On dealing with pain

puppyA walk with my dogs gives me a picture of two opposite ways to view the world. Digory, the oldest, a terrier mix, is fearful and neurotic. He’s just a mess. Dobby is our cockapoo puppy, just learning how to walk on a leash. I can read their minds.

Digory: “Your feet are scary. Scary leaf. Scary water in gutter. Yikes–a dead squirrel! Eek–another dog. Scary sticks. Watch out for rocks. Ack–a car!”

Dobby: “Watch how fast I can stay ahead of you! Oh boy–a leaf to chase! Mmm, green water tastes great. Mom! Can I take the furry, stinky chew toy home? Look, look–a new friend! Wait for me! I’m tasting this rock! Oooh–a stick! Can I chase this big car?” He found a tennis ball on one of his walks and wouldn’t let me pass it by. Digory has seen many of those fuzzy round green monsters before, since our walk takes us by two tennis courts, and he makes a wide path around those scary things. Not so for Dobby.

Not to wax philosophical for too long about dogs with very little brains, I can see how their human counterparts can tend toward similar, widely disparate responses. My poor neurotic terrier (he really is a sad case) greets every challenge with fear and worry. And the little puppy finds adventure (and things to chew) around every corner. To him, as with many humans, even dark days have a few bright spots.

I’d like to think I’m like the latter, even though I am far from my puppy days. I don’t like dwelling on the negative for long, I don’t carry grudges (not very many of them, anyway), and I’d rather focus on the positives than reinforce the negatives. And in every situation, no matter how grim, I like to find the bright spots and remind myself of them from time to time.

It’s been two years or more since a huge spike in pain from fibromyalgia sent me on a round of doctors, including the Mayo Clinic, to seek answers. I’ve learned so much about pain and about myself. I rarely like to dwell on the negatives, but if my experiences can help a few people, so much the better. This ongoing “journey” through pain–because it hasn’t ended–might be a helpful bit of instruction for someone else. And it might help you to find the positives dotting a landscape that might be full of dreariness.

Pain does a strange thing to the body. Neurologists can tell you better than I, but my experience showed me that when a person’s physical pain increases, it affects all sorts of other areas. The brain may not be able to process it all. My memory suffered, my vocabulary shrank (I often couldn’t find the words), I didn’t sleep very many hours at a time, and I couldn’t work. I was dizzy from reactions to medicines (the journey to find the right meds is a whole other story); I became anxious and depressed. I couldn’t hold a pen, carry my purse, lift a laundry basket.

So what did we do about it? One doctor after another threw their hands up in the air and sent me on to other doctors. This taught us to be careful in choosing a doctor, asking questions up front about what they know and are prepared to help with. Some, but not all neurologists are prepared to help. Some, but not all rheumatologists are able or willing to help. Some, but not all chiropractors have a holistic view of fibromyalgia. And so forth. Because fibromyalgia exhibits differently in different people, doctors need to help assess the best path for each patient, and it might not look the same for everyone.

So let me give you a list of what helped me through my “journey.” (I really hate that word. Let’s try to find another.)

1. Carefully search for the doctor who is prepared to help. Ask whether they have many fibro patients, and whether they’ve been able to help many of them. Ask whether they are willing to consider natural methods as well as chemical. I found relief from chiropractics and from a method proposed by the Neurologic Relief Centers. (Anything I recommend medically comes to you with no guarantees. I’m just telling you about what has worked for me.)

2. Some fibro is relieved by eliminating certain foods, and you may want to experiment by using an elimination diet. For me, avoiding wheat and corn helps not only with the digestive issues common to fibro (not-so-pleasantly referred to as Irritable Bowel), but with some level of pain control–some of the time. Living gluten- and corn-free is not easy, but it’s definitely doable, especially when the alternative is painful. One doctor told me that most grains and dairy foods are rough on fibro patients. I can handle some dairy, sparingly.

3. Find a good psychiatrist. Fibromyalgia is often closely related to depression. I don’t know if it is a chicken-and-egg situation; did depression come first, or is it an effect of fibro? At any rate, many fibro patients need an anti-depressant to help manage the pain and depression. While a family doctor can help with some ailments, he or she may not know all the ins and outs of medicines related to depression. Interestingly, my psychiatrist experimented with different pain management meds in combination with anti-depressants, to find the right balance for me. I will not go into the meds that caused me more trouble than they helped, because everyone reacts differently. Just keep working to find the right balance, and find someone who will listen and who is willing to work with you.

4. Find a good counselor.  Sometimes fibro sufferers have emotional pain that exacerbates the physical pain, or vice versa. Talk with a counselor who can help you work through whatever has caused you to suffer emotionally.

5. Read up on fibromyalgia. It’s helpful to find other people who can talk to you about how they manage their condition. The Mayo Clinic has some educational information on their web site. Some organizations like the National Fibromyalgia Association have  newsletters with articles by doctors and fibro sufferers, so you won’t feel so alone.

6. Sleep. Chronic fatigue syndrome is also linked with fibromyalgia. (Isn’t it a delightful condition?) A good psychiatrist will help you with that as well. I learned that long naps are not so helpful, because they will mess up my nighttime routine. But a 20-30-minute nap will refresh me if my pain is running a bit too high.

7. Be willing to say no. I have a tendency to take on too much, whether work, or volunteer, or travel/tourist activities. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t plan on too many things at once. Allow yourself to decline invitations or even say no to other people’s expectations of you. Build some resting times in between the activities. I have to admit, this is the hardest one for me right now, because I have always been a pleaser. I hate disappointing people. So I’m preaching to myself right now: stop thinking you have to do everything/be everything. Say no, and be okay with it.

8. Find rest for your soul. This is the most important point, and I probably should have led with it. You can find all sorts of articles relating to “spirituality and pain” on the internet. But I want to go farther and emphasize that it is God alone–God the Father, the creator of the universe–who provides the answers to those suffering from pain. I encourage you to seek Him, run to Him, and find rest. Psychologist Phil Monroe at biblical.edu encourages sufferers in the following manner:

“The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well

  • asks God for relief
  • stays in community with others
  • seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and
  • explores and confront[s] hidden sin in self that the pain may reveal.”

I can’t agree enough with this. Find someone who can pray with you, read Psalms to you, take you to church.

Learning how to wait on the Lord is not the easiest thing. For a very long time I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. Surely, I thought, if I pray the right prayer and show God that I have done all He wants me to do, He will find me worthy and heal me. I finally understood that there’s nothing I can do to seem more worthy, or to heal my spiritual self. My broken condition is also the human condition. Nothing I can do or say, no prayer of mine, can save me or heal me. That’s the bad news AND the good news, all at once, because the other side of the coin is that God alone saves; it is He who sets the captives free, and there is nothing I can do to save myself.

What has this got to do with my chronic pain? Everything. When I learned that I cannot save myself, I also began to learn how to wait on the Lord. The process of waiting isn’t yet another thing to do on a list I can check off. It’s a daily walk–praying, meditating on God’s word, and resting. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29 ESV). It’s discovering God will hold you, hide you from the storm that’s raging: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5). You can read a couple other blogs of mine that address this attitude of waiting on the Lord, here, here, and here.

So there may be something to that earlier analogy of the dogs’ views of the world. Will I choose to focus on the dark and scary side, or will I find the bright and promising side? In all things, even in this long, painful storm, I see promise and hope, and I want you to also.

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Filed under Biblical Worldview, Health, Pain and suffering

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