10 October 2010

Taking Responsibility Without Feeling Guilty

In yesterday's post, "Feeling Guilty For Our Pain,' I provided a link to the 12 Steps For Chronic Pain.  I provide it again, as I'll be using the steps in this post as well:

12 Steps for Chronic Pain
One of the questions I have worked with as I have learned to live with the migraines is this:  How do I see clearly and name where my responsibility is without feeling guilty?  In yesterday's post, I talked about the ways we can both make ourselves and be made by others to feel guilty about our chronic pain.  There are steps we can take to understand how destructive this is and to keep ourselves from getting sucked in to this kind of thinking.  It's bad enough to deal with the physical pain without adding the emotional and spiritual pain of guilt and its counterpart, shame.

Yet there are areas in which I do have some control over how I use what I have learned about pain and about migraines to alleviate the pain or to make its effects less overwhelming.  For example, my diet, how much sleep I get, and what I do when I feel the pain building in my head.

So what about when I eat a piece of birthday cake at about 4:00pm, long enough after lunch that my stomach is empty, when I know that having sugar on an empty stomach causes a migraine?

What about when I stay up late to watch a movie, knowing that watching TV can trigger a migraine, as can changing my sleep habits too much?

If I get a migraine within half an hour of eating cake in the afternoon, then I can be pretty sure that I am responsible for that migraine.  I know this from my own experience and from what I have read about migraine triggers.  I suppose I could feel guilty about it, or let a friend who knows me well enough shame me with the obvious - "You knew you'd get a migraine if you ate that cake."  But I'd rather not allow that, because shame is destructive and guilt feelings do not teach me or help me progress.

For one thing, it is completely understandable that every once in a while I am tired of avoiding cake while everyone is celebrating, or that I can't resist if it's a chocolate cake.  It helped me to understand the residents of Miriam's House when I worked there, especially the women told they should not eat fried or fatty foods.  When they walked into the kitchen where other residents were frying dinner, it must have been almost impossible to resist fixing their own fried dinner - as comfort food, if nothing else.  If I have trouble resisting the occasional piece of cake, how can they resist the daily smell of frying food?

So, we are human.  We want certain things and don't enjoy substitutes or changes when it comes to food, or coffee (tea, in my case), or our work habits, or our shopping habits.  And even migraine pain is forgotten in the moment that iced and decorated slice of birthday cake is offered to me by the birthday woman in the community. 

Thus we have the Third Step (see link above) that talks about a "fearless inventory" of the past, of relationships, and of work.  The object is to come to peace with the present by being honest about the past.  One of the features of chronic pain is that it limits our patience or it stimulates our anger, and quite often, those emotions spill out onto those around us.  Frankly, I finally became so tired of picking up the pieces of the hurt feelings I'd caused at my work that I became adept at realizing when I'd hurt a co-worker and ready to apologize for what I'd done.  Gradually, I learned to rise above the pain so that it would not show in my manner.  But that took a long time, and left me with a lot of inventory-taking to do.

To circle back to the topic of this post, we need to take responsibility for the ways in which we cause ourselves pain, too - like the birthday cake migraine.  The inventory of this Step Three need not only be about the big things like relationships.  It can be a simple, daily, clear-sighted and non-shaming review that shows us where we have faltered and allows us to imagine behaving differently the next time.

To summarize: I refuse to feel guilty about having chronic pain, and I will proactively take non-shaming responsibility when I understand that I have caused myself, or another, pain.  A regular and simple review process is helpful, and that will be the topic of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

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