Reframing chronic pain

Jan 2014 (1)

One of the ways I make sense of my pain is by reframing what it means to have pain. In particular, I’m interested in the way I, and others, talk about pain. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words and language; I studied linguistics at university, and I’ve been writing poetry since I was 13. I believe words shape our perceptions of reality and not vice versa. So, for example, I consciously avoid saying “I suffer from chronic pain” or “I suffer from Lyme disease”. To me, this sounds like I’m the hapless victim of my disease, which isn’t helpful. As I explained in an earlier blog post, I believe suffering is a choice. So rather than suffer from my disease, I reframe it as “I have chronic pain” or “I’m living with Lyme disease”. This makes a big difference in how I see myself. This wording gives me agency in my life, and makes my situation feel workable.

I’m always interested in the ways other people reframe their pain. Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher, is an inspiring example. At the age of 65, Ram Dass experienced a stroke that left him reliant on a wheelchair and with expressive aphasia (difficulty producing spoken and written language). Ram Dass interpreted this as an act of grace. He believes he had learned all he could as an able-bodied man, and that he was ready to learn from a place of reliance on others. When Ram Dass describes his stroke, he says “God stroked me”.

Another anecdote I bring to mind on difficult days comes from my yoga teacher, Robert Hay. He once recounted a period in his life during which he was experiencing many setbacks in his work. At lunch with a friend, he complained “Life is beating me up”, to which she replied “Be careful with your choice of words, Robert. Wouldn’t it be just as true to say ‘life is tenderizing you’?” This is such a powerful reframing. Now when I catch myself thinking “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus” or “Lyme disease is kicking my butt” I consider the ways in which my experience with pain is actually softening me. Rather than a victim of violence, I’m at the centre of a beautiful, transformative process that’s making me more tender, more compassionate, more patient, and more present to the pain of others.

Along with changing how we talk about pain, I’ve found that recognizing the gifts of pain can be a tremendous reframing. When I teach my workshop Restorative Yoga for Chronic Pain and Fatigue, I always look around the circle and ask “I know your pain has taken many things from you, but can you think of anything it has given you?” The gifts of pain are not often spoken of, but nearly everyone I’ve asked has been able to think of something positive they owe to their pain. Greater empathy, a slower pace through life, more time at home with their families, a much-needed wake-up call, these are just a few of the gifts my students say they’ve received from their pain.

Living with daily pain has stretched and challenged me in ways that perhaps only people who have experienced it can understand. Learning to reframe my pain has been incredibly helpful. I’ve found that, while it doesn’t take the pain away, it does make my situation feel workable. The difference between the phrases “Erin has pain” and “Pain has Erin” is so much more than syntax: it’s agency, sanity, self-preservation, and the potential for joy in this lifetime.

Image © 2015 Erin Bidlake

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