Most people who live with chronic pain, or with any of the hellishly labelled invisible illnesses, have probably heard the phrase “It’s all in your head”. Few statements are as hurtful or as infuriating to someone whose life is pretty much structured around the whims of his or her pain. This might explain why it’s so hard to keep an open mind towards a treatment, when doing so involves acknowledging that our heads could control how we are affected by pain.
I understand this. Every time I hear someone say that my pain is all in my head, I want to beat them half senseless, and then tell them that they are imagining the agony, the bleeding, and the missing teeth. Having said that, I wish to point out that we can never allow other people’s stupidity to take away our options. When we close our eyes, ears and minds to what we might consider strange possibilities, our bodies end up paying for our actions… or lack thereof.
I’m saying this because a few weeks ago, while I was going through a back school refresher class, the pain management therapist suggested that a way to help control how much we hurt is to “use our heads and will to stop thinking about pain all the time. Things like meditation, art, and the simple act of laughing can help our brains regulate chronic pain.”
Before the therapist finished talking, a patient started shouting at her. Telling her, “It must be nice to be you and live in a fantasy world where you feel pain only when you want to. That’s my problem with these stupid classes. They are taught by people who have never lost sleep or time to pain, people who are too dumb or blind to understand that the pain in my leg has nothing to do with my fucking head. When you feel what I feel then you can teach me something…”
The man went on and on and on… The therapist was trying to calm him down, but it wasn’t working. I made the mistake of believing that perhaps my status as a fellow cripple would allow me to get through to him, so I said, “You know, meditation and a positive attitude doesn’t really make the pain go away. But they really help me do things (writing, playing, crafting, laughing…) that make me happy, create endorphins and—”
My crippleness failed. The man screamed at me, too. He said that he “wouldn’t be in [our] shitty class if the VA hadn’t threatened to cut off [his] meds” (opiates). He called me names, questioned my sexual orientation, said I “would sing a different tune if [I] hadn’t been a paper-pusher. Some of us got really hurt. We didn’t just pull a muscle while reloading the printer…”
I just cocked my head and stared at him. I said nothing about getting run over by an ATV, or about being badly thrown from a grenade pit, or about nearly crushing my toes under the barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun. I just watched him, probably smirking—I smirk rather nastily when I’m angry. And I was furious; not at him, but at the rigidity of his mind, at his ignorance.
Much (much!) later, I felt bad for him. I found myself wishing he could open his mind enough to let in a bit of hope and a possibility or two. Because it has to be hell to live like that, believing that nothing but a numbing drug (which kills you in so many ways) is the only thing that can help ease the pain… and just for a little while.
I have no idea what everyone else does to deal with their pain. But I’m with that therapist: if we don’t put our minds into the task of making ourselves feel better, if we don’t believe that we are capable of soothing our own flesh and bones, then more treatments (if not all) will fail. The pain is not in our heads, but our heads can certainly do something about how we react to pain.