second one interested.

When presented with chronic pain, there is a difference in people suggesting that I’m using my right arm too much and should rest up, and people that suggest there might be something wrong with my joint that needs fixing . The first one makes me feel guilty of my own pain and punished by it, the second one interested and hopeful.

I think maybe sometimes what we need is simple sympathy and someone saying together with us that life is unfair and pain just sucks. I am hopeful, but also a bit desperate because for some reason, when pain doesn’t go away that means something is keeping me where I am right now. And until I find that something, I will not improve. I love interesting suggestions, but I don’t like people to assume that I’m doing something wrong. Maybe because I might in a way fear that I am indeed doing something wrong and have been guilty all along. God that would suck and be really cool at the same time wouldn’t it…


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  1. Richard Allen

     /  March 30, 2012

    Maybe not sympathy. Maybe Empathy.

    • hm… no, sympathy. I don’t necessarily only expect people to understand what I mean because they have gone through the same thing.

      It’s a self pitying post Rich, sorry about that.I think all I sometimes want is for someone to say ‘yeah, that really sucks’ and mean it.And I have heard this from others. It seems unhelpful, but maybe it’s why we listen to sad songs when we feel sad. To feel like what we are feeling at that exact moment, is right and ‘normal’. Does that make sense?

      • Richard Allen

         /  April 4, 2012

        Yes, I totally understand. Empathy is “Wow, that must really suck. I can’t believe it, I can imagine how you are feeling.” Sympathy is “I know what you mean, my life can suck sometimes too…”

        As someone who rarely experiences chronic pain, (heartbreak would be the closest thing…), I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of someone. I have friends with health issues, and they want/don’t want advice, and it is so hard to know which card to play on which day. It’s hard because, the source of their chronic issue could be.. so many things…

        Anyway, I know this is a “poor me” post, and you want people to just tell you life sucks, but sometimes its okay to let us try and crawl in there to see how it sucks too.

      • I think we mean the same thing but I went by this definition of sympathy:

        But I probably shouldn’t argue with the native speaker 😉

        Thanks though Rich, appreciate your every thought

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