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Monday, December 3, 2012

Pain and Spirituality

I have often written about chronic pain and physical limitation and its impact on the spiritual journey. I haven't written about it for a while now because I have enjoyed something of a respite from the pain. Over the last few weeks, however, it has returned with a vengeance and with it my limitations have increased, leading me to write about it once again. Nearly half of Americans suffer from chronic pain, but we tend not to talk much about it, leading many of us to believe we are alone. Another consequence of our collective silence is that those of us with chronic pain have no idea of what is common, what might indicate a problem requiring a visit to the doctor or emergency room, and how best to cope.

One of the biggest problems for chronic pain folks is that - despite its prevalence - the medical establishment is often reluctant to prescribe pain medication because of its obsession with addiction while anesthesiologist-led pain clinics do expensive treatment after expensive treatment that they should know from diagnostic imagine aren't going to have any effect but still order. It's a lucrative business, if not a very ethical one. I have had literally tens of thousands of dollars of such treatments - which are often extremely painful -without good result. When I was finally referred to a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, or physiatrist, he told me that he could tell from my MRI that treatments wouldn't be effective.

I have written in the past, and still believe, that pain has been helpful in my journey because it has taught me that I am not invincible. Pain has also forced me to be dependent on others at intervals, something I am inclined to resist. Because I have a history of childhood abuse I am very adept at blocking my pain mentally, but that doesn't mean it's not there. I have learned that pain impacts our body and psyche even when we are ignoring it, and that if I find myself unable to sit still, restless, agitated, and feeling compelled to move that I am in pain even though I may not be aware of the pain sensation. At times like that, I have learned to take some medication, but overall I tend to under medicate myself. I believe I can "tough it out" and work my way through it, even though I should have learned better by now.

Another thing that pain can cause us to do is to recognize that we can no longer comply with society's expectation of what makes a person productive. It's not possible for me to stand, walk, or sit for extended periods. That doesn't really restrict me as a spiritual teacher, however as I look for part time employment to supplement my income it is extremely limiting. What does it mean to still be relatively young at fifty-two but be unable to work at a traditional, forty hour a week job? What does it mean to have significant restrictions but not be eligible for consideration or adaptations in employment due to disability? What it means is that we are forced to define our productivity in a different way. It also affords a unique perspective on politicians who would characterize us as lazy or not interested in working.

I don't mean for a minute to suggest that those of us with chronic pain conditions are enduring anything that we all don't endure if we live long enough. Some of us are, however, coping with chronic pain at a younger age than most. There are bound to be moments when we wonder why this has happened to us, and those moments are never productive because there isn't a good answer. It seems that life happens to each of us differently. Our energy is better spent learning how to cope with life as it is. It seems to me that one of the better ways to spend our energy is on education the public and our politicians about the reality that we all will face eventually. We will become limited, get sick, and eventually die - not because of weakness or lack of anything, but rather because we all get old, get sick, and eventually die. That is a profound spiritual lesson, indeed.

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