Recently, someone said to me that the attention I pay to the migraines -- specifically, writing this blog -- is insulting to anyone who has "real," life-threatening diseases like cancer. The comment seemed so beside the point to what this blog is about, to what I am about, that I tossed it aside without much consideration. But this morning, it has come back to me as relevant for many of us living with chronic pain, and so I want to address this issue: our pain is often minimized, misunderstood or even derided by others.
(Just to put the subject to rest so I can get on with this post, I have never equated my migraine pain with the horrors of cancer and like diseases. But that migraine pain is not life-threatening is no reason to leave it unexplored or to refuse to learn its lessons.)
If seeing is believing, then the pain of diseases like migraine or, say, fibromyalgia, is not to be believed. Ours is a society rooted in the visible, the concrete, the material. What is invisible, untouchable, ineffable, tends to stay on the periphery. I write about pain and spirituality, subjects that are peripheral at best; often more comfortably ignored than attended to.
Additionally, it is so much more gratifying to deal with the fixable: the broken leg gets a cast; the degenerating discs in the spine benefit from physical therapy; the surgeon removes the problem pancreas. There is a lot of trauma and suffering here -- God forbid I should be mis-read as minimizing the pain and difficulty of broken bones and surgeries -- but the difference between the well-documented mechanics of setting a bone and poorly understood migraine pain means that the former is healed while the latter worsens.
Finally, there's the matter of objective versus subjective: objective as in verifiable or confirmable by numerous persons; subjective as in verifiable or confirmable by just one person. We see a surgical scar or an arm in a cast and we can agree: she had surgery on that knee, or, he broke his arm skiing. But how to verify or confirm chronic pain that has no outward, physical manifestation? All we have is the individual's report about pain that we cannot experience for ourselves.
Chronic pain is not visible. It's is, by definition, not fixable (if it were, it wouldn't be chronic). And it is absolutely subjective.
Kind of like the life of the spirit.
We are human, we sufferers of chronic pain. We whine every once in a while. We get depressed when a promising new medication has no beneficial effect. We become angry at our restricted lives, friendships neglected, jobs lost, parties unattended. We suppress a sigh at yet one more doctor who stands, long before we have our concerns and questions addressed, with his hand on the doorknob while mumbling about not being late for the next patient. We get tired of people telling us how good we look, as though this proves we must not be in very much pain; or implying we should just suck it up and get on with life; or insisting that our pain is not worthy of consideration because we are not dying.
So what redeems the pain? Perhaps we are in an unfixable and subjective situation, but can we not refuse to remain invisible? And how to do that without indulging in self-pity or assuming the victim role?
We let the pain reach us, teach us. We do precisely what the world wants us not to do. We do not just go away because we make others uncomfortable: we pay attention to our pain and we share what we have learned. We let it incise its way into our spirits and into our spiritual lives, carving out that place that is then ready to receive the wisdom, presence and peace that have arisen from our refusal to deny our reality.
We allow our our pain to be our greatest teacher.
I would love to hear from you. Please use the comment link below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Carol D. Marsh
- With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90 days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.